Small Contractor Exemplifies Leadership

June 19, 2006
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Pictured above are just a few of the Customer Service Personnel before heading to their morning assignments. (From left and back): Roger Norwood, Josh Warnock, Randy Peters, Jason Warner. Back: Sean Bohannon, Gordon Ratcliffe, (right front): Timmy Jerome and James Busbee.
SAVANNAH, Ga. - At the January 2005 National Carrier Convention in Las Vegas, Regal-Beloit held a drawing for a free training session with ECM Master Trainer, Christopher Mohalley. The winner was Roger Norwood, operations manager of Savannah, Ga.-based Brunson Heating and Air Conditioning. On March 10, Mohalley flew to Georgia and led an eight-hour session on the technical and service aspects of GE ECM motors.

As he talked with Norwood about how Brunson H&A does business, Mohalley very quickly began to realize that this is an all-too-rare example of a small contractor who follows the type of best practices normally seen from industry leaders. As a result, Brunson is quickly building a reputation throughout its service area as the go-to contractor whenever a customer is looking to get the job done correctly.

"I would say that Roger and Brunson are setting the standard for all companies to follow by looking at the home and customers' needs and then sizing the equipment to fit those needs," said Mohalley.

"He also looks at the outdoor equipment, indoor equipment, and duct system as a whole, instead of individual pieces to be replaced as needed."

Norwood was more than happy to add this training session to the schedule, even though as Mohalley said, his company had already gained a foothold in the community based on strong business practices.

"When they called me to schedule the session, I asked how many other people had won," Norwood said. "‘You're the only one,' they said. I couldn't believe it. I never expected to win anything that big in Vegas.

"I knew when we won it that it was worthwhile to maximize this opportunity. I wanted every technician to take advantage of the training, which meant not having any service calls. We cancelled everything for that day so that everyone could train, including assistant techs. The class was structured so that all of the heavy-duty material was in the afternoon so the lower-level guys could still get the basic understanding of ECM."

"Brunson installs mainly high-end Carrier equipment - not just the minimum 13 SEER - and often includes upgraded filters and ductwork modifications," said Mohalley.

"In fact, Roger told me that some jobs start out as a quote for a new system but turn into a duct-work job just to get the existing system working properly."

In an area of the South where "ductboard is king," Brunson does most of its plenums and trunk lines in metal, sealing and insulating them as standard. Norwood said this type of duct system will last a lot longer than ductboard, and is actually easier for him to install in pre-built sizes.

Norwood has stories of fixing homes that did not heat or cool properly by simply fixing the duct systems.

"He even saved one customer from buying a completely new and larger system (recommended by a competitor) by fixing the duct system problems," said Mohalley. "It had me thinking: If I lived in Savannah, he would be the one who I would call."

James Busbee laying out a custom sheet metal fitting.

THE TRAINING

As impressed as Mohalley was with Norwood and the Brunson staff, Brunson was quick to trade kudos. "When the class began, I told my men they were very fortunate to sit under the trainer [Mohalley]," said Norwood. "It is very rare for a business of our size to have a certified Master Trainer come teach. They were very lucky to get the chance to learn from someone who knows as much as this man does about motors.

"The odds of getting someone like Mohalley to present this level of training at our location are rare. We wouldn't normally be able to justify that level of expense with our small size, but training is very important. Normally, we train through local schools, trade organizations and distributors. I have just recently put into play a thrust to get each of our men NATE certified. Accreditation for my people means sales leads.

"Christopher was a dynamite teacher - excellent in every way. He took time to answer questions, slowed down to make sure you understood the point being made, gave information that was practical, and made the class interesting. We were able to learn a lot and have a lot of fun at the same time."

Norwood thought the training session was very useful, and his people have been talking about it ever since. He hears them getting excited about the motors, talking amongst themselves about the different features they are noticing in the field, and about the different tests Mohalley showed them.

"My men are really applying what they learned during the training sessions," he said. "Most products that we sell have variable-speed motors (of the complete systems we sell, probably 80 percent use ECM technology), so we see it every day."

Norwood puts a great deal of emphasis on dealer training, regardless of which manufacturer is offering it. "Although I am primarily a Carrier dealer, my distributor recently arranged for me to travel to Phoenix for the American Standard ‘Asset' training, which is an intensive four-day sales class that teaches you how to answer every reason why people will say no to sales proposals," Norwood said.

"Other OEMs have similar sales training seminars too. It was no vacation - there were day-long classes with a couple hours of study work to do at the hotel each night, but I made the commitment to go out there, get something, and bring it back. I can't stress enough just how useful the sessions were.

"Training and quality are what differentiates your company and your price from the other guys. It basically allows you to offer premium products at premium prices and justify it to the homeowner. I learned how to admit that, yes, my estimate is $4,000 higher than other contractors, but here's why: liability insurance, drug testing, cleaner installations, proper sizing and ductwork, and so on. Sales training helps me get away from what I feel like Brunson has been doing for a long time: competing with bottom-feeders who hold us to their prices."

Gordon Ratcliffe breaking sheet metal for a custom installation.

SUCCESS KNOWS NO SIZE

As long as a contractor engages in best practices, makes the effort to be professional, employs a well-trained staff, and raises the bar of the HVAC industry in his or her community, it doesn't matter if the company is a one-person operation or employs over 100 people. That is what really impressed Mohalley about Norwood and Brunson.

"It didn't take long talking to Roger to realize that he was very confident in his quotes (as to what the system or upgrades he designs would do for the customer)," said Mohalley. "I believe this is because he leaves no stone unturned in his jobs. He goes into the attics and sizes the duct system, sizes the equipment to the home, and talks to the customers to find out just what they expect from their system. He also goes back after every install to make sure that it meets his standards. His installers know that if Roger doesn't like it, then they are going back to make it right at no charge to the customer."

"From what I have been reading in the trade journals about what it takes to succeed these days in HVAC, and what it is going to take to make it in the 13 SEER world, I believe that Roger and Brunson are way ahead of the game. It was my pleasure to provide training to his company and to meet a fellow techie that feels as I do - that a job worth doing is worth doing well."

Norwood believes that the market size has little or no impact on his company's success either. He sees potential in any job or niche that his company pursues.

"We are located in a small market, doing retrofit and replacement primarily," he said. "About 75-80 percent of our work is residential, with some commercial and a little bit of industrial work on the side. There is a big housing boom in this area right now that we aren't a part of currently. That's our mission field.

"Our market has quite a few new homes, but many of them don't have correctly installed systems. We find ourselves going in and having to totally rip out the duct systems on jobs that are pretty much new houses (10 years old and under)."

Norwood said that a homeowner will often move into a new home and notice that the heating and cooling system doesn't work as well as it should, but at that point they have just gotten "a bunch of loans - between the mortgage, moving costs and decorating." After five to seven years, the homeowners are tired of the HVAC and have paid down some debt, so they say that they're ready to fix things.

"We have been building a good reputation as the fix-it people for new houses," Norwood said. "Most of the problems we see on the new homes are from airflow - the units are sized properly, but ductwork isn't. After looking at the needs in the home to get the correct ductwork specs, I'm seeing existing work that will only handle half the airflow required by the system. When I remove the existing ducts and do it the right way, customers can notice the difference immediately.

"A year ago, a general contractor was building a home for himself and he called us asking for an HVAC system estimate. We asked him why he didn't call the contractor who normally installed systems in the homes he builds. He replied, ‘Hey, I don't want that low-quality of installation on my house.' "

Norwood looks forward to seeing satisfied customers as he travels around his community. "I tell my customers that the kind of work we as a company want to do in their home is such that if I see them walking through the grocery store two months from now, I am going to walk up to them and ask, ‘How do you like that system?' I'm not going to duck to the other row for fear of a negative comment. I already know I'll get a compliment.

"I approach it that way every time - that's where I want to be. That's how I know I'm doing the good job."

Publication date: 06/19/2006

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