Small Town Contractor Has Big-Time Plans

August 23, 2000
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SAULT STE. MARIE, MI — In a town of 16,000, one would expect to find a “small town atmosphere,” with an abundance of family-owned businesses, strong family ties, less hustle and bustle (except if the town borders on a large metropolitan area), and a general “laid back” feeling among the citizenry.

You just wouldn’t expect to see a $160,000 heating, cooling, plumbing, fireplace, and hot tub showroom.

The setting for Charlie Elliott’s successful residential-light commercial service business, Elliott Heating & Cooling, Inc., is Sault Ste. Marie, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, bordering its neighboring town of the same name in Ontario, Canada. This town is friendly, quaint, and contrary to the mold of a small community, extremely progressive, thanks in part to Elliott.

Elliott, 29, is a third-generation hvacr contractor in this town; known for its tourism and the famous “Soo Locks,” where freighters pass through Lake Superior to Lake Huron and back, 10 months each year. (For more on the family history, see story on page 16.)

“My father [Bill] said I should make every customer contact a big one,” said Elliott, who plans on taking the business to a new level. “Our vision is to set a higher standard for the business. We want to bring excitement to this industry.

“We look at our people as team members — everyone must play their position.”

Growth Through Service Agreements

“Eight years ago we were doing $200,000 in sales,” said Elliott. “This year we will hit $2 million.”

He attributes the dramatic rise to the ongoing training his employees stick with, their dedication to customer service, and the total team effort.

The company’s team is committed to growing the customer base, and one way to do that is through its service agreement program. “We have 200 to 300 residential service agreements and 50 to 100 commercial ones. We probably do more maintenance calls than emergency calls.

“Our goal is to have 1,000 service agreements and dedicate one or two technicians to those only,” Elliott said.

Sault St. Marie is many things, but one thing it is not, is a heavy air conditioning market. If this company had to survive by selling a/c units, Elliott said he’d probably have to look for another source of income. Although he has seen steady growth in a/c sales, he only sold 20 units last year and doesn’t expect any marked increase this year, thanks mainly to the mild summer weather.

But that’s OK with him; he installs furnaces year round.

Touchy-Feely Showroom

Elliott said he drove his accountant crazy when he came up with the idea for an elaborate showroom. But “I don’t want to be average,” and so he brought a new marketing idea to the eastern Upper Peninsula.

“I was getting phone calls from people looking for fireplaces and I’d send them to Traverse City,” about 160 miles south, Elliott said. When the calls kept coming, “I made some contacts and was able to get in touch with fireplace manufacturers.

“I also wanted an in-house plumbing operation, so I hired a plumber who worked for himself and who wanted to help start something special here.”

The showroom includes bathroom fixtures, cultured stone, and some decorative touches because Elliott wanted his customers to be able to see and touch the products.

The Right Attitude

Elliott said he doesn’t believe in competing on price; he’d rather compete on service. “We don’t want customers that just care about price.”

He also said he doesn’t believe in making himself look good at the expense of his fellow industry members. “There is no need to degrade the competition,” he said. “We base our success on inner strength, with good people and with good service.

“We went to flat-rate pricing three years ago,” he continued, “and it is amazing what effect it has had on our profits. Everything we do now has a number behind it, there is very little we do on a time-and-materials basis.”

Looking out of his office window on a warm, late-August day, Elliott looks past the hardships of sub-zero winters and snow piled up to rooftops, where technicians trod perilously over ice-slicked rooftops and take periodic refuge in their trucks to warm their hands. He knows his people work hard for a reason: pride.

“I care about our industry and about our people. I’d rather have good competitors than bad ones. You have to think outside of the community if you want to be a success.”

Interested in Elliott Heating & Cooling? Visit its website at www.heatup.com.

Sidebar: Third-Generation Contractor

Charlie Elliott’s grandfather Percy, who passed away last year, started a home heating business from his basement in the mid-1940s and taught Charlie’s dad, Bill, the tools of the trade.

Bill Elliott started the heating and cooling business in Sault Ste. Marie in 1964 and had offices in the Michigan communities of Marquette and Traverse City, where he specialized in large industrial accounts and sheet metal fabrication.

Charlie joined his father in the business eight years ago after completing college and playing hockey at Michigan State University. His love for sports, combined with his father’s teachings, are two keys to his success today.

Sidebar: Solving the Employment Crisis, 'Yooper' Style

Charlie Elliott is aware of the crisis facing hvacr contractors: finding good help. But he thinks he has found some good resources and good people to fill in the blanks — not bad for an area of the country whose inhabitants are affectionately called “Yoopers” (slang for laid-back inhabitants of Michigan’s sparsely inhabited Upper Peninsula).

“We don’t have a lot of local talent employed here,” Elliott said. One of his technicians, from Toledo, OH, vacationed a lot in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, and decided to put down his roots there.

Elliott is proud of the fact that people hear about and are drawn to his business. “We have a good in-house training program and develop a lot of our own people. Thanks to our membership in Excellence Alliance, MIACCA, ACCA, and NADCA, we are able to offer great outside training and educational tools.

“I look for a great attitude and honesty,” he added. “If the [prospective worker] has any type of mechanical aptitude, we can work with them.”

Elliott also has hired some high school students to make the company’s “happy calls” (follow-up calls to customers after service calls).

His love for the industry and determination to make Elliott Heating and Cooling the best business to work for is highlighted by the company’s ICE (Individuals Committed to Excellence) Program, which defines step-by-step procedures for every action taken at the company, both administrative and productive.

“Our work has a definite trademark on it: consistency,” Elliott stated. “I also like to go ‘outside the box’ in my thinking. That’s why I’m bringing a ‘big city’ show to my business.”

Publication date: 08/28/2000

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