Striving To Be The Best

February 20, 2002
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John Kerner looks over a training manual.
NORFOLK, VA — The best contracting companies don’t just offer installers and technicians a job. They offer a career opportunity with a clearly defined path, so that employees know where they’re at and how they can progress.

That’s one of the leading measures that made sister companies Cox-Powell Corp. and Standard Sheet Metal Corp., here in Norfolk, winners in The News’ “Best Contractor to Work For” contest for the North Mid-Atlantic region.

John Kerner, president/owner of both companies, is a long-time veteran in commercial-industrial service. He spent 17 years with Honeywell’s Building Services Division, including service, branch, and regional management positions. Then he was a vice president at Linc Corp. for four years.

He approached Cox-Powell about becoming a Linc contractor; the owners indicated they would be willing to sell the firm. Linc management gave Kerner the OK to buy the company himself. In 1984, he acquired the business. A year later, he purchased Standard Sheet Metal.

Kerner also owns Krauss Co. of Florida, Largo, FL, another hvacr contracting company, and Care Professional Service Association, Williamsburg, VA, a consulting firm for mechanical contractors.

The range of capabilities offered by Cox-Powell/Standard Sheet Metal includes design, installation, replacement, and service. The business serves the commercial, industrial, and institutional markets, providing hvacr; sheet metal and specialty metal; IAQ testing, monitoring, and remediation; air distribution system cleaning; system balancing and testing; plumbing; electrical; and facility management.

One of the newest services offered is energy solutions, which includes energy management systems, energy recovery, vfd’s, and energy analysis. George Gittinger, senior sales engineer, is a Certified Energy Manager (CEM). “He adds a new dimension to the organization,” Kerner stated.

As a member of the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium and certified with the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, Gittinger also has an extensive background in designing and installing geothermal systems.

Plotting strategy are (from left to right) Kevin Woods, project manager; Darlene Lee, sales and marketing manager; Paul Thurston, vice president and general manager, Standard Sheet Metal; John Kerner, president/owner; Ted Cooprider, vice president and general manager, Cox-Powell; and Wayne Wiedenhoeft, operations manager.

AN HVACR CAREER

“Our companies continually strive to stay at the leading edge for compensation, benefits, and workplace environment,” said Kerner. “We offer career opportunities with career paths for all our employees.”

The written guidelines for service technicians, for example, spell out the five steps within this category — helper trainee, P/M technician, field technician, senior field technician, and field supervisor — with the employee requirements and compensation steps within each level. Techs know what they need to accomplish to achieve the next level, and how much money they can make.

Paul Thurston, vice president and general manager of Standard Sheet Metal, started as a field supervisor, then moved up to general manager, his current position. Ted Cooprider, vice president and general manager of Cox-Powell, began as a salesman, then advanced to sales manager, general manager, and his present position. Darlene Lee, who started as a salesperson, earned her MBA from Averett University and was promoted to sales and marketing manager.

Many employees can handle multiple jobs. “About half our people have multiple certifications,” Kerner noted.

To assist in the recruiting process, the companies offer a $1,000 referral reward to any nonmanagement employee who attracts a new technician. “Our own employees know the work ethic and skill level of others in the industry, and we find they are an excellent source for recruiting,” he said.

Training is serious business here. The companies provide six 1-hr safety sessions annually. In addition, service technicians have a Monday morning “Safety Tip of the Week” review, which includes discussion of customer accounts. The in-house safety program is augmented by several hours of site-specific safety awareness training.

The companies are implementing regular senior service technician meetings and dinners, and quarterly team leader meetings.

Hands-on technical training is provided periodically via in-house sessions. Participation in manufacturing training at local sites is also encouraged. “We send our technicians to factory training in accordance with their chosen career paths and skill levels,” said Kerner. Reimbursement is provided for technical training.

Recently, he continued, “Several technicians completed 40-hour local professional development instruction, one controls technician completed Metasys training, two technicians completed compressor rebuild training, two continued their National Air Duct Cleaning Association certification, one manager completed an MBA program, and one manager is preparing for National Environ-mental Balancing Bureau — Air and Water Balance certification.”

The Cox-Powell and Standard Sheet Metal crew of technicians and installers.

TAKING CARE OF TECHS

“We always rotate the duty roster for after-hours and weekend service calls,” said Kerner. Additional techs are added when needed during busy times. They are also able to call others if they need assistance or feel they can’t respond quickly enough.

He explained that his companies don’t have trouble maintaining a steady workload: “We don’t over-staff in the peak summer months, but try to better manage our existing staff.” Because their customers are strictly within the commercial, industrial, and institutional markets, this also reduces the need for after-hours calls. “Our customer base allows us to commit resources to appropriately care for their mechanical systems.”

Employee merit reviews are given annually from the date of employment, or from the date of the most recent promotion or most recent pay increase. When technicians receive their Masters Licenses, they are compensated accordingly. Because the companies hold Class A contractor licenses in hvac, plumbing, electrical, gas fitting, and general contracting, those technicians who receive licenses in other trades are also rewarded.

“Our core business is mechanical contracting,” Kerner said, “but we also supply other services, so we must also provide training in those related areas.”

The employee benefits program is a cafeteria plan that allows employees to mix and match to meet their particular needs. These can be adjusted each year as needs change. One unique benefit is the “CARE” program, which allows employees 12 three-day weekends per year. “This is a low-cost yet extremely valued employee benefit,” stated Kerner.

The companies also offer a pretax dependent-care reimbursement account program, to aid in childcare or elder care needs.

Top management includes (from left to right) Ted Cooprider, vice president and general manager, Cox Powell Corp.; John Kerner, president/owner; and Paul Thurston, vice president and general manager, Standard Sheet Metal Corp.

COMMITTED TO BEING THE BEST

Cooprider noted that the company does not provide “off-the-shelf” solutions. Lee confirmed, “We hone in on specific needs.” Added Cooprider, “Customers sense when you’re making the best recommendation.”

“Our employees are given a lot of flexibility,” said Thurston. “They have pride of ownership out in the field.”

Technicians concur that Cox-Powell/Standard Sheet Metal is an excellent place to work. Greg Warden, senior service technician, said, “We are treated with respect and it is understood that we all have lives away from the business. We are allowed to take vacations when we want them, instead of when the workload or season permits them.

“We can work overtime if we want, but are not forced into it. On top of all this, the pay and benefits are above the norm for our area.”

Buster Meacom, senior project technician, expressed appreciation for the “open-door policy, meaning with any problems, someone’s door is always open. It takes a good company, and that’s what we have here.”

“Ever heard a company say, ‘Here, take an extra day off each month,’ or, ‘Let us buy your safety shoes for you?’” asked Jon Morris, senior service technician. “These are just examples of their commitment to providing employee benefits that say, ‘We care.’”

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Name: Cox-Powell Corporation and Standard Sheet Metal Corporation
Owner: John E. Kerner, president/owner
Location: Norfolk, VA
Years in business: Cox-Powell (since 1946) 56 years; Standard Sheet Metal (since 1972) 30 years
Bulk of market: 70% industrial, 30% commercial-institutional
Total revenue for 2001: Projected volume $10 million
Total employees: 46
Total service technicians and installers: 30
Average hours employees spend in training: 48 hrs/year
Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Company-paid short- and long-term disability; company-paid $50,000 life insurance and accidental death and dismemberment insurance; 401(k) retirement program with company match; educational reimbursement; paid holidays and vacation; “CARE” program — 12 three-day weekends per year; annual merit/salary review on anniversary; company-provided vehicle for technicians, senior technicians, and project team leaders; trucks outfitted with major tools; reimbursement for safety shoes; personal tool replacement program; state-of-the-art communication devices; and dependent care and medical reimbursement account programs.
The News selected this contractor because: Management is focused on providing its technicians with a growth-oriented and meaningful hvacr career, not just a job. It works to retain these professionals with an outstanding benefit program. It emphasizes the highest level of competence, professionalism, and integrity in all activities.

Publication date: 02/25/2002

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