Success Means Taking Care Of Technicians

January 19, 2004
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Ron Friedrich (left), owner of A-Temp Heating and Cooling, reviews plans with shop foreman Don Stoecker. (Photos by Michael Wilhelm.)
CLACKAMAS, Ore. - Hiring and retaining qualified technicians has been a hot button topic in the industry for a while. But at A-Temp Heating and Cooling, this problematic trend is a non-issue.

The secret to the company's success cannot be painted in black and white. Ron Friedrich, owner of A-Temp, does not have a blueprint for satisfying his employees. His approach comes naturally. And his approach is to treat employees the way he would want to be treated. Inevitably, the employees carry this philosophy to the consumer, which creates a steady customer base.

Friedrich's approach to business may not be typical for most HVAC companies, but it's his attention to the needs of his employees that has made A-Temp Heating and Cooling the Northwest/Upper Midwest Region winner in The News' 2003 "Best Contractor to Work For" contest.

Ron Friedrich and wife Debbie Friedrich at work in the office.

Technician Empathy

When The News recently visited A-Temp, the temperatures around the Portland area were hovering around the middle to low 20s. Service technicians and installers were busy filling all of the customer requests for the day. By 5 p.m., 72 service calls were booked and scheduled for the next few days.

But Friedrich refuses to let his employees burn out.

"When demand service increases, we concentrate on our customer base first, then prioritize new customers based on opportunity," said Friedrich.

New technicians are not hired during the busy seasons. Work is scheduled in such a way so that the current employees can take care of the demands in a timely fashion. By not employing extra help during the busier months, the company eliminates the need to lay off workers when business resumes a normal pace.

According to Friedrich, some HVAC companies get in over their head when they try to provide service for everyone.

"Most companies don't know when to say no," he said. "We have an objection to running techs all night. We do what we can for a new customer, but our client base comes first."

Friedrich also believes that this customer base must get the best service possible. This means taking an appropriate amount of time with each customer, not just fixing the problem and moving on to the next job.

Service technicians at A-Temp only run approximately four service calls per day. Friedrich said that the majority of maintenance calls should take about 90 minutes to two hours. With this kind of time frame, he said technicians will take their time diagnosing system problems and will not rush through a call and make mistakes that result in callbacks.

Friedrich knows what it is like for the technician in the field. He started his career at Robertshaw Controls. He later started his own business specializing in pneumatic controls. According to Friedrich, the company did very well in a market that had other high-profile companies dealing with controls. When pneumatic controls were phased out, A-Temp had to find a way to continue providing service to customers. In 1991, the company established its residential service department.

"My experience in the field has given me empathy for technicians," said Friedrich. "I'm not just looking for 40 hours a week. I want the technicians to have pride when they leave a customer with a smile on their face."

Receptionist Shirley Dilg fields all the customer service and maintenance calls.

Learning To Be The Best

Troy Hartfeil, commercial service manager for A-Temp, knows firsthand how Friedrich treats his employees and the opportunities he affords them.

"[Ron] knows what it feels like to be a number," said Hartfeil. "And he wants people to feel like a team."

Part of helping employees to feel like a team is providing them with the ability to do their job to the best of their ability. A-Temp understands the need to train employees, and all training opportunities are provided to them.

"Any training available is posted," said Friedrich. "The less experienced techs have priority."

If a technician wants to take part in training that he believes will help him do his job better, A-Temp will pay 100 percent of the technician's training if he receives an "A" in the class, 50 percent if he earns a "B."

The staff at A-Temp also takes part in seminars through AirTime 500. In fact, Friedrich is passionate about the direction AirTime 500 has taken his company.

Employees on the office staff took part in seminars on dispatching and answering the phone through the contractor organization. Friedrich said that employees come back from the AirTime 500 courses feeling energized and ready to implement new procedures that will ultimately benefit the company.

Technicians also take part in weekly meetings and roundtable discussions. The discussions are centered around recent problems that were found in the field. Technicians share what they learned from the challenge, and pass their knowledge on to other technicians who may later encounter the same issue.

Sales manager Adrian DaSilva gets ready to take out one of the many A-Temp company trucks.
Besides technical training, Hartfeil said employees at A-Temp learn the importance of customer relationships. He explained that the number one thing technicians learn at A-Temp is that mistakes can and will be made.

"You don't get fired from this company for making mistakes," said Hartfeil.

When mistakes are made and a customer is dissatisfied with the service, A-Temp does what is necessary to find out where something went wrong and what can be done to make the customer happy.

Friedrich also makes sure that his employees learn to give the customer a level of service they expect. For example, customers want a professional service person to fix their equipment.

"Neat, clean, and professional is what customers expect when the technician knocks on their door," said Friedrich. "Anything less and the sale goes south."

That is why all technicians are required to wear uniforms. They also drive clean vans with the company logo prominently displayed. Technicians are authorized to drive these vans home. Friedrich said this allows the technician to go home after finishing his final call of the day.

Friedrich emphasizes that technicians offer the best choice for the customer, not the choice that will bring in more money.

Technicians can recommend upgrades and replacement service, but the salespeople handle all the requests for a new installation. Techs pass on possible leads to a salesperson, who contact the homeowner. If the salesperson closes the deal, the technician receives a percentage of that sale.

Hartfeil said that A-Temp recognizes that there is no company without the technicians.

"Ron knows how important morale is," said Hartfeil. "Morale is not measured on a financial report, but it's important."

Adrian DaSilva (left) goes over recent orders with Ron Friedrich and Deani Gill, project manager, retail sales.

Room To Grow

Employees at A-Temp have the ability to grow with the company. No one is ever stagnant in their career or resigned to the same position.

For instance, Scott Akin, one of A-Temp's residential salespeople, came to the company over 10 years ago. Akin said that he started with the company as a "grunt," and worked his way up to entry-level installation. After five years, Akin said, "I was ready to see what else was out there."

He expressed his interest to Friedrich about trying something new. When the position for a new salesperson came up, Akin was given the opportunity.

"[Ron] listens to what you have to say," Akin said. "The management believes that your opinion counts."

Service Department manager Jenny Kingston started working at the company as a part-time secretary. After she moved into a full-time position, the company was in need of a new dispatcher. (A-Temp always posts new job openings within the company before making them public.) Kingston expressed her interest in the position and was given a chance. In the end, she worked her way up to her current position.

Now, Kingston believes she has been with the company long enough to see why A-Temp is a successful company. Part of this is Friedrich's desire to do new things with the company and his willingness to learn from associations such as AirTime 500.

"Ron is always looking outside the box for help," she said. "Whether it's through other contractors or AirTime 500, he has implemented new ideas that have made our job easier. We have the best boss. He has a good heart and bends over backwards. He also has an open-door policy."

Communication is key at A-Temp. Employees have yearly reviews with their managers, and service technicians have six-month reviews. This is an opportunity for managers and employees to give and receive feedback. But if an employee believes that something can be done better in the company, they are encouraged to speak their mind. Hartfeil explained that many companies do not allow this open dialogue.

"It's hard at other companies to advance," he said. "People leave companies because they want more opportunity."

And employees at A-Temp are not leaving. "The people who are here are loyal," said Hartfeil. "Ron knows that if you take care of your people first, they'll take care of you."

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Name: A-Temp Heating and Cooling Inc.

Owner: Ron Friedrich

Location: Clackamas, Ore.

Years in business: 19

Bulk of market: Residential

Total revenue for 2003: $5 million

Total employees: 42

Total service technicians and installers: 26

Average hours employees spend in training: 52

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Retirement with employer matching funds up to 3 percent; sale bonuses; uniforms; repair of tools; vacation pay; holiday pay; cell phones; and ability to take trucks home.

Industry associations and contractor group members: Air Time 500, ACCA

The News selected this contractor because: Employees at A-Temp Heating and Cooling have the opportunity to learn, grow, and advance within the company. Technicians are busy, but are not overworked. Emphasis is put on existing clients in order to form relationships and strengthen the future customer base. Training is also paramount to the success of A-Temp. Employees are encouraged to attain the certification and training they need to be the best in the field.

Publication date: 01/26/2004

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