Talking About The Need For Peer Groups

January 23, 2006
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BALTIMORE - What motivates a contractor to network with other contractors? Does he or she feel the need to discuss business concerns with a peer group, seeking advice on common problems shared by the HVAC community? Or, do contractors simply like to get out and let their hair down for a few days each year with other business owners in the HVAC trade?

The answer is probably a lot of the former and less of the latter.

Business owners find that mixing with other owners of similar businesses results in solutions to business questions and advice on how to run a better business. Unless a contractor feels that he or she knows everything (which is unlikely), HVAC business owners continue to seek ways to be more profitable by joining independent contractor groups.

The NEWS recently tagged along with a few contractors who were attending a get-to-know-us session titled "Profit Days," sponsored by national contractor group AirTime 500. The session, consisting of several seminars and a mini-trade show, was an effort to recruit new members into AirTime 500 before the membership list is officially closed. A few dozen potential members attended the two-day event in Baltimore.

The group of contractors participating in this story included John Winters of Winters Heating, Cooling & IAQ, Leonardtown, Md., Kevin Viramonte of First Heating & Cooling Inc., Congress, Ariz., and Will Clause of Southern Breeze Air Conditioning & Heating, Pensacola, Fla.

Viramonte had certain expectations he hoped to address at the outset of the meeting of fellow HVAC contractors. "Hopefully, I can find better ways to manage our current resources and develop unique ways to market our name so we can bring better service to our clients," he said.

"We also expect to learn from the experience of other successful expanding contractors in the HVAC service field who are dealing with the same difficulties like finding, training, and keeping qualified service technicians."

But like so many other contractors seeking answers to business questions, Viramonte said there is a natural skepticism toward anyone or any group that claims to have surefire keys to business success.

"Naturally we have common skepticism about anyone claiming they can improve our businesses' bottom line while bringing about more free time to pursue other interests we might have," he said.

IDENTIFY BUSINESS CONCERNS

Contractors often join independent groups in order to address some of their business concerns. Viramonte said that being solvent was perhaps the biggest concern of his company.

"I would have to say our top concerns are improving the way we do business with our current clients, increasing our profits while reducing our debt, and building a business that will see to our employees' needs and well-being without draining our bank account," he said.

Viramonte said he wasn't seeking out answers to his concerns, because his company was doing well, and "we had never found [groups] to offer us anything beyond what we were doing already concerning buying and marketing our services and products."

But the company owner had planned to be in the Baltimore area at the same time as the AirTime 500 meeting so he scheduled the meeting out of curiosity. "I decided to attend to see if there was any information our business could use for growth and expansion," Viramonte said.

Winters said that his company had previously belonged to a different independent contractor group and also invested in a consulting firm to help them with some of the business hurdles. He said his company has three major concerns including: finding and retaining the right people, beginning the year with a budget, business and marketing plan, and having daily operating procedures and systems in place.

He had some background information on AirTime 500 founders Jim Abrams and John Young and believed in their HVAC industry leadership. "I am looking for a win-win partnership with an organization that can look globally at my business and provide us with suggestions for improvement," he added.

Clause had received some solicitations from AirTime 500 and after discussing what the group could do for his business with a current member, he decided to attend Profit Days. He had previously attended an informational meeting with another national contractor group but decided against joining because "the cost was too high and there were some restrictions I didn't agree with."

Although he was confident in his selling ability, Clause knew he needed some help with his marketing support, among other business concerns. "There are too many [concerns] to list here, but they all fall in the category of marketing support and plans, business processes, and proven pricing plans," he said.

He hoped that membership in AirTime 500 would help address his three biggest business concerns: having a normal positive cash flow, retirement planning, and a personal exit strategy, i.e., either keeping the business in the family or selling.

ADDRESSING THE CONCERNS

Prior to attending Profit Days, each contractor had sought help to address their major business concerns. Winters had belonged to another national group that showed him a systematic approach to success. "We initially joined [another group] for the rebates, but let the boxes of material they sent us sit for a half year," he said. "The day I opened them was the day my eyes were opened to a better way of doing things - I became truly enlightened.

"From attending seminars and conferences I knew many of the things I had to do to change our company."

Viramonte was very specific about the methods he sought.

"We've explored many different avenues in an attempt to create better ways to serve our community while keeping our integrity and quality intact," he said. "For instance, we've gone outside our area to technical schools trying to secure trained help. We have negotiated directly with manufacturers for lower pricing than we are currently getting from local wholesale suppliers.

"While most of our business comes from word of mouth in the many towns around us, we have expanded our advertising in order to increase the company cash flow, so we can hire more help and reduce the number of hours all of us are currently having to work."

Clause said he had looked into another national contractor group, talked to other contractors, and utilized his supplier's training programs to address his concerns.

THUMBS UP OR DOWN?

Although the contractors interviewed for this story were not prepared to make the final commitment to joining AirTime 500, they liked what they saw at Profit Days and planned to continue the fact-finding process with the national contractor group. For Viramonte, the first meeting was an eye-opening experience.

"I never thought deeply on how the HVAC service industry was traveling down the path of big box mentality, namely having the clout to market and purchase through group power," he added.

"When Jim Abrams pointed this out, it became clear the only way a small company could be successful against large competitors would be to learn how to set ourselves apart from our competitors using unique methods, people, and products. Of course, doing so would mean streamlining the way we operate and developing some kind of exclusivity in what we do, none of which any of us had any idea how to approach.

"AirTime 500 offers the training, experience, guidance, and materials to perform this seemingly overwhelming task along with the support of other members who have, and are, overcoming common problems associated with developing a highly successful air conditioning and heating service business."

Clause said he was impressed with what he saw and planned to keep digging. "At this point, I think AirTime 500 can do what they say, thus allowing me to achieve my goals," he added. "This has been confirmed by two existing members I've spoken with, and I look forward to that feeling being strengthened during the [next meeting]."

Richard Jones, president of Comfort Solutions Inc., Alexandria, Va.

Sidebar: Seeking Advice from ACCA

Richard Jones knew that making a success of his new company - Comfort Solutions Inc. of Alexandria, Va. (www.comfortsolutionsinc.net) - would require business skills beyond what he already knew. So he decided to join a national contractor group, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). Here is what Jones told The NEWS.

"Being a new company, with limited staff and resources, in an ever-changing industry presents a myriad of challenges," he said. "One challenge that faces new contractors is building a reputation and establishing credibility. We believe that joining ACCA will help us obtain the credibility we need to succeed in an industry that has so many competitors. We believe that joining ACCA will give us an edge over companies that are not affiliated with ACCA.

Jones said that another challenge for all contractors is keeping up on industry changes. He believes that one of the best ways to build a new business is to stay current in the industry. "Given our limited staff, we do not have the luxury of spending hours going to different Web sites or reading a large number of publications to educate ourselves," he added. "We need to be able to find the information we need, as well as information about industry changes at a central source. This is another reason we have joined ACCA. We believe that taking advantage of the information that ACCA provides will be one of our keys to climbing to the top of the industry."

Comfort Solutions Inc. has a modern fleet of service trucks.
Jones feels that in addition to keeping up on industry standards, contractors face the challenge of having well-trained technicians. "Another reason we joined ACCA is because they offer a number of training classes for all levels of technicians," he noted. "One of the goals of our company is to ensure that all technicians maintain their certifications and continue their education. ACCA also is a strong advocate of North American Technician Excellence [NATE] certification. We require all of our technicians to be NATE certified, so any technician we hire that isn't NATE certified will be required to take the ACCA-sponsored NATE training class.

Finally, Jones said it is important to have help deciding what products and services to purchase. "With limited staff and the constant demand to get things done yesterday, we don't always have time to do the leg work involved in researching multiple products and services to find the best product or deal. We believe that an ACCA recommendation on a product or service gives it credibility, and we can purchase it with confidence. We believe that saving time as well as money is a benefit to joining ACCA."

Publication date: 01/23/2006

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