Ten Questions for Stalknecht

March 27, 2006
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Paul Stalknecht, ACCA president
Since joining the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) in March 2001, Paul Stalknecht has led the organization through a series of changes in a remarkably short period of time. Just three years ago, ACCA's membership grew for the first time in seven years, and the association finalized a new federation agreement with 50 state and local affiliated chapters.

Sit down with Stalknecht and you will find out that the ever-active president has more up his sleeve. The native from New Jersey simply wants to do more. For instance, Stalknecht has formed new alliances with manufacturers and other allied groups, including the launch of a joint manufacturer-contractor "Tomorrow Project," designed to help the entire industry prepare for, and overcome, the internal and external challenges it faces over the next five years.

A seasoned trade association executive with more than 25 years of management experience on the state and national levels, Stalknecht came to ACCA from the American Trucking Association, a national trade association federation, where he served as senior vice president for federation relations. His principal activity with APA was to liaise with the federation's 50 state trucking and eight national affiliated associations.

Stalknecht didn't skip a beat when he stepped into ACCA's top seat five years ago. The NEWS recently sat down with ACCA's president and CEO to find out his thoughts concerning what has been accomplished and what future plans the Fairleigh Dickinson University graduate has in mind for the association.

NEWS: It has been five years now since you came aboard to guide ACCA. How would you say your tenure has been going? As CEO, what are you most proud of to date? What still bugs you? In other words, what, in your opinion, still needs to be accomplished?

Stalknecht: Hard to believe it's been five years already. They've certainly been busy years! It's been exciting, it's been challenging, and it's been everything except boring. I don't think anyone could have anticipated how far we'd come in five years. The organization is completely, 100 percent different from what it was five years ago.

For one thing, our membership has grown for the last three years straight, and financially we have been stable and operating in the black, which is certainly a big change from five years ago.

I'm proud of everything we've been able to accomplish with our brilliant, talented staff. Everyday there are new concepts being tested, new programs being launched, lessons being learned and applied. I'm proud that we've been able to create a culture in our organization of risk-taking. So many associations are afraid to try new things without going through layers of bureaucracy.

We've streamlined our operation such that staff and volunteers are able to work directly together to make things happen. We've taken the fear of failure out of the organization. Not all things, programs, or products will work. Some will be failures; others will be tremendously successful, but you'll never know unless you try. You will always see ACCA on the cutting-edge of things.

But what I'm most proud of is the fact that we were able to take the board's vision for a unified, federated association and turn it into a reality. There's one ACCA now. All state and local chapters are unified through the national organization, while still retaining their independence and autonomy.

I'm still concerned at the lack of interest so many contractors show in legislative and regulatory advocacy. There are lots of contractors who refuse to own up to their responsibility for getting things done in Washington to benefit our industry. They'd rather complain about outcomes than change them.

Let me tell you, change won't happen because of anything ACCA does; it depends entirely on contractors giving their time, energy, and yes, money. If you're not a member, if you're not contributing to the PAC, if you're not calling your legislators when action is needed - then you're part of the problem.

NEWS: If you had to narrow it down to one and one only, what would you say is the biggest business concern from membership? How is the organization handling this No. 1 concern?

Stalknecht: Technician recruitment, hands down. But is this a disease or a symptom? One thing we've learned is that, while this is an industry-wide problem, the answer often lies in the steps being taken by individual contractors.

One of our members, Ray Isaac of Isaac Air Conditioning & Heating in Rochester, N.Y., summed this up perfectly in an article for our members. He said he pays no attention to labor statistics; instead, he compares his company to his real competitors for talent, which are not other contractors, but local companies in other industries.

Contractors have to become better managers if they want to attract and keep talented people. They have to get away from focusing on the technical side of things - technical expertise can be taught - and instead hire people with the right personalities. They need to embrace lifelong learning for their employees, get creative in offering benefits, and learn how to price their services more realistically so they can afford salaries large enough to compete.

We'll never churn our way out of the labor shortage, passing technicians back and forth from company to company. The only way out is to build better contracting businesses. We offer extensive training now through our School of Business program, geared toward helping owners and managers work on their business, not in their business.

On a broader scale, the entire HVACR family - contractors, distributors, and manufacturers - have to rethink this whole issue. We need to come together to find a way to appeal to the "game boy" generation - today's youth who learn from computer games and the Internet rather than textbooks and pamphlets. In many respects, our industry is in a time warp and we must unshackle our creativity to become more attractive to the younger generation. As you would expect, I have some ideas that I believe we should explore and hopefully will be able to stimulate some debate in the months ahead.

NEWS: If you had to narrow it down to one and one only, what would you say is the biggest industry concern from membership? How is the organization handling this No. 1 industry concern?

Stalknecht: There has always been tension between contractors and manufacturers, and I don't think that's always a bad thing. Healthy tension can lead to creative solutions. However, contractors continue to feel like they are small guys at the mercy of the big guys.

We think that contractors need to realize that they are actually in a position of power, especially when they band together through ACCA. We need the manufacturers, but the manufacturers also need us. In the old days, contractors would get together and spend all their time complaining about manufacturers. Nothing ever got resolved, and manufacturers had no interest in ACCA because they felt like every time they showed up, there was a target on their back.

Today, that's all changed. ACCA has developed a culture of collaboration, not confrontation. We structure our meetings and discussions in a business-like fashion, laser-focused on the substance of the issues and not letting emotions or egos interfere. We seek to stimulate debate, not stifle it or sweep things under the rug. By doing so, we have established a healthy and productive environment within the HVACR community.

ACCA is where the manufacturers' chief executives go first when they have a question about contractors. We successfully bring the top people from the manufacturing side together with contractors in small meetings to talk openly and honestly about issues, and we've been successful in resolving a lot of them.

There will always be more areas of concern, and to be honest, there are always going to be times when ACCA and the manufacturers disagree. But it's much better to be forthright about it, to work together on compromises, and maintain an open dialogue. I'm proud that manufacturers support our organization now to the extent they do - even showing up to speak and take questions at our annual conference, a unique opportunity in the contracting industry. We also established a highly successful two-day event wherein the CEOs of the major manufacturers meet with the current and past leadership of ACCA, sort of a think-tank forum with many provocative industry topics being discussed and debated.

NEWS: From the legislative side, what battle is ACCA zeroing in on? How is that battle going?

Stalknecht: There are lots of issues, but we have to be mindful of our resources, which are not large, and direct efforts where our members are most focused. One is definitely health insurance, which is killing small contractors. We track the increases hitting our members, and the last few years they've been astronomical. One common-sense solution is the association health plan, which would allow small businesses to band together across state lines to get economies of scale and lower premiums.

We've been working on this for years. The insurance companies and state insurance commissioners obviously don't like it, but they have no genuine arguments against it other than their own self-interest.

Just in the last few days, hearings were held on association health plans in the Senate - the first time we've seen any activity on the issue in the Senate, where the legislation has typically been bottled up. The House has passed legislation several times which would give small businesses these new opportunities.

Another issue we've taken the lead on is lowering the allowable depreciation time for commercial HVACR equipment, which would encourage more rapid replacement of inefficient systems with modern systems. There are a lot of industries trying to make various depreciation changes right now. We intend to do everything we can to make this happen, but on both of these fronts, as I said earlier, we depend on contractors to get involved and to contribute.

This is also a point I wish to emphasize to the commercial contractors. A good percentage of ACCA's membership base is commercial contractors. Yet, ACCA is sometimes perceived as only representing the residential contractors. This is simply not true. A lot of ACCA's programs, products, and energies are devoted to commercial contractors and we welcome their participation and involvement. To get legislation enacted in Congress, like the commercial depreciation bill, we need the active participation - and support - of those that benefit from these legislative actions. In that regard, I would hope more commercial contractors will recognize what ACCA is doing in the legislative trenches on their behalf and become more proactive in supporting these efforts.

Before Stalknecht stepped up to the podium, ACCA was not necessarily on solid ground as an association. Just three years ago, ACCA’s membership grew for the first time in seven years, and the association finalized a new federation agreement with 50 state and local affiliated chapters.
NEWS: This year April 23-29 is National Indoor Comfort Week. This is an idea introduced, promoted and pushed by ACCA, yet it appears contractors are uncertain what should be accomplished, presented, or done during this week. What did ACCA envision when it pushed this through Congress two years ago? What is expected of contractors for this week?

Stalknecht: National Indoor Comfort Week came about because we felt there was a need for a special week set aside to thank the men and women who work in the HVACR industry, and to highlight our industry.

This sort of thing, however, depends entirely on grassroots activities to become successful. It comes down to what local contractors and organizations are able to do in their own communities to celebrate and promote the week. We knew when we started National Indoor Comfort Week that this would be a long-term project to encourage contractors to make the most of it.

Once we got congressional recognition for the week, we decided it would work best if National Indoor Comfort Week became an industry-wide initiative, not an ACCA program. It's our gift to the industry. This year, other organizations supporting the week include ARI, AHAM, GAMA, HARDI, NATE, PHCC, and RSES. We welcome everyone else to get involved and spread the word.

We've made available, for free, various materials, logos, and ideas for contractors and organizations to use. They're all online at www.comfortweek.com.

NEWS: Business training seems to be an important issue for contractor members. How is ACCA filling that need for members?

Stalknecht: We launched the ACCA School of Business last year. Building on the core of our successful Quality College program, the School of Business features a wide-ranging, innovative curriculum developed by successful contractors. From the basics of accounting management to attracting and keeping employees, the School of Business represents a fundamental shift in the HVACR industry. Some organizations try to give you "business in a box," and other training programs are manufacturer-specific. We give you a foundational training in both basic and advanced contracting business management so that you can lead your business away from the pack and beat your competition.

The classes are scheduled around the country, some in conjunction with our chapters. Later this year we will be rolling out some distance learning options for certain components that lend themselves to such things, though a lot of the value from these courses comes from the intensive small-group face-to-face sessions we offer.

NEWS: What is the status of work going on in load calculations between ACCA and ASHRAE? It appears that ASHRAE has not been necessarily receptive of ACCA's input as far as putting it into the Handbook chapter. What is going on here?

Stalknecht: On the commercial side, ACCA and ASHRAE are collaborating on the development of a new commercial load calculation standard. A consensus has been reached on the document and the standard is being released for public review via the ANSI process. ACCA is in the process of updating our Manual N (Commercial Load Calculation) in conformity to this standard. We anticipate that ASHRAE will continue to offer multiple alternatives for executing commercial calculations.

On the residential side, we've continued to improve Manual J, the residential load calculation standard, and to provide solutions that meet the needs of designers. We launched the abridged edition last year, which has been very successful, and a revised version 2 of the full eighth edition of Manual J has been released. ASHRAE is continuing to maintain a residential load calculation procedure in its Handbook chapter.

NEWS: ACCA has been working on a quality contracting/quality installation program. In ACCA's eyes, there is a need to "establish a raised bar" - improve the minimum competencies of contractors to ensure that quality installations ensue. Tell us more regarding this project and what it all entails. Are there any plans for this program to be adopted for use in the Energy Star Home Performance program?

Stalknecht: We have been working with members and partners from both within and without the industry on what we call "QC/QI" - Quality Contracting and Quality Installation. It surfaced because everyone recognized a need to establish benchmarks for what makes a quality contractor. How do you know if an installation has followed the best practices? We all know that the installing contractor has a lot more to do with a unit's energy efficiency than the SEER rating.

Quality Contractor Elements focus on how a contracting business operates, safeguards its employees, and addresses customer installation issues. These elements recognize that there are certain contractor attributes and minimum business practices that are necessary to fully support the installing/servicing technician's ability to install/maintain quality HVAC installations. With a focus on the business side of things as an indicator that an HVAC contractor is positioned to properly support its technicians in providing/servicing quality systems, specific contractor requirements have been identified.

Quality Installation Elements focus on the actual installation and how well the equipment was selected and installed. Quality installation is more than just using high-efficiency products and systems. Correct selection and installation of equipment and controls have a large impact on health, comfort, safety, and energy savings.

We anticipate making the QI specification available for public review and comment this spring.

NEWS: The HVAC arena changed after Hurricane Katrina hit Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Florida last year. What has ACCA done to help those affected contractor members get their respective businesses up and running again? Any success stories to tell?

Stalknecht: After Hurricane Katrina struck, our chairman, Greg Leisgang, moved quickly to establish a task force to assist effected members. The Disaster Relief Task Force raised money and established a Website, where we allowed members to offer temporary employment assistance to dislocated technicians, and created an information exchange where contractors offered to donate equipment, supplies, and labor to contractors in the region.

We contributed funds to several companies in the area, almost all of who gave the contributions to their employees, many of whom lost everything, some without insurance. Phones, tools, manuals, even service vehicles were donated from ACCA member contractors around the country. It was a true object lesson in how this industry can come together when tragedy strikes. If it strikes again - and we pray that it doesn't - we'll be even better prepared to move quickly and help our members. ACCA is not just an organization. We're a family, and we take care of our own.

NEWS: What are some topics/issues ACCA plans to tackle/address over the next five years?

Stalknecht: I've addressed many of them already - our work on the Hill, in the technical arena, and in improving membership services will continue. I always hesitate to forecast the future. Five years ago, none of us anticipated how far we'd come or what we'd be involved in today.

First and foremost, ACCA will continue to be a member-driven organization. As our members' needs change, we will change. We have made a significant investment in technology over the last few years to improve our ability to communicate with our members, learn from them, and help them interact with each other. A new Website, coming later this year, will take our relationships with members to a whole new level and give them amazing new tools for learning and improving their businesses.

It's been a great five years, but I make one promise to our members and to the entire HVACR industry: We will never be complacent. We will never stand still. We will never be finished. And when we talk again five years from now, ACCA will be completely different from what it is today, just like our most successful members.

Publication date: 03/27/2006

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