News / Service Market

Training, Communication Fuels the Furnace

January 31, 2011
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Scott Merritt emphasizes training and communication at Fire & Ice Heating, Air Conditioning and Electrical. (Feature Photos by James D. DeCamp.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio - In a city that’s home to one of the largest universities in the United States, Ohio State University, it’s not so surprising to find an HVAC contractor that holds training and education in such high importance. Fire & Ice Heating, Air Conditioning and Electrical Inc. is one such contractor, with Scott Merritt, CEO, at the helm.

“We need to communicate, we need to help each other, teach each other.… I learn from the new guys right out of school all the time,” he said. “If you provide a learning, motivational atmosphere, you will find that you have motivated employees who want to learn. And if you don’t, you obviously wouldn’t have any of that.”

The focus on training and company communication - between management and staff as well as between company employees and customers - are among the cornerstones of The NEWS 2010 Best Contractor to Work For in the North Central region.

TRAINING FOR ALL

Merritt attended the American School of Technology, Columbus, where he received his training in HVAC in the early 1990s. He now serves on its board of advisors, helping the school develop its curriculum. He said that the company does “a lot of hiring of new helpers out of there because I want to give back, and I already have an idea of what they know because I’ve helped the school develop what it’s teaching them.”

All new helpers have a mentor who trains them and marks down when they’ve become proficient at various tasks, such as brazing or wiring a thermostat, said Merritt. Because of this process, “We can look at any of the technicians’ proficiency charts and say, ‘OK, John Smith; I know I can send him out on this job.’ He can do this because he’s been trained, and he’s been trained well enough to where he’s been marked off as competent.”

The company also promotes training by tying increases in pay to the certifications the technicians earn. “Just showing up every day isn’t going to benefit them as far as getting a pay raise. They have to take different tests. … And they have to test out in order to get another pay increase,” stated Rod Winget, general manager.

The technician pay scale goes from $9-$26 an hour. Merritt said that once a technician gets the raise, he can start studying on his own time to work on his next certification. “Some of them take a couple months of studying, some of them a couple weeks. It really depends on the person and how much time they put in,” Merritt said. “I’ve had people move up $4-$5 an hour in one year because they wanted to go home and study and learn and get better at their trade, and so they benefitted from it.”

Tricia Largent at work in the office at Fire & Ice.

There’s approximately 15 Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) and North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certifications that Fire & Ice has tiered up for the technicians, to take them to the next pay and knowledge level. It starts from the bottom, “you’re just coming into the field and you don’t know anything about heating and cooling,” said Merritt. It goes up to where the amount of knowledge would impress other contracting companies and customers, and the technician would know what to do because he is well-informed, commented Merritt.

In addition to the RSES and NATE, there are a couple of low-level certifications that Fire & Ice offers in house, like brazing, for those new to the industry. And at every weekly meeting, there’s more training.

In addition to the HVAC training that the installation and service technicians and the helpers receive, the office staff also learn about HVAC by watching CDs that “gives us an overall idea of what’s going on,” said Tricia Largent, dispatcher.

Largent said she has deepened her understanding of HVAC by riding along with technicians on a couple of tune-up calls, and she expects to go on a few more this winter. She said that the ride-alongs help her. “When I’m out there, and I’m actually seeing what the guys are doing, and I can help when it comes to troubleshooting something on the phone, in terms of something minor.” She said that, with what she’s learned from the ride-alongs, she can tell the homeowners what they need to do before the tech gets there.

Knowledge of other kinds is encouraged via self-improvement books kept in the office.

“He [Merritt] just started recently gathering books, like self-help things. He’s starting a little library. Any of the employees can come in there anytime and take one of the books. One of them is Time Management for Dummies. And then there may be something in there in reference to finances, or something in there about relationships,” said Largent.

(From left to right) Techs Stan Mociak, Travis Winget, Daniel Swallow, and Jake Ross check truck inventory and load an evaporator into the vehicle. When time allows, other departments help the installation crews get ready for the day.

COMMUNICATION

“Communication is paramount. You’ve got to keep everybody on the same page, you’ve got to have everybody with the same goal,” said Merritt. Because he believes that everyone at Fire & Ice needs to share in company goals, he goes over them with the employees often.

He keeps the employees apprised of what’s happening at the company via a memo in everyone’s paycheck, though not every paycheck. Some of the topics covered in the memo are “what the overall business plan is, what the next season is going to be bringing, if we’re going to be making changes in departments, or if we’re going to be looking at bringing people on,” Merritt said.

These memos also offer guidance, according to Largent, with contents that help employees prepare for the future, such as a summertime message that reminded employees to save some extra money now so they have it for the wintertime, which is slower.

There’s the weekly meeting each department has, which is a chance to discuss the week’s events and how things can be improved, which allows for both company training and communication.

Scott Merritt looks over paperwork with Rodney Winget.

BENEFITS AT THE COMPANY

Merritt looks after the employees. Winget said, “We’ve never laid anybody off. There’s been occasions where they’ve had short pay - short on hours - but we also for the most part give them the opportunity to work in the warehouse to collect some of those extra hours. There’s been times where guys want to take a day off, here and there, but in the summertime, we work a lot.”

Merritt also said that when things slow down, they send out direct mail, which is Fire & Ice’s most effective form of advertising. Then the schedule starts filling up again.

Merritt recognizes the hard work that employees do. He has given them professional football or hockey tickets, for example; or for meeting or beating a monthly sales goal, has given each employee a bonus.

Fire & Ice offers medical, dental, and vision insurance, paying 50 percent of an employee’s premium. It provides a simple IRA where the company matches a maximum of 3 percent. Merritt said the company pushes hard “for everyone to get involved in that. There’s no reason they should throw away free money when the company’s matching.”

The company’s financial advisor also offers the employees “access to any financial plan that’s out there.” AFLAC insurance is offered as well.

One area of the warehouse is where all recyclable equipment and materials are broken down, separated, and taken to a local scrapyard by Brad Smith who is in charge of keeping the warehouse clean, organized, and stocked at Fire & Ice Heating, Air Conditioning and Electrical.

The technicians can earn spiffs for selling maintenance agreements, humidifiers, air cleaners, etc., or turning in sales leads. If they’re mentioned by name in a review with an “A” rating on Angie’s List, the technician gets a spiff for that, too, said Merritt.

Office employees also receive spiffs if they sell maintenance agreements over the phone. Merritt said that while he is given “spiffs from a manufacturer for selling certain high-end pieces of equipment,” he splits “that [money] amongst all the office staff because it’s harder to find spiffs for them, because they’re not out in the field, so we split it up. I don’t take a cut. I pay the taxes on it personally.”

There are several paid holidays for employees: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Winget said that at Christmas employees get a bonus. At Thanksgiving, each employee receives a turkey.

For Fourth of July, Merritt said, “it’s usually a three- or four-day weekend. I’ll go to Omaha Steaks and get everybody in the company a box of steaks, a box of hamburgers, a box of brats, and a box of hot dogs.”

William O’Connell (left), service technician who is training for a position in the HVAC and solar sales department, and Daniel Swallow, who runs service and installation calls when needed, discuss the advantages of using an external or thermostat dual-fuel kit and go over the wiring diagram for each.

He added, “That’s right in the middle of summer. Everybody’s working hard at that point, so I want them that weekend to relax, get refreshed, and have a big cookout, on me.”

Employees can contribute to a Christmas Club and get the money back at the beginning of December; if an employee needs the money for another reason earlier in the year, the money can be withdrawn early, noted Merritt.

The company has three main charitable organizations to which it contributes, as well as other one-time benefits and little league team sponsorships. It depends on who contacts the company for what, commented Merritt. Fire & Ice contributes to a dart tournament held every January to raise money for the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, and donates furnaces and air conditioners in good condition to Habitat for Humanity.

The third organization that the company helps out is a search and rescue team, which does such work as looking for missing people and disaster response. One example of the team’s past projects is when it assisted with cleanup (tarping and clearing of trees on people’s houses) after Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago. Merritt is on the board of directors for the search and rescue, and the team’s equipment is stored onsite at Fire & Ice, where workers keep it in good working order and ready for use any time.

At times during the year when the team is out on a call, Merritt has gone out to help in its effort, leaving the business in the capable hands of his staff. “I’m very confident in my staff. They communicate well and they all know their jobs, so I’m very comfortable with leaving them for a day or two, or whatever.”

Just the Facts: Best Contractor To Work For

CONTRACTOR: Fire & Ice Heating, Air Conditioning and Electrical Inc.

OWNER: CEO Scott Merritt

LOCATION: Columbus, Ohio

YEARS IN BUSINESS: 7

BULK OF MARKET: 100 percent HVAC residential service (Fire & Ice just bought an electrical company, that starts in 2011)

TOTAL SALES FOR 2009: $1.3 million

TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 16

TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS & INSTALLERS: 12

AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 40

BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: The company’s vision plan covers employees and their families, paying 50 percent of the employee’s premium. Employees are offered the chance to contribute to an IRA, and the company matches up to a maximum of 3 percent. Roth IRA’s are also available, as are other financial tools, through the company’s financial advisor. AFLEC insurance is also offered. There’s also a variety of opportunities for the technicians and office staff to earn spiffs and other bonuses. Each employee receives a 20-pound turkey at Thanksgiving. Employees also can contribute to a Christmas Club, and for July 4, each one receives an assortment of Omaha Steaks meat. There are several paid holidays.

INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES). Merritt is also a proctor for RSES and North American Technician Excellence (NATE) exams.

THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: of the importance that Fire & Ice places on technical training, including in-house training, the home study certification program, and the mentor program. Merritt is actively involved in the training in a variety of ways from his involvement in a technical school’s board of advisors to proctoring RSES and NATE certification exams. He also encourages general self-improvement and growth in his staff. and “is continuously mentoring each and every one of us to all achieve our professional and personal goals,” said Tricia Largent. Merritt also has created a corporate culture of open communication and among the staff and with customers.

Publication date: 01/31/2011

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