West / Regional Reports

West-Pacific: Tri-City Mechanical: Large But Definitely 'Homey'

February 22, 2001
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CHANDLER, AZ — He will not deny it. Overseeing nearly 500 employees is a challenge for Joe Nichter, president of Tri-City Mechanical/Comfort Systems USA.

Just six years ago, there were 200 employees. Nichter admits knowing each and every name in the good ol’ days of 1995. With so much growth, however – jumping from $32 million in sales in ’97 to $54 million last year — more and more people are hired and needed each year at one of Arizona’s largest design-build-maintain mechanical contracting firms.

“I remember my first year here,” says Nichter, who was originally hired as a service manager in 1984. “I think there were 40 employees at that time. It’s amazing what we’ve done.”

Still, Nichter knows the importance of meeting, greeting, and knowing his workers. It’s a must in his book.

“I’m a real walk-around president,” he says. “I spend time walking through the shop every day and talking to everyone. I know what’s going on in every department. I know, because I walk around. I think that’s an important part of my day to be visible, to support the people, and to be available.”

Leaning slightly back in the chair in his neat and spacious office, he adds, “What we really preach here is that people are your No. 1 asset. Without them, there is no Tri-City Mechanical.”

Walk around the 72,000-sq-ft headquarters building and talk about the company with workers — from service techs to management to dispatchers — and the general consensus is they do appreciate the atmosphere, generated from the top office.

“They care about what you do in life,” says Eric Johnson, mechanical piping superintendent. “I’ve worked for many companies, but Tri-City is the best.”

“Right off the bat, I knew this was a good place to work,” says operations manager Jim Short, who has been with the company for more than 11 years. “You could feel that they cared about you.”

In the eyes of prefab manager Steve Greko, who has been with Tri-City for 17 years, he appreciates the respect given to one and all.

“Even though we’re a large company, we have this close-knit atmosphere, this camaraderie, if you will,” he says. “It’s ‘homey,’ you know?”

Throw in the fact that training — at every level — is so important here and benefits abound, Tri-City Mechanical was selected one of the seven winners in The News’ 2000 “Best Contractors to Work For” contest.



Joe Presley, general manager of Service Operations, discusses a service matter with dispatcher Beth Lindstrom as fellow dispatcher Kathy Connolly (foreground) handles a call.

TALK IS NOT CHEAP

Open communication is paramount to Nichter.

“The more information we can give our people, the better off we are,” he says. “Employees want to be kept informed and believe that they are a part of a team.”

To help him make the rounds, Nichter operates with an eight-member executive committee. Each is responsible for certain areas and departments within the company.

“I think the type of organization that I run basically is this: our organizational chart is very level,” says Nichter. “And we empower our people. I try to empower each executive to take charge of his department. And we accept the guidelines based on our vision and mission statement.

“For instance, I look at the vice president of Project Administra-tion, whose core group consists of project managers. He looks at that group, he takes their input, creates new ideas, and then we run it through all of the executives at meetings every month. And, day-to-day they talk to me about their different ideas, but they are empowered to do what they believe is right.

“I think the idea that they feel comfortable to do this helps them to be better leaders and gets the respect from the people under them.”

Agreed, says Short.

“I get my guys involved on the floor because we are always in our quest to be on the cutting edge,” says Short. “We try to keep up with the changes and the only way to do that is to keep the communications open. People get involved. Morale is high.”

Part of communicating is providing feedback, both positive and negative, says Nichter.

“Just because you’re in a leadership role, you can’t expect automatic respect from all of your team members,” he says. “Respect is an ongoing process and has to be earned through sharing information, communicating, listening, and trusting at all levels of your organization. We always have to challenge the status quo. Complacency kills growth, while change brings progress.”

Being flexible and receiving kudos puts a smile on Greko’s face.

“Recognition…you get it here,” he says. “You get it from upper management and you spread it down to people at your level who deserve it.”

Safety director Barb Payne, who started out as a service department dispatcher nine years ago, appreciates the opportunities management gives to employees. She now provides in-house OSHA training.

“They encourage personal growth around here,” she says. “If you need assistance, they’ll hear you but really encourage you to do it on your own. They are really flexible about this.”



TRAINING WHEEL KEEPS ON TURNING

Maybe even higher on Nichter’s list is training. Every department. Every employee. You can’t escape it at Tri-City.

“I think training is not only important because there is a shortage in the field of qualified workers. I think there is an ongoing training need,” says Nichter. “There’s a necessity for it because we preach here that we want our workers to be thinking out of the box. Doing that, they come up with new and better methods to do things. And, as they do that, we want to share that with all of the other Comfort Systems members.

“So constantly looking at the way we do things and looking for better ways to do it is a top priority here. And, in order to spread that round the company, you need to constantly update and upgrade your people to current procedures. Training is that way.”

Over a 12-month period, the average number of hours employees in management positions spend in training is 110 hours. For service-related positions, training is 25 hours (paid) and 30 hours optional.

“Our training programs are comprehensive and one of the major standout features is that it is extremely interactive,” says Nichter. “Employees are free to learn and encouraged to ask questions.

“Our training program involves a Comfort Systems USA service site trainer who trains every service manager and, in turn, they train the technicians. Our apprenticeship program is offered through the Association of Builders and Contractors (ABC), from which techs receive comprehensive training. We also offer leadership training and foreman training through Tri-City as well.

“We think our training program is a strength that is visible in the pride and dedication our employees show towards the company.”

Joe Presley, general manager of Service Operations, believes a contractor must provide training to service techs to stay ahead.

“We recognized years ago that to go and hire completely trained people is too hard,” he says. “There are just not a lot of them out there. Therefore, our only source to get them up to speed is through training.”

Project manager Ken Brown provides foreman training while service manager Mitch Clark teaches service training. Foremen go through four sessions, 10 weeks each — and the classes are held after work, from 4-7 p.m. Meanwhile, Clark just had discussions regarding compressor teardowns with his 12 service managers.

“Training is endless,” says Brown.



BENEFITS IN MANY FORMS

As to be expected, employees appreciate the long list of benefits. On the financial side, Tri-City offers a 401k plan with a 50% match up to the first 6% of salary. Tri-City also offers every employee life insurance, a dental plan, paid holidays, company-supported short-term disability insurance, accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) insurance, and a safety-incentive program. It also offers a Ford and GM vehicle purchase program, health club discounts, healthy lifestyle discounts, daycare discounts, and learning discounts.

“We extend our employee discounts at selected daycare and after-school facilities, which are offered through Tri-City’s medical plan,” says Nichter. “We also have a new pre-tax account available for childcare, which enables employees to take out a certain percentage of each paycheck over the course of the year that is not taxed in order to pay for such expenses.”

Having a strong benefit package is certainly a strong drawing card.

“Over the last four years we’ve done a very good job of retaining people because of our benefits and environment,” says Presley.

“The benefits are good,” agrees Mike Eagan, who joined Tri-City less than two years ago after three previous coworkers, who moved over to Tri-City, encouraged him to do so. “The pay is definitely more competitive than anywhere else.”

Each year Tri-City kicks off its busy season with a three-day company-sponsored fishing trip to northern Arizona’s White Mountains. There are also softball tournaments, an annual company picnic (usually in April), an occasional on-site lunch, and plenty of “surprise” office pizza parties.

“I think sometimes people appreciate more the pizza parties and the jobsite luncheons because they want you to see their work,” says Nichter. “They want you to see the progress they’ve made. And they want to tell you about it. It becomes more personable when you come to a jobsite and get that one-on-one. People want to be appreciated for what they are doing.”

Of course, techs and installers appreciate the fact that each of the 100 company trucks are air conditioned, as working conditions can climb to well over 100? in the Phoenix-Chandler area.

“Because of the heat, we always talk to the techs about health precautions, like making sure to drink plenty of water while working,” says Nichter. “We also schedule all service and repair calls for the morning time only, and offer safety classes every month to discuss safety issues. This helps in keeping our employees’ interest at a peak level and we have been successful this way at preventing employee burnout.”

The “little things” do add up. Tri-City recently had an employee in its fabrication shop retire after 26 years of service. One of its foremen just reached 25 years with the company, a sheet metal fabricator hit 16 years this year, and one of its sales estimators has been with Tri-City for 22 years. Says something, doesn’t it?

“Tri-City’s number one asset is the men and women that are part of our team,” Nichter reiterates. “Our company vision [‘A team maintaining our customers’ trust’] is something that we all support and strive to accomplish everyday with our customers. The vision significantly applies both internally and externally within our company, as it ties our core values of honesty and reliability into every aspect of our work. We work and play hard as a result.”



Sidebar: Company Background

Tri-City Mechanical was started in 1962 by Michael Nothum Sr. Tri-City’s original home was a small metal building in Tempe near the Salt River bottom. The first customers were custom home and tract homebuilders.

In 1979, Mike Nothum, Jr. shifted the company’s focus from home building to commercial projects. In 1992, Mike Jr. became the firm’s president and Joe Nichter, who had served as general manager since 1984, became the vice president.

1997 was a time of change. Tri-City Air Conditioning was changed to Tri-City Mechanical to reflect the company’s ability in mechanical and process piping, plumbing, and temperature controls. It expanded its service division to include planned maintenance.

By June, it became a part of Comfort Systems USA. In fact, Tri-City Mechanical is one of the consolidator’s first 12 founding companies. This same year nearby INRI Air Conditioning , started in 1975 by Doug and Don Endsley, was acquired in November by Comfort Systems USA and merged with Tri-City Mechanical.

In March of 1999, nearby Dave’s Refrigeration, primarily a service company, was acquired by Comfort Systems and merged with Tri-City Mechanical.

At the present time, Joe Nichter is president and Doug Endsley is the executive vice president.



Sidebar: Just the Facts Tri-City Mechanical/Comfort Systems USA

  • Winning contractor: Tri-City Mechanical/Comfort Systems USA
  • Owners: Comfort Systems USA
  • President: Joe Nichter
  • Location: Chandler, AZ
  • Years in business:38
  • Bulk of market: 90% commercial/industrial; 10% new construction/service residential.
  • Total revenue for 2000: $54 million ($4 million in service)
  • Total employees: 488
  • Total service technicians and installers: Service department: 40; new construction (field and shop): 339.
  • Average hours employees spend in training: Management positions: 110; service-related positions: 25 (paid), 30 (optional).
  • Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: In addition to life insurance and a dental plan, the company offers a 401k plan with a 50% match up to the first 6% of salary. It also offers paid holidays, company-supported short-term disability insurance, AD&D insurance, and a safety-incentive program. It also offers the Ford and GM vehicle purchase program; health club discounts; healthy lifestyles discounts; daycare and learning discounts; an annual company picnic with giveaway prizes; an annual company-sponsored fishing trip for three days in the mountains (for employees and their families); and jobsite luncheons throughout the year. It also sponsors miscellaneous social activities, including a bowling league and softball team.
  • The News selected this contractor because: Even though this is a large outfit owned by a consolidator, the company still maintains a “homey” atmosphere. Just ask the employees. It starts at the top with Nichter, who calls himself a “real walk-around president.” Translation: He is visible and accessible to all — and his door is always open. Its training programs are comprehensive and the employee benefit package is not too shabby, either. Put it all together and, as one employee said, “You have people who are happy to go to work.”

    Publication date: 02/26/2001

    Web date: 06/18/2001

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