What Makes Young Guns Stay Loyal?

June 18, 2007
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Buffy Busik, owner of Mountain View Heating, Bend, Ore., is one of the up-and-coming young guns of the HVAC trade. She is seen here with her retrofit installation manager, Scott Lanning.

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series examining young HVAC contractors and managers. Part one, “Young Contractors Take Aim at HVAC Future,” is the cover story in this issue.]

The future of the HVAC trade rests in the hands of today’s youthful business owners and managers. Although there never seems to be a shortage of people who hang up an HVAC shingle and call themselves businesspeople, there does seems to be a shortage of young people who are dedicated to a successful career in HVAC. There are many good ones out there.

But the HVAC trade is at the crossroads. With the declining enrollment in HVAC votech schools and more of an interest in the professional, nonservice trades, the HVAC trade needs to look for ways to replenish its workforce and keep young professionals.

Derek Kean, of Peterman Heating and Air Conditioning of Indianapolis, Ind., tells the bad and good about the HVAC trade.

“I am 27 years old and I worry about our trade’s future,” he said.

“Although I am still young, I have been in the HVAC industry for 10 years and I have noticed there aren’t a matching number of young bucks coming in as the old guys heading out to pasture. I hope our industry could entice some of those brighter, younger minds to enter our field, but our area of expertise requires long hours, impatient customers, and unpleasant working conditions. I think that is something that younger generations with their poor work ethics may not find attractive.

“Our industry is continually changing - and changing for the better. I like the increase in technology in our heating and cooling products. I like to be able to offer a client exactly what they need for their home or business that will make them incredibly comfortable and 100 percent dependant on my services.”

The positive side of Kean’s answers is what Part 2 of The NEWS’ series on the Young Guns of HVAC will focus on why young business owners and managers stick with their HVAC “guns,” despite the lure of other career paths and pressure from family and friends to pursue other career opportunities.

Twenty-five-year-old owner Scott Crescenze of Crescenze Cooling & Heating LLC, Massillon, Ohio, said that sticking with the HVAC trade is a matter of pride for him. He cited a recent job that made him proud of the trade.

“My greatest project and accomplishment took place a couple years ago at a local screenprinting company,” he said. “It was a pretty large company that made all the large banners and signs seen all over the country. The company is where my dad worked for 30-plus years. The job came up after many other companies tried and failed to provide proper preheating for the signs and proper ventilation for the drying lamps.

“One day in the building, I made a simple comment about how I would design and solve all the problems. Many employees felt that a young kid is only going to make things worse. However, I stepped out of my comfort zone and even guaranteed to save them money on downtime and scrap. They gave me a chance three years ago and have never had a problem since then. The job has paid for itself many times over. My dad is now employed by me and no longer works there.

“That job is one of my proudest moments in this business and also one of my dad’s proudest moments. My father makes it clear to everyone that I own and run the business while he works for me. I find nothing wrong with everyone assuming that he owns it; however he tries to stop the stereotyping before it goes any further.”

For one contractor, being in the HVAC business means helping people and helping the environment, among several other things. Buffy Busik, 24-year-old owner of Mountain View Heating, Bend, Ore., listed a few reasons why she loves the HVAC business.

“I do it for the privilege of keeping people comfortable and healthy, the opportunity to improve our environment by offering products that are energy efficient, the reward of satisfied customers and getting paid what you deserve for jobs well done, and the challenge of continually fine tuning the HVAC facet of the construction industry to improve safety, efficiency, and comfort,” she said.

IT IS ALL ABOUT PRIDE AND "OWNING IT"

Young contractors like Crescenze credit their passion for the business to their families and being taught the right way to do things, such as combining care for customers with care for the environment. These are unique qualities that appeal to many young guns in the HVAC trade.

Ronald Stroh of D. Silvestri Sons Inc., Fishkill, N.Y., said that pride is what motivates him the most. “I am most proud of all our projects,” he said. “We complete each project with the same enthusiasm and pride in our craftsmanship. There is no one single job that I was not proud of, even when the project becomes difficult because of unforeseen problems. The jobs still come out as good as any other and we can still be proud of it, and proud to put our company label on it.”

“Even though I am a fourth-generation family-owned company and manage it now, the biggest satisfaction I got when installing, and all our employees get, is from making a customer smile when you leave the job,” said John Ford of Columbus/Worthington Air & Columbus Mechanical, Hilliard, Ohio.

“With the heat down here, homeowners feel desperate when their system breaks down, and are looking for somebody to get their system cooling as fast as possible. When we can take care of that need, it’s hard to find anything better than making the homeowner comfortable again. Another reason people make this trade a career is every service call or installation is different. HVAC is definitely not a routine job, every system, problem, and homeowner is different.”

Another way of “owning” it is to build up the business and take responsibility for its growth. Young guns like Adam Sater, service manager for Commercial Service of Bloomington Inc., Bloomington, Ind., has made customer acquisition his favorite project.

“I am most proud of widening our customer base,” he said. “I focus on establishing both new customers and building long-term relationships. When I became the service manager, we had about 230 contracts, and now we are closing in on 1,000. Many hands have helped make this number grow each year.

“We are very proud of our service accomplishments and the team that we continue to grow and build. Our service revenue continues to grow each year while hitting our gross profit margin goals.”

Growing a customer base and keeping them happy is also what keeps Lewis Williams of Mike Williams Plumbing, Heating, & Air Conditioning, Springfield, Ill., in the HVAC business.

“Success is easy because our competition really doesn’t want the work,” he said. “We want the work. We want to professionalize our industry. We want to set the standard for customer service in our industry.

“Some of the old people in our industry just want a paycheck and they feel like they have to have this job to get a paycheck. We don’t get up to go to work to get a paycheck at the end of the week. We go to work to change our industry and improve the lives of our employees. Our success is, and will continue, to come easily as we strive to improve the lives of our employees and work towards something higher than a paycheck and the competition will fall off to the wayside.”

Adam Sater (right) service manager for Commercial Service of Bloomington, Inc., Bloomington, Ind., passes along some of his young gun advice to service tech Brian Gasque.

TRAINING KEEPS THEM HOME, TOO

The HVAC learning curve is never stagnant. Changes in technology to include computers, programming, controls, commissioning, etc. have kept interest levels very high among HVAC young guns. Being part of the “touchy-feely” generation is more reason for future owners and managers to stay on top of the latest trends in HVAC. Many of the young guns keep their interest level up by attending ongoing training, both in the class and in the field.

To most, on-the-job training is the key to success. One contractor bragged about his learning curve. “I realized how badly I failed in receiving a conventional education and saw this as my opportunity to set things right with myself,” said Paul Lockhardt of Champaign Heating & Air, Champaign, Ill.

“I saw the limitless potential for growth and the high demand for people who just wanted to learn. I also recognized the new technology, which many contractors refused to acknowledge due to the old dog, new tricks rule and saw it as a way to set myself apart in a very short period of time.

“In five years, I went from the guy who sweeps the floor and doesn’t know what a compressor is to running my own shop doing residential and commercial HVAC as well as refrigeration and draft beer systems. I have now been in business four years and looking at grossing $600K. Not bad for a high school dropout.”

Tim Pulliam of Arms & Cole, Traverse City, Mich., believes there is no substitute for training - and seeks out as much as he can. “There is no replacement for on-the-job-training to pass on the true craftsmanship of our trade,” he said. “Working with passionate, more experienced journey people is what inspired me to strive for excellence in my field. It also gave me the nothing is impossible outlook that keeps frustration at a minimum while problem solving.”

Other young guns see the importance of a blend of classroom training and field experience. One person took his field experience and worked it into a classroom setting. Bryan Orr of Kalos Services Inc., Clermont/Eustus, Fla., was approached by his service manager to teach an in-house training class that would take totally green technicians and train them to do residential system starts and preventative maintenance after about one month of classroom and on-the-job training. Kalos was 21-years-old at the time.

“I was given this job with no curriculum and little guidance other than to take employees hired by other managers and produce results within approximately a month’s time,” he said. “Two years and 50 service technicians later, I was hiring all of the trainees, training them in the classroom, and managing them once they started on their own. The basic concept is this: Find good people and train them in HVAC, instead of taking people who know HVAC and attempting to make them into good people.”

In order to be trained, young people have to be willing to step in the classroom first. If potential young guns know the real potential for growth, they can win the numbers game.

And it is a numbers game for some HVAC technicians. At least that’s what Jason Putnam of Pro-Air Services Inc., Decatur, Ala., thinks. He figures that the declining enrollments in HVAC votech programs can be a bonanza in reverse.

“I see this as a great opportunity for young people,” he said. “This is a great market that is made even better with the decrease of good, qualified people. A young person entering the trade will be in demand and will earn a very good wage.”

Publication date: 06/18/2007

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