Retirement of a salesman

May 15, 2000
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Leon Brassard would get a big laugh out of the cartoon. Leon is the now-retired president of Heat, Incorporated, the New England distributor for York.

At 68, and after taking the company through 40 years of growth, Leon is living proof that you can squeeze business out of the New England region. You just have to work like hell to do it.

The New Hampshire-based businessman is turning the business over to his two sons, Richard and David, one year after he sold it to Watsco, which is based in Hialeah, FL. This makes it the Sunbelt company’s first venture into Yankee country.

How good a salesman is he? Good enough to survive by selling the first central air conditioners (first Trane, then York) in a climate not conducive to such amenities. (“How cold was it? So cold the flashers were just showing pictures of themselves.”)

Like a lot of distributors, Leon is a gambler, an optimist, and an indefatigable traveler — to the tune of 55,000 road miles a year, where he schmoozed with his contractor customers, even visiting them at their jobsites to pick up a motor or second-guess their design.

The company, with a $27 million sales volume, has more than 1,300 customers in seven states — all contractors, nobody else. And Leon targets his inventory. He sells parts only to service the equipment he sold earlier — no cross-brand parts sales for him.

If you ever get him into a corner, ask him how he managed the transition from the Trane line to the York line back in the early 1980s. The tale is a rowdy version of articles written by Ph.Ds in the Harvard Business Review about managing change. “Trauma? What trauma?” he says.

Once he’s dazzled you with that, ask him how he rejected an offer from GE’s central air conditioning office in Louisville and bought Heat, Incorporated for a song from the three original investors. It’s a masterpiece of tax leverage, one-upmanship, and sheer gall.

Arthur Miller should write a second play, the Triumph of a Salesman — starring Leon, of course, and a cast of thousands of contractor-customers.

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