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ACCA’s Paul Stalknecht Shuts The Rumor Mill

July 31, 2003
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Paul Stalknecht has heard the rumors: The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) is losing membership; ACCA is suing its chapters; ACCA is going bankrupt.

Rather than shy away from them, ACCA’s leader wanted The News and its readers to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“ACCA has gone through such fundamental changes over the past three years that it’s to be expected that some feathers will get ruffled,” he said. “Look, this wasn’t just about hiring a new chief executive or changing a mission statement. Our board of directors came up with a plan to essentially uproot the organization and change it completely, from top to bottom. Then they hired me to implement that plan, and that’s what I’ve done.”

As to the origins of the rumors, Stalknecht would not speculate.

“I’m sure there are a few people who feel wedded to the old way of doing business at ACCA. Eventually they’ll realize what everybody else has already realized — that the new ACCA is here to stay.”

The Facts

First things first: Stalknecht made it clear that ACCA is not losing members.

“ACCA’s membership grew in 2003 for the first time following seven straight years of decline,” he said. “I know of very few other associations, in any industry, that increased membership at all during this very tough year, but ACCA posted a growth of 6 percent.”

As for ACCA suing its chapters, that’s way off base, too.

“There are some local organizations that are not affiliated with ACCA who have been using the ACCA name, and even the ACCA logo.

By using the ACCA name, these local organizations have given their members the false impression that they may somehow be affiliated with, or members of, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

“We’ve contacted these organizations and told them that they must stop doing this because, under federal law, we’re required to police use of our trademarks. But our affiliated chapters are free to use the ACCA name and logo all they want.”

As to the issue of bankruptcy, ACCA is not going there, either.

“Actual membership is not the only thing that grew during this fiscal year,” he said. “Our dues revenues were up. Product revenues were up. Sponsorship revenues were up. Every single indicator went up — and each of them had been declining steadily and significantly since the mid-90s. We’re not going anywhere, except up.”

Full Speed Ahead

The way it stands now, ACCA has 50 fully federated state and local chapters.

“When ACCA’s board voted to move to a fully federated, ‘One ACCA’ membership structure, there were a lot of unknowns. And there were a lot of doubts.”

“I can’t help but think of Betty Kristofferson, the executive director of our chapter in Houston. She was one of the most ardent opponents of federation, claiming it would cost her chapter members. Over the course of a year, she changed her mind as she saw many of the new member services ACCA was rolling out for contractors and the advantages of federation. And since she federated, her chapter’s membership has grown.”

For the few chapters who chose not to affiliate, for whatever reason, Stalknecht wishes them the best.

“Our door is always open,” he offered. “ACCA will continue to have a strong national presence, in every community of the country, whether we have a state or local affiliate active in that community or not.”

More To Come

Stalknecht might be the first to admit that when he came aboard, ACCA was not in the best of shape.

“We set out toward where we wanted to go,” said Stalknecht. “Instead of resting on our technical laurels, we actually expanded our technical services. We now have a professional staff member on hand, for the first time, to answer members’ technical questions and develop new manuals. We’ve begun an ambitious revision schedule for our design manuals to ensure that they are up to date.

“On the business side, we recognize that the world is very different now and we needed to adapt in order to deliver useful services to our members. We focused our efforts on the Internet, launching a new website that is now one of the most-visited HVACR sites around. We introduced a series of member services called MemberTools, which provide our members with access to everything from consumer brochures to an online pricing calculator to benchmarking surveys. The response has been overwhelming, and we intend to keep ‘surprising’ members with new services and benefits on an ongoing basis.”

Most importantly, said Stalknecht, ACCA continues to have a major influence on Capitol Hill.

“Lobbying for an industry in Washington, D.C., and the statehouses is an expensive but necessary task for ACCA. And it pays off hugely for our members. Just recently, we scored a major victory on an issue we’ve been working on for years — allowing contractors to fully depreciate their service vans and light trucks. On average, this means contractors will be pocketing an additional $3,669 for each qualifying vehicle they purchase,” he said, noting that those figures are based on owning a $30,000 vehicle in the 26 percent tax bracket. “That’s a lot more than ACCA dues cost, and no one else in this industry was pushing for it.”

Since coming to ACCA, what differences has Stalknecht experienced in this industry as opposed to the trucking industry? Read Stalknecht’s views on this and more in the following sidebar.

Mark Skaer is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 248-244-6446, 248-362-0317 (fax), or markskaer@achrnews.com.

Sidebar: Ten Questions For Paul Stalknecht

The News: Let’s talk about what is being tossed out on the street. We have heard everything from “ACCA is losing membership” to “ACCA is suing its chapters” to “ACCA is going bankrupt.” We ask that you answer these rumors with facts and figures. Are any of these rumors accurate?

STALKNECHT: Wow, that’s a lot of inaccuracies to deal with in one question. Let me take them one at a time.

The first one is real easy: ACCA’s membership grew in 2003 for the first time following seven straight years of decline. I know of very few other associations, in any industry, that increased membership at all during this very tough year, but ACCA posted growth of 6 percent.

As for the second one, it’s way off base. The board of directors has tasked me with running ACCA like a business, just like any contractor would — and part of that has involved the securing of our ownership rights to a large amount of intellectual property, be they trademarks or copyrights. There are some local organizations that are not affiliated with ACCA that have been using the ACCA name, and even the ACCA logo. By using the ACCA name, these local organizations have given their members the false impression that they may somehow be affiliated with, or members of, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. We’ve contacted these organizations and told them that they must stop doing this because, under federal law, we’re required to police use of our trademarks. But our affiliated chapters are free to use the ACCA name and logo all they want.

Now for the third one: actual membership is not the only thing that grew during this fiscal year. Our dues revenues were up. Product revenues were up. Sponsorship revenues were up. Every single indicator went up — and each of them had been declining steadily and significantly since the mid-90s. Thanks to the hard work of the members and staff, we’ve been able to turn this ship around. And thanks to the stewardship of our board of directors, we have a healthy reserve fund — so ACCA can afford to invest in making this transformation complete. We’re not going anywhere — except up.

The News: Why would such rumors surface? Do you think such rumors could be traced to chapters that decided against affiliation?

STALKNECHT: ACCA has gone through such fundamental changes over the past three years that it’s to be expected that some feathers will get ruffled. Look, this wasn’t just about hiring a new chief executive or changing a mission statement — our board of directors came up with a plan to essentially uproot the organization and change it completely, from top to bottom. Then they hired me to implement that plan, and that’s what I’ve done.

I’m excited about the success we’ve had. Many other organizations have tried ambitious restructurings like this and , frankly, most of them have failed. ACCA took a big risk and is making it work, and all of our members should feel very proud of that.

As to where to trace rumors — I would never speculate about that. I don’t really listen to them anyway! I’m sure there are a few people who feel wedded to the old way of doing business at ACCA. Eventually they’ll realize what everybody else has already realized — that the new ACCA is here to stay, and that’s a good thing for the contracting industry because we’re better than ever.

The News: How is federation acceptance going? What have been some of the reasons given to ACCA for NOT joining the federation? How do you reply to these people?

STALKNECHT: I’m proud that we now have 50 fully federated state and local chapters. One of the privileges I’ve had over the past two and a half years has been the opportunity to get to know the terrific men and women who run our chapters. Their energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to this industry are inspiring.

When ACCA’s board voted to move to a fully federated, “One ACCA” membership structure, there were a lot of unknowns. And there were a lot of doubts. We opened up the communications with our chapters, and made it a two-way street. We were flexible, we were creative, and we made it work.

I can’t help but think of Betty Kristofferson, the executive director of our chapter in Houston. She was one of the most ardent opponents of federation, claiming it would cost her chapter members. Over the course of a year, she changed her mind as she saw many of the new member services ACCA was rolling out for contractors and the advantages of federation. And since she federated, her chapter’s membership has grown.

Now it’s heartening to see our chapters get more involved in the overall national organization. In fact, they’ve formed their own group, the ACCA Association Executives Council, to foster the sharing of information and best practices between chapter staff and volunteer leaders nationwide.

As to those few chapters who chose not to affiliate, for whatever reason, we absolutely wish them the best. Our door is always open, and we still share many members in common. ACCA will continue to have a strong national presence, in every community of the country, whether we have a state or local affiliate active in that community or not.

The News: Let’s look at the positives, which maybe members are not aware of. Please list the “positives” now regarding ACCA, including any jump in membership, etc.

STALKNECHT: Well, I discussed many of the positives earlier — including our membership and financial growth. But those are really just the end result of a number of positive things we've been able to do for our members.

It all comes down to two things: understanding who we are, and understanding where we want to go.

For the past 40 years, ACCA has been the technical bedrock of the industry. We’re the ones who develop the practical standards and applications contractors use to conduct quality installation and service. We’ve also been the place where contractors come together to discuss best practices and learn from each other. You can look back at the history of this industry and just about every major trend was hatched at an ACCA meeting!

Unfortunately, when I came to ACCA, it was obvious that we had atrophied on those two fundamental parts of our mission. We were living on residuals from old manuals and the CFC certification boom in the 1990s, and contractors had grown disenchanted with the minimal services ACCA was providing. Our members were leaving in droves.

Knowing who we are — the technical solution provider to the industry, and the source for contractor peer collaboration and best practices — we set out toward where we wanted to go. Instead of resting on our technical laurels, we actually expanded our technical services. We now have a professional staff member on hand, for the first time, to answer members’ technical questions and develop new manuals. We’ve begun an ambitious revision schedule for our design manuals to ensure that they are up to date. We're introducing new technical products, and offering more opportunities for contractors to get objective answers to their questions.

On the business side, we recognize that the world is very different now and we needed to adapt in order to deliver useful services to our members. We focused our efforts on the Internet, launching a new Web site that is now one of the most-visited HVACR sites around, with over 1,000 pages of information. We introduced a series of member services called MemberTools, which provide our members with access to everything from consumer brochures to an online pricing calculator to benchmarking surveys. The response has been overwhelming, and we intend to keep “surprising” members with new services and benefits on an ongoing basis.

Most importantly, however, ACCA continues to have a major influence on Capitol Hill representing HVACR contractors. This is the area that separates us from other for-profit companies providing service to contractors. We promote contractor interests before Congress and regulatory agencies. They don’t!

Lobbying for an industry in Washington, D.C. and the statehouses is an expensive, but necessary, task for ACCA. And it pays off hugely for our members. Just this month, we scored a major victory on an issue we’ve been working on for years — allowing contractors to fully depreciate their service vans and light trucks. On average, this means contractors will be pocketing an additional $3,669 for each qualifying vehicle they purchase. [That’s based on a $30,000 vehicle in the 26 percent tax bracket.] That’s a lot more than ACCA dues cost, and no one else in this industry was pushing for it.

The News: Since coming to ACCA, what differences have you experienced in this industry as opposed to the trucking industry? Which industry appears to have the better unification? Why? What does this industry need to make it more “noticeable”? How can your members make this industry more “noticeable”?

STALKNECHT: The similarities between the industries are surprising. Both are dominated by small, family-owned businesses — run by men and women who put their family’s wealth and well-being on the line to carve out a piece of their own American dream. They’re both service industries, customer-driven, and very competitive.

I will go out on a limb and say that the trucking industry has learned one thing better than contractors have so far, and that is the need to be organized on a national level, politically speaking.

If I could send one message to all of the HVACR contracting business owners in the country, it would be this: You’re a lot more powerful than you think you are! There are so many contractors in the country that they represent a grassroots force so powerful that there's little we couldn’t achieve if we tried. It frustrates me sometimes when many contractors either 1) assume that they have no influence in Washington or 2) assume that there’s nothing they want from Washington or 3) assume that their interests are being represented by “others.” Who those others might be is beyond me.

I think this industry is a sleeping giant and doesn't quite realize how much it could really accomplish. This year we have some innovative ideas to demonstrate the value of HVACR contracting — to the general public, but also, to contractors themselves.

Sometimes, to wake a sleeping giant, you have to shake it a little bit. Here’s one way we’re going to shake things up a little this year:

We will be launching a major initiative on Capitol Hill. “American Living: The Campaign for Sustainable Comfort” will be a program designed to promote a five-point legislative program which would save our nation billions of dollars a year in energy costs. These points include tax credits and accelerated depreciation for energy-efficient HVACR equipment; tax credits for consumer “clean and checks” to ensure optimum operation; require whole house energy audits when homes are sold; and a massive public service campaign to promote good HVACR maintenance.

Taken together, these steps could change energy usage in this country in a dramatic way. Heating and cooling systems account for 55 percent of the total energy used in a typical home, but 15 to 30 percent of that energy is wasted every year. While Congress grapples with serious energy challenges, including a natural gas crisis right now, this is the perfect time to emphasize how sensible HVACR practices could reduce our dependency on foreign energy sources at a dramatically low cost.

This campaign will be funded solely by member contributions. What does it really mean to a contractor reading The News? Well, here’s an example of what it could mean. Currently around 9 percent of homes undergo an HVAC replacement each year. If we could just double that to 18 percent of homes, not only would there be a tremendous improvement to energy efficiency, but it would generate enough new revenue to add up to nearly $300,000 for every HVACR contractor in the nation.

Our members and many of our partner and related organizations are going to be hearing a lot more about this campaign soon, but I wanted to let The News know first.

The News: What has been your biggest disappointment to date since taking over ACCA? What has been your greatest accomplishment to date?

STALKNECHT: Well, I’ll start with what I feel has been ACCA’s greatest accomplishments. As I’ve already said, making it through federation successfully is an accomplishment all of our members should be proud of. But there are two other accomplishments I can’t help but mention.

First, the expanded relationships we’ve built with the HVACR manufacturers. Everyone knows that there has always been some tension between contractors and manufacturers. But by the time I came to ACCA, manufacturer CEOs had no interest in ACCA, and didn’t consider the organization very significant. Certainly none of the CEOs had attended one of our meetings in many years.

Now, we’ve got companies like Carrier, York, Trane, and Rheem stepping up to the plate as major sponsors at our conference. Our executive committee and past chairmen spent two days at a leadership forum with people like Tom Huntington from York and Halsey Cook from Carrier — spending many hours engaged in serious conversation on the future of this industry.

Does this sort of thing matter to contractors who read The News? You bet it does. What’s more likely to solve the problems contractors and manufacturers face — a hushed conversation between two contractors complaining about manufacturers in the hallway outside an ACCA meeting or in a local coffee shop? Or an open and frank dialogue between contractors and a manufacturer CEO?

Our current chairman, John Saucier, has made clear that this year he wants ACCA to focus on solving some of the problems that contractors have been talking about for decades. Will we solve all of them this year? No, it’s going to take time. But the way to get the ball moving is through conversation, not complaining.

These relationships have also paid off through a close partnership with our friends at ARI. One example is our “Tomorrow Project,” a joint contractor/manufacturer program that is taking a comprehensive look at the challenges facing HVACR over the next five years and developing solid business plans and suggestions to help contractors ensure their success in a rapidly changing environment.

Second, I have to say that I feel proud of the staff we’ve built at ACCA’s headquarters. We’ve combined the best and brightest from ACCA’s existing staff with some dynamic association professionals who have taken the organization to a level I could hardly imagine when I first came here. I’d put all of our staff members against any other association staff in the country.

As far as greatest disappointment, I have to go back to the earlier question on “notice ability.” I get very excited about this industry and its potential, but there are many contractors who seem to have, well, poor self-esteem. Many contractors fret about their “image problem,” but I think much of it stems from their own perception of themselves. HVACR contractors are essential, they are professional, and they should be very proud of who they are and what they do. If contractors can instill pride in their technicians — and if vocational instructors can impart pride in the importance of HVAC to their students, it will go a long way toward solving any image problem contractors might have with the general public.

Another continuing disappointment is the fact that contractors still insist that ACCA membership is too expensive or an unnecessary expense. How wrong they are! I find that most people who say this haven’t really taken a look at ACCA in years — they think we’re the same old organization they dropped out of years ago. But when you consider how extremely low our dues are, and the large book of value we provide, and then consider how much money we save our members through our advocacy work (like the $3,669 per vehicle I mentioned earlier) — how in the world could you say that a few hundred dollars is too expensive?

And since I spoke earlier about our enhanced manufacturer relationships, I will also throw out one disappointment I’ve had with them. I wish they’d do a better job of encouraging their dealers to become members of ACCA, or any other bona fide trade association, really. The professional development and training offered by membership in ACCA is something that benefits the contractor and the manufacturer.

The News: Do you believe this industry needs as many contractor associations as this industry has? If yes, why? If not, why not?

STALKNECHT: Just like our members, ACCA operates in a competitive environment. There are many bona fide trade associations serving different segments of the contracting industry, and each has its own specific purpose and mission. We work very well and collaboratively with most of these associations.

There are also many other for-profit companies more accurately called “affinity groups” than associations. I am sometimes surprised by how many of them there are! It seems that many of these groups were formed back when there was a perceived void at ACCA in providing meaningful products and services, and many of them do a very good job at serving their limited market segments with targeted operations and marketing materials. Many of them are good members of ACCA, exhibit at our conference, and are staffed by active members of the HVACR community. (None of them have to do the heavy lifting on Capitol Hill that ACCA does, however.)

The marketplace will decide how many of these companies last for the long-term. At ACCA, we will remain focused on developing useful services and resources for contracting businesses while promoting the overall well-being of America’s contractors. Ultimately, unlike many of these companies, our only product is a profitable HVACR industry.

The News: What are your immediate concerns regarding ACCA and its members? What is the biggest hurdle for contractors in the not-so-distant future?

STALKNECHT: The biggest hurdle for our members, I think, continues to be ensuring healthy profitability. Many contractors have a good understanding of the technical aspect of this industry, but limited understanding of business pricing or operations. In many parts of the country, any technician can call himself a contractor and start performing work, often at rates that can't realistically turn a profit. It has a ripple effect through the entire industry.

This is an issue that we are going to have to come to terms with. Does it mean creating stricter licensing laws around the country? Or instituting better continuing education requirements for contractors — maybe even including business education requirements as well as technical? Should something be done on the national level or state-by-state? I don’t know. But it’s a dialogue we need to have in this industry.

This issue also has an impact on another vital concern — NATE certification. Some contractors actually admit to being overly cautious about training and certification for their technicians because they are afraid that those technicians will turn around and become competitors. Yet nothing is more important to the future of this industry than the acceptance of an industry-wide, national certification program to instill confidence in consumers. We must find ways to help more contractors overcome their caution and embrace NATE certification.

And finally, independent contractors are great because they really are such independent businesspeople. But the really great ones realize that the best way to grow and prosper is to associate yourself with the best contractors around the country. There are still a lot of contractors who have a parochial, go-it-alone sort of mentality that forces them to limit themselves to looking only at their immediate surroundings. They’re not willing to take the time to learn from other contractors, particularly contractors from other parts of the country. I think this “tunnel vision” thinking is changing, but it needs to change more quickly if these contractors are to survive.

The News: What are some of the programs ACCA is currently working on to help its members? What have contractors been asking for from the association? Do you believe all of the contractors’ requests have been met? What else needs to be done?

STALKNECHT: Earlier I talked at length about many of the member programs we’ve added -- from enhanced technical services to management resources. We’ve been surveying and talking with our members constantly for the last two years; they tell us they want solid, objective technical advice, and they want help in running their businesses. Many contractors are former technicians themselves who feel they need an additional boost to market and promote their services competitively. So we try to straddle that divide — I like to call them the “Toolbox” and the “Briefcase” — and help our members run profitable, quality businesses.

Have all of our members’ requests been met? I hope not. We’ve turned ACCA into a constantly evolving organization. We’re continually developing, testing, and launching new products and services. As long as I’m at ACCA, we will never look at our member benefits package and say, “Well, that looks good. That’s it.” We will always be adding, changing, and sometimes eliminating programs that no longer meet a need. And we will take creative risks, to push the envelope and try to expand the horizon for our industry.

And another thing we will continue to develop and build up is the ACCA Conference & Indoor Air Expo. We were very gratified at the success of last year’s conference, with record attendance and such an overwhelmingly positive response. Its success has ensured that ACCA will remain committed to putting on a first-class conference and expo for many years to come, because we're only going to keep building it. Once again, in 2004 we will have expanded educational offerings, with workshop tracks in commercial contracting, residential contracting, marketing, legal issues, and a special series of “Best Practices” panels featuring contractors. The 2004 ACCA Conference, which will be held in New Orleans in February, will feature the most comprehensive training programs ever offered in one place in the history of this industry. We’ll be announcing a lot more on this event soon.

The News: What does ACCA offer that no other contractor association can match? How is ACCA “better than the rest”?

STALKNECHT: ACCA is the only HVACR contractor association that truly represents the industry across all of its interests. Our members are union, non-union, commercial, residential, industrial. Our members perform IAQ inspections, mold remediation, and manage service agreements. Our members install security and automated building systems, zoning systems, chillers, and refrigeration systems. Our members run the gamut from one-person shops to large companies with more than 1,000 employees.

As I said before, our only real product is a profitable HVACR industry. It does not matter your segment or your size, there are services and benefits designed to help you. And most importantly, ACCA helps contractors learn from each other — no other organization matches the depth and breadth of our membership. Just reading some of the e-mails that come through our member - discussion lists, it’s amazing how much contractors are able to teach each other.

In addition to all of the tangible products, services, and information we provide, ACCA does one more thing very well — advocacy. Whether it’s advocacy before Congress or regulatory agencies, or before the public, ACCA is not about selling books or advertising space. We’re about the success of our entire industry. We think HVACR contractors are pretty special, and we want the whole world to know it.

Publication date: 08/04/2003

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