AirTime 500 Home Services Hall of Fame award winners (from left) Jim Cooper of Service Champions Southern California, Ray Diaz and Kevin Comerford of Service Champions Northern California, Leland Smith of Service Champions Southern California, Will Hawkins of Will Fix It, Geno Gruber of Gallagher’s Heating & Air, Wesley Holm of Thompson Plumbing, Heating, & Cooling, and Tim Gallagher of Gallagher’s Heating & Air.

Nearly 400 contractors gathered in Los Angeles recently for the latest AirTime 500 Expo, which centered on the theme “Dare to Deviate.”

Terry Nicholson, president of AirTime 500, led off the expo’s featured presentation and said, “It’s not enough to be memorable. You have to be unforgettable.” Nicholson explained that the best way to make your company unforgettable is to distinguish yourself from competitors. Those with the willingness to dare to deviate are the ones that stand out in the minds of consumers.

“If a contractor is not achieving the level of success they desire, they’ve probably failed to deviate,” Nicholson said. He cited examples of those who have been successful at deviating from the norm. For example, Bill Veeck, the legendary owner of the Chicago White Sox who gave Harry Caray his first shot at singing “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” and is famous for his gimmicks and promotions like his “exploding scoreboard” and “Disco Demolition Night.”

According to Nicholson, contractors have three ways to deviate:

  • Their people

  • Their company

  • Their marketing

  • He noted employees can either be a competitive advantage or a competitive disadvantage, but they are a contractor’s most powerful advantage. For example, salespeople who dare to deviate are rewarded with success by being different in the home. Nicholson cited his own personal example and entertained the crowd with one of the magic tricks he used to perform in the home during his own sales presentations.

    He took AirTime members through a five-step procedure to develop their own company niche they can utilize to gain a competitive advantage by “selling where they ain’t.”

    His examples supported reduced competition and the ability to set one’s own price. For example, decades ago, Nicholson noted that nobody would have thought people would be willing to pay $5 for coffee, but in the hotel’s lobby, where the expo took place, is a Starbuck’s where the line was 30 contractors deep during the morning break. Starbuck’s has been able to set their own price by breaking in and selling where others “ain’t.”

    The key is that competitive advantage that others aren’t using. “If you don’t have a marketable competitive advantage,” Nicholson said, “dare to deviate and create your own!”

    AirTime members shared what they’re doing to differentiate themselves in their market. One member, Steve Moon, owner of Moon Services in Elkton, Md., shared how he uses his “Moon Man” character to visit various events and spread his company’s name.

    AirTime 500 President Terry Nicholson speaks to more than 400 attendees on being able to “Dare to Deviate” at the latest expo in Los Angeles.


    From the focus of the company, Nicholson turned his sights on marketing. He said that when contractors find the right combination of features and benefits that differentiate their company, they should tell the world. Contractors need to carve out a niche big enough to catch a large population but narrow enough to avoid duplication.

    He noted the problem is most companies, especially in the HVAC industry, are so similar that the only difference is their marketing. For that reason, the only competitive advantage a contractor can turn into instant profits is a marketable one.

    A prime example is how Schlitz Beer went from No. 5 to No. 1 many years ago when advertising guru Claude Hopkins explained the beer processing method Schlitz used. Even though it was the same as everyone else, Hopkins was the first to tell the story.

    Nicholson said the dominant contractor is the one who is the first to tell the story that the market finds appealing. He introduced a turnkey advertising program including direct mail, postcards, newspaper ads, radio, and other components that contractors can use to be the first to tell the story about a great HVAC opportunity.

    Kevin Comerford of Service Champions (middle with microphone) presents an award to one of his service technicians, Chris Donzelli (left) who generated over $2 million in sales last year.


    To help contractors handle all the extra work coming their way, Nicholson addressed technician labor shortage.

    He said contractors have two options on hiring. They can hire technicians or nontechnicians, but in an industry with a labor shortage, “you’d have to wonder why a good technician would be unemployed.”

    Nicholson addressed that concern with a humorous “he said/he said” scenario between technicians and owners. While a technician might say, “There wasn’t enough work to keep me busy,” the previous employer would explain, “He could never get out of bed.”

    Nicholson said owners fall into desperate contracting. “We put on rose-colored glasses about a candidate because we’re in such desperate need of help that we don’t want to verify what the technician says,” he said. “We believe the technician because we assume we’re either a better manager or a better company.

    “We hire them on the spot, and when we do, we’re caught in the retread technician trap. When we see the bad habits, we release that technician, and we’ve fallen right into the ‘catch and release’ labor pool. We catch a retread technician and then release him back into the pool.”

    He noted that the technician labor pool is very small and shallow today, and the chances of finding a successful technician there are very slim. To solve the problem, Nicholson suggested contractors look in the larger ocean of honest, drug-free, loyal people with great attitudes outside the industry.

    Gary Weeks (right) of Weeks Service Co., one of The NEWS’ 2006 “Best Contractors to Work For” winners and a member of the Residential All-Stars panel.


    The Sept. 11, 2006, issue ofThe NEWSfeatured the top 22 residential replacement companies in North America. Of those 22, Nicholson noted that nine contractors are AirTime 500 members. Those All-Stars shared their insights and wisdom on how they became dominant replacement companies in a special panel discussion at the expo.

    The discussion brought to light the various ways to succeed in the HVAC industry. For instance, Troy Rainsberg of Horizon Services in Wilmington, Del., said his company has grown from $1.3 million in revenue 11 years ago to finishing last year at over $23 million in revenue, relying solely on salespeople for their replacement sales. Contrast that with Gary Weeks of Weeks Service Co., League City, Texas, who relies on his technicians for sales. And there are others who use a combination of both.

    Each unanimously agreed that it’s not your method of operation but your execution of that method that will determine your success.

    Regarding marketing, All-Star Leland Smith of Service Champions in Yorba Linda, Calif., said, “I am the most boring marketer you’ll ever see.” Smith started his business in March of 2000 and just completed 2006 with over $12 million in revenue. To do it, he used the same two marketing pieces John Young introduced over 15 years ago. He said he simply executes on his plan and does it extremely well.

    Contrast that with Brett Hobson of Comfort Experts in Weatherford, Texas, who always experiments with marketing and tries new pieces. He said that often the pieces he expects to get results get no response while the others he is nearly embarrassed to mail out get the best results. Hobson insists that it’s always best to test your marketing.

    Nicholson said, “It’s an honor to be able to serve the most successful contractors in the industry. Success Group International is the world’s largest and foremost success school for contractors, and part of the reason why is the outstanding members on our brain-trust team such as these All-Stars. With their help, we continue to share ideas on maintaining a competitive advantage and create cutting-edge information that keeps them leading the field.”

    The next AirTime 500 Expo will be held in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 24-28. For more information on the expo or on AirTime 500, call 800-505-8885 or visit

    Publication date:04/16/2007