CLEVELAND - Attendees to one of the many seminars at the recent Affordable Comfort Institute (ACI) Home Performance Conference in Cleveland got an earful on the subject of retaining and keeping employees happy. The seminar was titled “Profitability & Productive Employees: Keys to a Successful Contracting Business.” Speakers included Skye Dunning, founder of Building Performance Specialists (BPS) of Wilmington, N.C., Greg McAfee, owner of McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning, Kettering, Ohio, and John R. Hall, business editor forThe NEWS.

Business owners in attendance were treated to a variety of different reasons why employees are so vital to the success of a business, perhaps even more important than customers.

Discussing employee retention at the ACI Home Performance Conference were (from left) John R. Hall of The NEWS, Skye Dunning of Building Performance Specialists, and Greg McAfee of McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning.


Dunning began his presentation by explaining his business. He is an inspector and a certified energy rater. He joked about the difference between his business goals and those of his employees. “Fixing houses is a lot easier compared to managing employees,” he said.

Dunning believes that employees come first - always. “The company exists for the people,” he said. “By putting employees first, I know that the customer will always be treated well.

“Every opportunity should be taken to align the employee’s interest with the company’s interest.”

Dunning added that the best approach to dealing with employee conflicts or problems is to get to the root of the action in order to avoid repeating it in the future. “Change the system so they no longer have the motivation to repeat the action,” he said. “Systems should always be changing, especially for a company that is growing.

“It may take time to accomplish this goal, but the result is a team of happy, motivated employees.”

Another key to keeping employees motivated is to train them to do other people’s jobs; to keep them interested in how the company works from another employee’s perspective. Dunning thinks that every company should have a worker who knows every task, but is not necessarily an expert at any task. “The key here is also to have flexible schedules because employees have overlapping abilities,” he added.

Having employees involved in a number of different tasks also lays the groundwork for them to become more involved in how a business operates, of which Dunning is very supportive. “Most businesses keep employees outside and only allow them to look through a tinted glass window to the inside,” he said.

Dunning wants his employees to know how the business operates so they can understand what it takes to make a profit. Part of that is not paying his employees for nonbillable work, which teaches them a valuable lesson in profitability. “We use a simple spreadsheet to determine what percentage each employee gets for each job, including any bonus pay,” he said. “I want to pay out bonuses on every job because that means we are profitable.”

Dunning talked with seminar attendees about what he does to keep employees happy.


McAfee, a 2006NEWS’“Best Contractor to Work For,” themed his speech around getting employees out of their comfort zone and used an analogy to the famous book,Who Moved My Cheese?He held up a thermostat and asked the audience “Who moved my thermostat?”

“I want to challenge employees to get out of their comfort zone,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why our company has grown steadily and increased both gross profit and sales every year,” he said.

McAfee then came up with a bit of a tongue twister. “If you try to do what you do better than anyone else, you will be very busy doing what you do best,” he said. “You should evolve and change, otherwise you will die.”

He noted it is possible to change your thinking, adding that attitude is important and changeable. “Lose your ego, too,” he said. “It doesn’t get you anywhere. Be a sponge and learn as much as you can from other people. Your company is never too small or too large to start something new or to experiment.”

McAfee continued on his theme of challenging people to be different, including hiring people who are different. “You will never be successful if you hire ‘yes’ people,” he said. “Don’t surround yourself with people who only hold you accountable and who are afraid to be critical of you.”

One thing McAfee said that should remain constant is the level of professionalism in a business. “What does your office look like?” he asked. “Is it clean and organized? It should be because it shows professionalism. Our employees see that we care enough about our office and they in turn, take care of themselves and their trucks. Image is very important. If our job is to clean our customers’ air, then we have to be clean in our appearance. Everything matters.”

A lot of McAfee’s presentation included hand props. One was a small model airplane that he flew around the room. The plane represented flying above the clouds and aiming high - the goal of any successful company. He also showed a wooden spoon and asked, “Do you want to be known as the old wood spoon or the new silver spoon? You have to decide which one you want to be.”

McAfee said that each company should have its own unique identity. His company’s is the “McAfee Way.” This is what makes his company unique.

What also makes his company unique is the open communication between himself and his employees. “The best kind of communication is still the one-on-one, face-to-face talk,” he said. “And not an e-mail or text message.”

Finally, McAfee said that in order to get quality, you have to pay for it. “Hire quality people and pay them well,” he said. “They will eventually pay off in the long haul, but not for the short run.”

McAfee used some of his own experiences to talk about employee retention.


Hall, like Dunning and McAfee, said employees should be involved in how a business is run. The more they know about the everyday ins and outs, the more respect they will have for the business and the business owner. He used the continuing saga of contractor Terry Boone as his example.

Boone is a Virginia HVAC contractor who has struggled with success, but has received a lot of guidance in running his business from a number of industry professionals. “There are key points for employees to know about running a business,” he said. Some of these points include understanding cash flow, knowing how to correctly price a job, developing a niche, finding the right people, targeting the market, and knowing the competition.

“The key to being successful is knowing your costs and being able to manage them,” Hall said. “It comes down to being able to price a job correctly so there is enough left over to pay the bills and make a good profit. With a good profit, you can afford to hire good people and pay them well.”

For any business to remain in business, it is important to have a steady cash flow. Hall pointed out that Boone has struggled with this concept, and it has hurt his growth. Employees should be educated on which jobs create cash flow and which jobs do not. In Boone’s case, a steady diet of service calls is the lifeblood of the business, not the $15,000 retrofits or replacement work that looks good on paper but takes a while to pay out.

One of Hall’s objectives was to also show that successful business owners are those who spend more time working on the business instead of in the business. It is up to employees to help alleviate the workload for the boss.

“If employees understood what it takes to run a business, they are in a better position to help the owner run the business,” he said. “Open up the books and show them your costs. You don’t have to tell them everything, but make them feel like they are part of the business.

“That way, you are making them part of the success, too.”

E-mail for a copy of Hall’s presentation titled “What Employees Should Know About Running a Business.”

Publication date:05/21/2007