'Old Gun' HVAC Techs Talk About the Business
Last year The NEWS ran a series of articles on the “Young Guns of HVAC.” It was about young business owners who were making an impact on the trade.
This time around we are talking with the “old guns” - service techs that have made an impact on the trade starting long before any of the young guns were born. This is the story of three people who collectively total 267 years of age with 177 years of experience in HVAC.
Their love for the trade and pride in what they do is a key factor in why they are still working well beyond the traditional retirement age.
91 IS JUST A NUMBERHenry Schmick can do almost anything. That’s what he says and few folks around his community of Greeley, Colo., will disagree with that statement. That’s because Schmick has been fixing furnaces and plumbing fixtures for 58 years and still plans to continue working even though he is 91. That’s right - Schmick is 91 years old and still servicing and repairing heating and plumbing equipment. It is in his blood and has been for a long time.
“I like meeting people and talking to them - they talk back,” Schmick said. “That is one of the best parts of the job.” Most of the folks who talk back have known him for years. They know that when they need something fixed, Schmick will answer the call. The self-employed mechanic doesn’t have to advertise. People know him and his reputation.
A lot of them probably would pay Schmick any price because they know he is dependable and experienced. He has been working in the trade since 1950, plenty of time to gain a lot of experience. “Back then I was charging $2 an hour which was pretty good,” he said. “I think I charge a good price. I am not out to get anybody like the plumbers used to do. Sometimes I work for free.”
Schmick said he enjoys what he does and doesn’t necessarily do it for the money. Although his wife of 56 years, Rita, has something to say about that. “He likes to have a little gambling money, too.”
Schmick learned the fundamentals of plumbing and sharpened them when he first went to work for local contractor Anderson & Giauque. He later worked for the longest stretch at Greeley Plumbing. He said some of his early work included new houses and commercial work, i.e., a hospital and apartment building. He noticed that “a lot of guys didn’t want to do repair work so I took it on.”
Schmick works mostly on residential projects now, but still insists that what he does is pretty easy. “All you need is a can of glue and a song and you are a plumber,” he joked. “It was hard when I started, but nowadays plastic parts aren’t too hard to work with. And fixing furnaces is simple, usually fixing a motor.”
He is his own boss and enjoys it. He said that people no longer call him at 2 a.m. for service and he can handle several jobs a week, such as repairing a boiler, installing a Jacuzzi, or hooking up a toilet. He calls some of it “piddly stuff.”
When Schmick is not working he enjoys riding his three-wheel motorcycle. Why three wheels? “It doesn’t fall over, which is very important to an old person,” he said.
When will Schmick put down the tools and ride his three-wheeler off into the sunset? “I will never stop working,” he said.
88-YEAR-OLD JUNIORSLike Schmick, George Jennison didn’t envision a career as an HVACR technician when he was young. The 88-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., grew up in the small town of Beloit, Kan., and envisioned the life of an electrician. That is, until he met his wife’s father. “I’ve been in the HVACR business since 1952 and it seems that everything I have done in my life has been serendipity,” Jennison said.
“I had very little experience in HVACR. My background was in electronics. I was actually heading for a job in electronics when I visited with my wife’s parents and that changed my direction. Her father was already working in the trade and I eventually opened up shop with my brother-in-law. I also worked as an inspector in a refrigerator plant on the assembly line in Kansas City.”
Jennison moved to Virginia Beach and started looking for some part-time work. He got an offer to work as an HVACR technician for Commonwealth Heating & Cooling and never looked back. That was 1969 and today, 39 years later, he still works for Commonwealth.
Jennison started out at $5 an hour back then, which was pretty good pay, but he moved into a salaried position soon after that. Most of his training came through classes offered by the local suppliers or schools.
Why has he stuck with one career for so long? “I really like this work – I wouldn’t know what else to do,” he said. “I could retire but then what would I do? I’ve always had freedom to take time off if I needed. As long as the boss provides me with something to do, I will work.
“The physical part doesn’t get to me. Some people get tired crawling under houses and into attics, but I don’t mind it at all. I’m in good enough condition to still do this type of work. I like finding a problem that is difficult and enjoy the challenge of fixing the problem.”
Jennison said it was no problem for him to keep up with changing technology, but he is puzzled as to why the changing workforce has not produced more people who want to enter the HVACR trade. “I don’t know why young people don’t want to work in this trade,” he said. “I guess they don’t want to be known as HVACR technicians - and I don’t understand that. It is a tough field, but it is a great way to go.”
Jennison said he would do this for as long as he can and is able to. “I’ve never had any plans to retire,” he said. “I don’t have hobbies other than yard work and tending to flowerbeds.” Jennison has been married to Anna for 60 years and they have two boys that have followed him into the business, including one he works with. He also works with his grandson, too. “I’m not sure what it is, it must be in my DNA,” Jennison said.
“I worked for another heating company for a short while and decided to start my own company,” he said. He started with three other partners, but one died at a young age and the other two eventually lost interest. He has been a one-man show at Regal Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. for the past 40 years.
“I have enjoyed working by myself, and it still is a happy occasion,” Creasy said. “I do mostly service work. At the beginning, I worked with very huge boilers. It was hard work and I still do a lot of boiler work. Today it is mainly residential. I’m limited by the weight factor so I have to watch what I do because of my age.”
Creasy said one of the reasons he likes HVACR work so much is that he enjoys being a problem solver. “Everything in this business is a new adventure,” he said. “You also have the chance to solve a problem, have the right answers, and help other people out.”
Part of helping out is by offering superior customer service, which Creasy has specialized in since 1945. “We were very clean back when we started,” he said.
“We cleaned the floor below a burner better than what it was before we came in. We didn’t charge extra for cleaning up and people have always been happy with that. We absolutely do that today, too.”
Creasy also believes in keeping up with the changes in modern technology, while still keeping an eye on what his customers want. “You have to stay with it and go to classes or you would be lost,” he said. “I’ve been on calls when another company misdiagnosed a problem. For example, I went on a call where a company said the boiler was no good. It was no good from an efficiency point of view, but I was able to repair the boiler and the people were so appreciative. They have called me since then for more work, too.”
Does this type of customer service - or any service - transcend into the mindset of today’s workers? Not according to Creasy. He said young people are looking for something else to do and wouldn’t recognize the opportunities that go with working in a mechanical trade.
“Younger people don’t have the enthusiasm for the trade,” he said. “They don’t go out of their way to learn anything new - they only do what they think they have to do. Children graduate today and really don’t show enthusiasm. They don’t want to get dirty and are always looking for something else to do. They lose interest after a short while.”
At least the customers never lose interest in good service. Creasy said they may be more demanding today but he doesn’t mind it at all. “Back in my time when we shifted from coal and stokers, people complained about the constant heat,” he said. “The cast iron furnaces didn’t cool down. Now people complain because they lose heat automatically.”
Creasy doesn’t have to advertise anymore. He knows his customers and has all of the work he needs. His customers know that he takes two weeks off in the spring and fall to vacation at his spot on the Atlantic Ocean. And he deserves it. Anyone who has been in the HVACR business for 64 years should get a little time off now and then.
Publication date: 04/07/2008