CHANTILLY, Va. - Jim Whitescarver, the president of Commercial Express HVAC Inc., cares about his employees so much, he made it one of the foundations of his new business roughly six and a half years ago. “At that point, I decided I wanted to do things a little differently,” he said.
“My number one goal was to attract and retain the best employees - I wanted to become the employer of choice. I wanted to brand ourselves as the guy to work for with the best career path.” That’s why this company was chosen as The NEWS’ Best Contractor to Work For in the East region.
It’s easy to state such goals, but how to achieve them? It may be easier than a lot of contractors think. “It’s really a matter of caring for the employees, listening to the employees,” Whitescarver said.
“We had nothing but senior-level techs the first couple of years,” said the predominantly commercial contractor. Customers, many of whom are related to government or other high-security businesses, specifically rely on the contractor to keep their systems up.
“We couldn’t afford callbacks,” Whitescarver said. “We had to brand ourselves as a quality, professional service company. We pulled that off at an early stage.”
The customer base includes mission-critical clients that require exceptionally fast response time. “We have over 500 contract customers; this creates a lot of job security,” he said. “We match the workload with field staff, along with an exceptional sales staff and design-build team.”
There is no Yellow Pages ad and no direct marketing, “just word of mouth,” Whitescarver said.
There’s a heavy pride factor. “It’s all about your brand,” he said. “Image is very important. You never get a second chance for a first impression.” That ranges from impressing employees in the company, to customers, to vendors. “We treat our vendors as if they’re front-line customers,” and this in itself helps the company get more qualified techs. “They often get asked who is the best contractor to work for.”
“I’ve worked for a number of other HVAC firms in my career over the past 20 years, and it’s rare to find a company that is truly concerned and cares what their employees think and that their employees are happy to work here,” said Tim “Number One” Shufran, commercial service supervisor/senior service tech and the company’s first employee. “I certainly appreciate working for this company and my wife and children appreciate Jim’s generosity as well.
“It’s not just me,” he continued. “I know there are many of my fellow co-workers who feel the same way.”
“I am coming up on three years with the company in April,” said Lee Selph senior project manager in all design-build, plan-spec, and replacement installations. What does he think is so special about this company? “There’s the Jim factor,” he said. “He’s a very positive-energy-type guy. It rung the right bell for me,” he added. “I couldn’t find a more positive environment to apply my skills.
“I’ve had 30 years in the industry, and I’ve seen some ups and downs - the full spectrum,” he said. “This is by far on the extreme positive end of the spectrum. Jim is a great enabler, to give you the means by which you do your best. It maximizes peoples’ talents.”
He’s also very accessible. “We have a very open door,” Whitescarver said. “I had a reputation at a previous company: People thought I had too much of an open door. But if you can listen to people’s concerns and act upon them, they will trust you.”
Whitescarver himself attributes the company’s success to a style of teamwork and leadership where “everybody becomes accountable for themselves. I’ve managed to get a management team that excels in teamwork and leadership. When we have the meetings, anybody can lead. You simply lead by example, understand the company values, and raise the bar for everybody.”
TECH IMPRESSIONSKeeping a positive attitude also means encouraging techs to share their time and talents with each other - and not hiring techs who don’t play well with others. The company also rotates an on-call schedule that isn’t too taxing (once every four months).
“We all know that this business can be grueling and difficult at certain times of the year, yet I have never found myself being overworked or taken advantage of, even when we are in our busiest season,” said Shufran. “We have a lot of camaraderie with the field technicians, we all will look out for each other. If someone needs additional help, you can always count on a fellow co-worker to assist them.”
“Teamwork is our No. 1 company value,” said Whitescarver. “Everybody can rely on one another; nobody’s left hanging. Our guys are on call once every four months, but they are not left without support.” This inevitably is a huge benefit for those time-sensitive customers.
“We’re almost a 100 percent referral business at this point,” Whitescarver said. “That’s a lot of happy customers. The technicians see it. It comes back to pride.”
“When situations arise, you’ve got to support everyone deeply,” Whitescarver said.
“If somebody needs to stay late, there’s never a shortage of people willing to help,” said service technician Charlie Hautze.
“We all know that the customer comes first. We all call each other, there’s a lot of good mentors here, and everybody’s willing to help everybody out.”
To achieve this kind of teamwork, there are strict hiring standards. “He (Whitescarver) just doesn’t hire any old body,” said Hautze. “He hires people he thinks will work in the team atmosphere.”
There is plenty of recognition for a job well done, and customer praise invariably reaches technicians’ ears. “If I have a customer that calls in and says ‘Charlie did a good job,’ they [Whitescarver and commercial service manager Billy Morgan] are both really good at telling me about it. If we do good, like in the middle of the summer, we might get a gift card to the Olive Garden. Those little things, from my perspective, have a lot of weight. At least I’m not doing it for someone who doesn’t appreciate it.”
On a personal level, “Jim knows what your wife’s and kids’ names are, and he always asks about them. It makes you feel good.”
There are regular meetings, training, and fun outings that we at The NEWS have almost come to expect from our Best Contractor finalists. “The company plans outings twice a year at the Outer Banks in Corolla, N.C.,” said Shufran. “We’ll go on deep-sea fishing trips out of Cape Hatteras. The company has gone above and beyond the average company in order to take care of its employees. Jim Whitescarver is a big reason for its success.”
Perhaps more important to technicians, however, are the opportunities for professional growth and advancement the company provides.
Before coming to Commercial Express, “I was doing HVAC work for different residential companies,” Hautze said. “I wanted to get into the more commercial work; I wasn’t feeling very challenged with the residential. There’s definitely a lot more avenues for advancement in commercial.
“Jim was the first one I called; we sat down and had a two-hour interview. It’s the best move I have made in my career.”
The technical challenges have been “most satisfying,” Hautze said.
RETENTION STRATEGIES“In terms of retention, I’d like to think that giving them future opportunity, they trust management and feel like you care about them and their family, there’s a bond there,” said Whitescarver. “We want their families to feel like we’re there for them.”
“Not everybody’s a good fit for this company,” said Shufran. “We expect people to step up and own this position, and not micromanage. Employees don’t necessarily work out here. We know that our customers are the most important thing to us, as well as the people working for us. There’s more of a relationship-building mentality long term, than a ‘take-the-money-and-run’ mentality.”
Although the company does not advertise its job openings, it does partner with trade schools, and uses mentoring and internship programs. “We have obtained numerous employees through leads from our parts vendors and/or supply houses,” said Shufran.
“I know we pay our bills to the vendors early to take advantage of pay-early discounts. This, in-turn, has helped our company gain respect with our vendors and has led to strong relationship building; hence, they refer to our company with confidence to prospective employees.
“Also, we have had several employees obtained through recruitment from our own technicians and staff,” he said.
“The company pays a $500 incentive bonus for referring an experienced lead technician. We also have an apprenticeship program for training inexperienced individuals. Through the local community college, we have several employees taking HVAC courses they attend after hours, on their own time (the company pays the course fees). We also do in-house training every Thursday evening, with dinner provided for any employees who would like to attend.”
Pay increases may be given during an employee’s annual review, or when management deems it worthy. There also are rewards for earning certifications. “When individuals achieve milestones in their education - e.g., CFC Universal License Certification that allows them to work on refrigeration systems - they are given a pay increase,” explained Shufran. “The same holds true for passing a course at school (community college) with a high score.”
To avoid technician burnout during the busy season, the company applies rotating schedules, lunches or breakfasts for staff, and dinner for the technician and a guest (offsite).
Keeping customers happy means techs keep working, even in a down economy. This is mission critical for the contractor.
“The guys need and expect job security,” Whitescarver said. “To become the best, you have to employ the best. You’re selling forward on your vision.”
“The company actually has provided year-round work due to the amount of routine maintenance agreements we have with important and national clients,” said Shufran. “We perform regular preventive maintenance every three months on most of our clients’ HVAC equipment and some clients on a monthly basis. These contracts keep us busy when many companies are slow.”
Just The Facts: Best Contractor To Work ForCONTRACTOR: Commercial Express HVAC Inc.
OWNER: Jim Whitescarver
LOCATION: Chantilly, Va.
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 6.5
BULK OF MARKET: Commercial
TOTAL SALES FOR 2008: $8 million
TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 40 plus
TOTAL SERVICE TECHS AND INSTALLERS: 29
AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 41-plus
BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: 100-percent paid short- and long-term disability, life insurance plan equal to one year’s salary; biannual fishing trips, annual holiday party for employee and spouse, anniversary and birthday $100; 401(k) retirement plan matching the employee’s contribution (up to 4 percent of their payroll deduction).
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONS AND CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERSHIP: Clockwork Home Services, ACCA
THE NEWS SELECTED THE CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: It recognizes the importance of strong staff support to increasing customer satisfaction. Repeat business and referrals, in turn, keep employees working steadily, which further attracts new technical talent. The company has found a tech-friendly way to keep feeding its success.
Publication date: 01/26/2009