From hero to hack, the HVACR industry and its customers hold varying opinions about the one-man shop. Some find these business entities to be trustworthy necessities while others consider them as black marks on the trade’s reputation. Find the balance in between and the industry just may have found where the one-man shop fits.
Enter Scott Zalucha who is president of Precision Comfort Heating & Cooling; a one-man shop based in Warren, Mich. He is committed to the trade, his business, and doing a better job than anyone else. Holding multiple certifications, including North American Technician Excellence (NATE), Zalucha has been in HVACR since 1988. He began his own start-up business in 2004.
“I got tired of other people calling the shots,” he explained. “The long hours are difficult, but the growth has been good. I feel like I am building a great company.”
Despite his success, there are challenges and limitations that Zalucha and every other one-man shop must deal with in day-to-day business. Arguably, this is true for every size contractor, but it still doesn’t answer the question, “Is there room in the HVACR industry for the one-man shop?” Talking to other contractors from various sizes of business, the answer wasn’t as clear cut as expected.
YES AND NO“There is always room for the one-man shop in the HVACR industry,” said Aaron York Sr., founder of Aaron York’s Quality Air in Indianapolis. “But there is never room for the one-man rip-off artist.”
That is a consensus among customers and contractors alike. Reputable one-man shops and larger contracting companies agree; fly-by-night operations aren’t acceptable. What they often don’t agree on is the role that the one-man shop should play or if they are capable of keeping up with demand.
Drew Cameron, owner and president of HVAC Sellutions, a consulting firm, feels the one-man business is only meant to play the service and maintenance role.
“I think they can continue to facilitate a service and maintenance role, but their ability to do installations properly and completely with necessary proper duct and equipment sizing, duct cleaning, duct sealing, duct modifications, and other whole house solutions are lacking, as are their skills to be able to properly educate homeowners on the virtues of energy management, IAQ, and whole house performance along with more advanced solar, wind, and geothermal options.”
“The small contractor, in a lot of cases, is the owner of a job and not a business.”
Beyond the one-man shop’s role, questions about meeting customer demand need to be answered. Karl Roth Jr., CEO of A.N. Roth Co. LLC, in Louisville, Ky., doesn’t think that one person can deliver the level of customer service that today’s customers require.
“I am finding that those who try become burned out after a couple of years,” he said. “They may have less employee problems, but they are always on call.”
Despite the increased demand, David Hutchins, president and owner of Bay Area A/C in Crystal River and New Port Richey, Fla., pointed out that there are many new tools that make it possible for the one-man shop to do more now than in years past.
“There is so much automated in the industry, parts ordering, manuals on the Internet, etc. A one-man shop can accomplish so much more,” he said. “The small shop will always have personal connections that will support them, their family, and maximize their profits. They can choose to grow, but it isn’t required. Owners that started as a one-man shop need to respect that decision when it’s made by one of their co-workers.”
SMALL SHOP TRADEOFFSAs with every size company, there are tradeoffs. Where the good outweighs the bad often depends on circumstances and personal preference. According to York Sr., some customers prefer to work with small one-man shops.
“Their clientele is often a special breed which cherishes their ability to develop and maintain a personal one-on-one relationship with the company owner,” he said. “They must be, and generally are, willing to wait until their man can get to them even if they suffer some inconvenience.”
Zalucha acknowledged that he cannot get to everybody right when they call.
“Sometimes my customers mind waiting, but on a whole, they don’t mind waiting as long as I get to them relatively quickly,” he explained. “I have lost business in the busy times because of this, but my commercial contract customers are a priority in my business. If I can’t get to a job, I am honest with the customer. It helps me retain them as a future customer, even when I am unable to fulfill their immediate need.”
One of the biggest issues between the one-man shop and larger contractors is pricing. With low overhead and no staff to pay, it is not uncommon for the smaller contractor to sell jobs at a lower price and yet still make a profit. These actions can create steep competition for the larger contractor whose large overhead and staff will not always allow them to compete at those price levels.
“We would be foolish to say they don’t affect our business today,” said Taylor. “They are setting a false expectation with consumers by working on price only in the commodities marketplace.”
According to Taylor, the fallout of this trend forces his company to spend more time and dollars educating customers on what truly is in their best interest.
US VERSUS THEMThe legitimacy of the one-man shop debate has been going on for years. At times battle lines have been drawn and what began as a friendly conversation ends in an Us versus Them grudge match that leaves the smaller companies looking like a bunch of misfit con artists and the larger companies looking like puppy-kicking aristocrats.
“There seems to be an impression that there is something wrong with us because we are large,” said George “Butch” Welsch, president of Welsch Heating & Cooling Co. in St. Louis. “I see the important thing for a larger company is to not act like a larger company. Even though we have 5,000 maintenance agreement customers, we still must treat each of them as we would if they were our only customer.”
David Mason, owner and operator of his one-man shop in Michigan’s thumb area, agrees. He acknowledged that there is a place in the industry for the larger contractors and that these companies house many talented people.
“However, I feel their roles must change to meet the evolving aspects of this industry,” he said. “By this, I mean they will have to go back to offering customers the feeling of being handled by the small shop that knows them personally and will handle them accordingly.”
At the end of the day, most of this debate comes down to two things, customer service and comfort. Those that supply both of these satisfactorily should probably be crowned successful despite their size; and those that don’t might need to take a step back and analyze their position in the market.
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