As a contractor, it can be tough to branch out from what you know and already do best. But that’s exactly what Rich Imfeld and his father, Dick, have had to do. The Imfelds’ company, IC Refrigeration, is located in central California’s Stanislaus County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates and highest foreclosure rates in the nation. In this recessionary environment, Rich said, “You either adapt or die.” And IC has worked hard over the years to adapt to better serve its market.
LOOKING BACKIC Refrigeration was founded in 1940 by Rich’s grandfather, Bill Imfeld. The company currently employs 30 people and is located in Ceres, a suburb of Modesto, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley. Rich believes the ties to the past and the relationships originally established by his grandfather still form the company’s foundation. After Bill started the company, Rich’s father, Dick, took the reins in 1963. Rich returned to IC in 1992; currently, he functions as president with his father as vice president.
Dick enjoys reminiscing and telling the story of how his dad decided to start the company. “My dad worked for an appliance store, and the guy wouldn’t give him 50 cents an hour, so my dad went into business for himself. It was 1940, right around the wartime, but he got deferred because refrigeration was a trade that was a necessity. They did a lot of dairy refrigeration back in those days, and it evolved into store refrigeration.”
Dick’s primary philosophy has always been “flexibility and diversification.” He explained, “We started out as a sheet metal shop that made boxes. We did a lot of residential then. We have since evolved and grown to a full-blown shop with people who can handle it. We went from a residential air conditioning contractor to a mechanical contractor. We’re doing stuff now that we didn’t even dream of doing.”
This philosophy is also shared by Rich, who is unafraid to branch out. “You just can’t be an air conditioning company anymore,” Rich said. “The riskiest thing is dooming yourself to repeat the mistakes of the past.” He participates in an Air Conditioning Contractors Association (ACCA) Management Information eXchange (MIX) group and gleans ideas from these industry connections. “I’m not saying I do the same thing as my group, but I follow the same idea. It shows you can walk out on the branch and sometimes it can crack and sometimes it can grow, but then your company grows.”
DIVERSIFYINGBecause of the Imfelds’ willingness to branch out, the company has evolved over time. Currently, IC Refrigeration does about 60 percent light commercial work and 30 percent residential. The remainder of its work falls under its specialty sheet metals division. Kevin Silva is the manager for IC’s specialty metals department. When he started 14 years ago, Silva was the only one in his department. Since then, IC has expanded the department to include three divisions: specialty metals, hood cleaning, and fire protection.
According to Silva, the specialty metals crews “basically do kitchen installation and architectural sheet metal.” Eighty percent of this business is for large food chains, including many McDonald’s franchises in central California. It was these restaurant customers that led IC to expand its services.
Over the course of about six years, Silva explained, he listened to complaints from his restaurant customers about hood cleaning. “I’ve had my customers ask me if we knew of anybody who would do those types of services because they were unhappy with the work being done in the valley. After years of hearing [from them], we decided to branch out into it and do more service work.” He added, “I’m already building the kitchens so it makes sense to go in and service what you’re already putting in.”
Rich echoed this sentiment, stating, “We’re already in the store so it was a natural thing for us to do. We are trying to look at stuff we can do to enhance what we do without reinventing the wheel.”
While noting that it was “a learning experience” to figure out the licensing for these new services, Rich said the work has progressing smoothly since the company rolled out these new services in November 2009. IC now employs two nighttime crews: the certified hood cleaners do stack and hood cleaning, and the fire protection crew installs fixed fire systems and fire extinguishers. Rich added, “We basically created six jobs out of it, and unlike the government, we didn’t need a federal stimulus to do it.”
Silva also explained that he surveyed his customers to learn more about their needs before the company started the new divisions. He learned that the hood cleaning services have to be performed every six months or the restaurant will “get in trouble with the fire marshal”; the restaurant owners’ main complaint was that their cleaners weren’t keeping them current. Now, Silva said, his team keeps on schedule, and they take digital before-and-after photos of every job to document the cleaning. “It’s a good tool we’ve learned to use for documentation,” Silva said. “Our customers like the pictures.”
LEADING OUTAs they have adapted to the market and continued to grow their business, the Imfelds have also focused on their employees. According to Troy Watts, the installation manager who has been with the company for 22 years, IC doesn’t hire seasonal workers. “We value our employees and understand they have families to support. It’s important to us that we don’t jeopardize their livelihood,” he said. “So they understand and accept there are times when they have to put in overtime hours when there’s a lot of work. They never complain about overtime. The tradeoff is we don’t have to overload people and then cut them loose.”
And, he added, the Imfelds have also respected employees and been willing to give them opportunities for promotion. Both Dick and Rich are known for respecting people and promoting from within the ranks.
Rich added that his father has always kept him humble, and this has helped him as a leader. Plus, he added, “I’m a farmer on the weekend, so I’m used to getting my hands dirty. I think as you get further away from getting your hands dirty, you have a sense of entitlement and you can abuse people and/or the situation.”
Rich also served in the Navy and worked in other sectors when he was younger, and he said these experiences taught him how to lead as a “moderate influence.” And, of course, he used a nautical analogy to explain himself: “When you’re the captain of the ship, you can’t steer too hard to the left or right - you will hit stuff or you will go in circles. People don’t like sharp rights and lefts.” Instead, he said, “You have to have a game plan.”
Looking down the road and annually reviewing his company plan enables Rich to create a plan that gently guides his employees along, while allowing the company to adapt and thrive.