play ballSmall communities still have a sense of community. That can be reflected in a Little League baseball game that everybody cares about, local weekly newspapers that everybody still seems to read, or service agencies like Scouts and church groups that everybody seems involved in.

So when it comes to small HVAC contractors drawing attention to themselves, they find putting a company name on the back of a jersey, buying ads in a hometown newspaper, and volunteering for a service project (even in a low key way) becomes a way to draw attention to the company and its commitment to the community. The NEWS conducted an informal phone survey of smaller contractors (in the approximately $1.2 million annual sales range) for this story on small town life and doing business there.

Play Ball

In Simcoe, Ont., Canada (pop. 15,000), D&B ClimateCare sponsors local youth baseball teams and owner Dave Murtland has volunteered for leadership positions in the league. But that’s just one way the company finds a balance between philanthropic efforts and justified recognition. Another example is when local Boy Scouts need help starting up gas equipment for a pancake breakfast fundraiser and D&B lends its expertise.

Murtland said one advantage he has as a small contractor (15 employees and seven service techs) is the affiliation with ClimateCare co-operative. The look and feel of the trucks, for example, provide favorable recognition. He said one area resident had been far North when he saw a ClimateCare truck of another contractor. Murtland recalled, “He said ‘You guys are everywhere.’ I didn’t contradict him.”

Beyond that, he said, ClimateCare does provide advertising material for radio and print with each tweaked to draw attention to the local contractor while still maintaining a professional sound and look. It all gets down, he said, to finding ways for small contractors “to get recognition by people who are not close to your existing customers, or aren’t family or relatives.”

That sports approach is also endorsed by Gina Canady, who with her husband Scott, own Warren Service and Supply in the town of Warren, Ind., (pop. 1,500). The 13 employees cover both commercial and residential and draw attention to the company in a variety of ways. “We sponsor most everything,” Scott said. “T-ball, coach’s ball, adult softball, basketball. Our name is on all the t-shirts. We also coach, volunteer of course.”

The Canadys cover a lot of options. They use billboards and the four newspapers. And they do it their way preferring to create their own advertisements rather than those supplied by the manufacturers for which they are authorized dealers. One aspect that doesn’t merit as much attention is the Internet. Gina said having to tweak their website is time consuming and leads generated through the site are not as many as from other approaches.

Building on What You Have

Four and a half years ago when Rich Biava, Bill Wetzel, and Tony Petrolle took over Gaithersburg (Md.) A/C and Heating, they knew the value of Little League baseball and football sponsorships as well as direct mail and newspapers. But the main thrust was “working with current customers,” said Biava. “That means mail, phone calls, whatever you have. There is a lot of untapped revenue” in that customer base, he said.

No matter how small a company, “your customer base needs to reach you when they need you. If you are in the field and can’t reach a phone, you still need to have the infrastructure in place for that customer including during the peak season.”

Beyond that, Biava pointed to the importance of good service technicians. While Gaithersburg A/C and Heating has grown since its small contractor days, “We could have added and grown more, but we are particular about who is going to wear our name and represent us,” Biava said.

Still Word of Mouth

For as many innovations, there are those contractors who have successfully relied on word of mouth. Ed Conkey of VA Conkey Co. in Willoughby, Ohio, (pop. 25,000) acquired the company from his father, Vincent Allen, in 1979 after his father in turn had established the mechanical services business after doing drywall work. Ed Conkey said customers recommend his commercial repair services to others; but also his name is given out at local supply houses.

Giving Back

A contractor who started out as a smaller business seven years ago is Brian Leech who owns Service Legends in Des Moines, Iowa. He credits his growth in part to marketing through the Yellow Pages and in looking for ways to give back to the community. While Yellow Pages may not be as successful these days, he did note that such a listing put him in view of local media. “So when we’d have a heat wave, someone in the media apparently saw our name and called us for comment.”

So one idea, he said, was to find a way to put your name where it could be accessed by both homeowners with a specific need as well as local media. In his days as a smaller business he also felt a desire to give back to the community, so he said he asked his employees if they would be willing to volunteer for service hours and how many hours per month. With that information, he contacted community organizers of service projects working through a local church and was able to give time with heating and air conditioning troubleshooting for needy families.

While Leech said such specific, special projects should be done more out of a desire of giving back to the community rather than seeking publicity, such efforts do draw favorable response.

Publication date: 09/05/2011