Despite facing a challenging first year as an owner, contractor Wade Helms maintains a positive outlook down in southern Florida. “They say the first year you buy the business is the toughest. It’s never the same when you’re the captain of the boat,” he said.

In June 2010, Helms bought out his brother’s business and became president of Edd Helms Air Conditioning & Electric (Miami). But since he took over, he has tried to continue thinking like a manager — not an investor. According to Helms, this approach has differentiated his company as being driven by customer relationships instead of quarterly financial reports. Plus, his long-term perspective allows him to look forward to a bright future.

Handing Over the Reins

Edd Helms Air Conditioning and Electric was founded in 1975 by Wade Helms’ oldest brother Edd. Over the years, the union contractor has branched out to provide electrical, mechanical, air conditioning, and building controls services. Today, the company is a member of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA), the Mechanical Service Contractors Association of America (MSCA), and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

Helms got an offer to work for his brother in 1980. By then Helms had already earned his degree in economics with a minor in architecture from Florida State University, and he was eager to develop his passion for the building industry.

According to Helms, he started at the ground floor and worked his way up through a variety of positions in the company.

In 2003, Helms said, “Edd turned over the responsibility and reins to me. From 2003 to 2010, I was able to show leadership and the ability to plan, to retain talent, and to deal with the economics of the bonding companies and the banks.” Last June, Helms purchased the company from Edd. Helms is grateful for the foundation his brother built, and he intends to uphold the company’s reputation. “We always like to differentiate ourselves and have a real personal relationship with our customers,” he said.

Helms has focused on serving his area’s major industries, which include tourism and health care. “The biggest industry in south Florida is hotels,” he said. Because the warm weather makes south Florida a preferred location for trade shows and conventions, Helms also provides temporary electrical and lighting for events.

Retaining Talent

Helms believes strongly in diversifying, and the company has made acquisitions over the years to enter new markets. But according to Helms, his philosophy is different from the consolidators who “chase off the proprietors” after making an acquisition. “What they lose is the soul of the company they’re buying,” he said. When Helms purchases a company, he wants the talented employees to stick around. And it has worked, he said, noting that in a few cases, “Parents have retired and now their children are working for us.”

Currently, Helms employs around 130 people. “I try and surround myself with the most talented and energetic employees who have integrity and customer dedication,” he said.

One of those employees is Bob Roberts, who joined the company as general manager of HVAC six years ago. “Wade Helms and I have, over the past six-plus years, disagreed on almost as many subjects as we’ve agreed upon,” Roberts said.

“However, through a good working relationship, mutual respect, and common goals, we’ve almost always come to a productive common ground that many times was a better decision than either of us would have made alone.”

Roberts added that the company had an excellent reputation long before he joined it. “Most of that reputation was built by Edd Helms Electric. I’d like to think that the reputation of Edd Helms A/C is rapidly reaching equal or higher status, and that I’ve had a part in that.”

Helms recently hired a new leader for the electrical division, Dan Sunday. According to Sunday, he is grateful for the confidence and authority Helms has already entrusted in him. Since Sunday is experienced with medium and large electrical installations, he has been trying to implement some of the project management and estimating techniques he has learned throughout his career.

“My ideas have been well received, and I think it will help bring the company to new levels,” Sunday said. “The current economy has had a tremendous impact on the construction industry. We try to be selective on what we bid and how we bid. Once awarded a project, we need to keep a constant focus on quality, cost effectiveness, and schedule.”

Overall, Helms said he considers his role to be a facilitator. “I really like to see my employees do well and have success with clients,” he said. “If I can facilitate their success, they can certainly sell way more cumulatively than I can individually.”

Specializing in Controls

According to Helms, he got interested in computers very early on. “I’ve always had a personal interest in computers, even back in high school, as basic as they were,” he said. That love of technology has enabled him to stay at the forefront of today’s building controls. “Building controls is the perfect bridge between mechanical and electrical services,” he said.

Because he sees a bright future in this sector, he started a dedicated division for building controls a year and a half ago. “We’re tying together all of the things that keep a Class A office building running,” he said, noting that this includes lighting, comfort systems, and security access.

The newest employee of the building controls division is Helms’ son David. “I never planned on him working in the business,” Helms said, explaining that David studied computer programming in college and did an internship at the company. Then an opening came up in the building controls division, Helms said, and his managers recruited his son. Helms added that it’s been a pleasant surprise, and David is doing really well.

“He’s found his niche in the controls business,” Helms said, noting that the controls technicians must be extremely comfortable with computers and technology because they access and maintain systems for clients remotely. “Now with the Internet we’re able to remotely connect to our buildings from wherever we are 24/7,” he said. “The computer is almost like the 21st century service truck. And the main thing is we’re able to respond very quickly.”

Helms is focused on training technicians to excel in this environment and recently built a training room with classroom-style seating for 115 technicians. But he also loves working with the younger generation, which can easily understand and adapt to technology. “I think the generation of kids we have today are immensely more prepared than my generation was,” he said, adding that his wife Vicki works with teenagers as a high school English teacher. “I get a lot of energy and inspiration from being around my children and their friends.”

Having Fun

Helms is 54, but he retains a youthful attitude. “I’m in the sweet part of my life,” he said. “I have time, energy, and money.” Plus, he thinks that being in the industry is fun because of the broad array of opportunities it provides. “We don’t work on anything that you drink or flush, but all the other mechanical plumbing systems we do,” he said, adding that his business covers an array of specialties, including building controls, IAQ, refrigeration, comfort cooling, air distribution, and hydronics.

“In my industry, you obviously want to run a profitable business,” Helms said. “But to me, that’s not even in the top five things I try to do,” he said. “I think profitability is the result — not the goal.” Helms’ goal is to make his best customers and suppliers into lifelong friends. His greatest accomplishment in the industry is the trust and respect he’s earned with his employees, banker, bonding company — and even his competitors. But above everything else, he said, his motto is always “family first.”

SIDEBAR: A Group with an Impact

One of the things Wade Helms loves to talk about is his membership in an Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) MIX group.

“It has been one of the most valuable things I’ve ever participated in,” he said, adding that he was fortunate enough to be invited to join in 2000 before he was even an owner.

“I sat and listened,” Helms said, describing how the group provided a forum where all the contractors could discuss their most intimate challenges. “We talk very little about air conditioning as a trade — we mostly talk about air conditioning as an industry,” he said.

Every six months, the group meets to spend a day at one of the member’s businesses touring the facility and talking to employees.

“At the end of that day, we do a ‘roast the host,’” Helms said. “These guys are incredible. They are able to put their finger on opportunities and challenges within an hour.”

Without his involvement in the group, Helms said, “I can’t see myself having the courage to purchase a business at 53, and I can’t see myself with the perspective to be positive without my association with these men and their wives.”

Publication date: 01/09/2012