“We make a big deal of training here,” said Josh Bigelow, president of Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. in Clinton Township, Mich. That statement summarizes how important training is at Great Dane,The NEWS’2012 Best Contractor to Work For in the North Central Region. But it doesn’t begin to describe the myriad ways that Josh Bigelow and Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. put this into practice.

There are weekly in-house service training meetings that last 1½ hours “where we train our entire staff on how we want things to be done,” said Karak Stephen, a senior service technician at Great Dane. Then there’s the 2-hour in-house monthly installation training. “All of my employees, especially my service staff, get well over 100 hours of paid training per year,” said Bigelow.

The company has sent technicians to other courses, such as for heat exchanger training, and others sponsored by manufacturers and distributors. Additionally, Bigelow said, “We go to NCI [National Comfort Institute] for air balancing training and combustion analysis training.”

Besides training, certification of varying kinds is also important at Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. Technicians are required to be North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certified, and they are required to take the NATE test during their first year of employment. Another
certification that the technicians work toward is Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification. “We’re all becoming BPI certified this year as far as for home energy auditing and home energy efficiency,” said Bigelow.

The technicians are encouraged to take other classes and earn other certifications as well, and the company shows off the certification certificates, hanging them on the wall where all the technicians can see them.

“Our service area, our walls are covered with their certifications. You walk in, and we look like one of those record studios with gold records all over the wall, because all of their [the technicians’] certifications are framed in the service area. They’ve got over a hundred of their certifications hanging on the wall.”

Stephen pointed out that the firm’s emphasis on training and doing the job correctly the first time is something that makes Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. stand out, judging from his experience at other contracting companies. He said, “The training and education was really put secondary [at other contracting companies] to putting out a volume of calls that the technicians would run. I think he [Bigelow] has come to a realization and mindset that it’s not the quantity of calls that a technician runs in a day, it’s the quality of the calls, because you eliminate a lot of the mistakes and missed opportunities when you take into account that you can maximize a particular service call that you’re on.”

Other employees besides the technicians get a chance to go through training as well. “Anytime I need training or if there are new products coming out, training programs are made available to me through the distributors and the vendors that come in. I’m not afraid to ask for training when I need or when I want it,” said Steven Ford Sr., sales consultant.

Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. is involved in training not only its own technicians, but future industry technicians, too. It is involved in various ways with the Clinton Township branch of Baker College. “We’ve set up the vocational program for the HVAC training [at Baker]. We’ve set up their entire lab … and they’re actually instructed and taught by Great Dane employees and/or Josh himself,” said Stephen.

Bigelow noted that he’s even hired three of his students to work for the company.

When the local Baker College branch approached Bigelow to be a part of the program there, he said he would help on two conditions: 1) that it center on customer service, and 2) that the school would require a hands-on, practical experience. “They’re doing installations, they’re seeing the different operations of the places they may want to work and getting a heads-up on any of the other programs in the area. So, I feel that’s really vital for people trying to get into the industry, giving them a headstart.”

Red Ticket, Gold Ticket

There’s no real slow season at Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. An employee’s work hours per week range from approximately 35-42 to much higher when things really get busy, according to Bigelow. He attributes the work that comes from the service agreements as the reason there’s not a true slow season at the company. And, he added, the employees designed the maintenance agreement.

That’s part of how Bigelow encourages the employees to participate in everything the company does.

When review time comes, which is once a quarter, Bigelow sits down with each employee individually — technicians, office staff, everyone — for a review. That’s a time when each employee’s profitability, customer satisfaction scores, callbacks, and other numbers are reviewed.

Also at that time, an employee’s gold tickets and/or red tickets are taken into account for bonuses. “Red is bad, gold is good,” said Bigelow.

Stephen described the ticket system as “a way to remind you [each employee] of instances that were good, and ones that were also bad and that need to be addressed. And if they’re good, they need to be addressed as well.”

Stephen said that this ticket system has been working “to cut down on the mistakes that we make. But we’re human, working on machines assembled by humans, so there’s going to be plenty of errors to be had.”

The ticket system has lowered the number of callbacks, so despite the money it costs the company for the bonuses, it’s making the company money because the number of callbacks has decreased, Bigelow said.

He also remarked that this idea is pervasive at Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. A “philosophy that we hear around here an awful lot is ‘We will make mistakes, but it’s how someone handles the mistakes that they make that define us as professionals.’ ”

There’s another philosophy that is at the core of the company. “Our company was founded on providing the best customer service experience possible. That’s why the tagline underneath our logo is ‘Experience the service you deserve.’ ”

Bigelow continued, “We pride ourselves on the little things. It’s the little things that make us different. It’s the little things that the homeowners remember. Nobody ever says, ‘Oh, you put in a furnace great.’ They remember the fact that we rolled out the red mats, that we put the booties on our feet. It’s the little things that make the impression and the difference to the homeowner to show that we respect them.

“The philosophy that we have is there are three legs to the table: we have the customer, we have the company, we have the employee. If a decision we’re making doesn’t benefit all three, then we can’t make that decision. … If it doesn’t benefit all three, then it’s not a good idea, or the plan needs to be revisited.”

Benefits and Perks

Taking care of the employees is one of those legs. One way this is accomplished includes providing things needed to do the job, such as iPads to the salespeople. Ford said, “The company has, in the last year, provided me with iPads, which I use for my presentations.” Ford wanted software to perform Manual J calculations, so Bigelow got Ford a subscription for that on the iPad as well. Ford said that using an iPad “adds a little more credibility to the presentation.”

Among other benefits the company provides to employees are paid vacations, paid holidays, simple IRA, and uniforms for the technicians and company shirts and jackets for the salespeople. AFLAC and short-term and long-term disability also are available as options for employees.

When a service tech sells a maintenance agreement, or one of the office staff gets a renewal on a maintenance agreement, that person receives a $10 bonus. And the installation crew leaders “receive a 1 percent bonus of everything they install every quarter,” said Bigelow.

Then there’s the trip, where “if each department meets the goal that is set for them, we set aside a small percentage of the profits and do an account, and at the end of the year, if we have enough money, we take all the employees on a trip. This year, we’re going to the Dominican Republic,” commented Bigelow.

One benefit that everyone reaps from the trip is the bonds it builds among the staff.

“Those trips, I’ll tell you, have done more for the teambuilding of this company, than I could ever have hoped for it to do,” Bigelow said.

Other events the company has sponsored include indoor kart racing outings; laser tag, for children of the employees; and a catered event for the employees to eat and relax during a local classic car cruise.

On the more serious side, the company works with the township to help residents who need HVAC help, but “who kind of fall through the cracks with qualifications to be able to use government funds,” said Ford. It also supports Little League baseball teams and local high school football teams.

Just The Facts: Great Dane

Josh BigelowContractor: Great Dane Heating & Air Conditioning Inc.

Owner: Josh Bigelow, president

Location: Clinton Township, Mich.

Years in Business: 12

Bulk of Market: 98 percent residential add-on replacement, 2 percent commercial

Total Sales for 2011: $3 million

Total Employees: 22

Total Service Technicians and Installers: 15

Average Hours Employees Spend in Training: Over 100 hours per year paid training for techs

Benefits Beyond Medical/Dental Insurance: Simple IRA with a 3 percent company match, company-paid cell phone, company-paid iPads for salespeople, company vehicle, paid vacations, paid holidays, paid training, uniforms for the technicians and company shirts and jackets for the salespeople, AFLAC and short-term and long-term disability is available, occasional trip to a sporting event or kart racing, and if departmental goals are met, a company-sponsored trip.

Industry Association and Contractor Group Members: Air Conditioning Contractors of America, Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce

The NEWS Selected This Contractor Because: As employee Steve Ford said, “The owner has a passion for his customers, employees, community, and family.” Bigelow not only encourages his employees to further their education, but is very involved in teaching future technicians at a local college. The company has its own in-house charity called Project Warmth, which works with the local township to assist residents who can’t afford an HVAC repair or replacement.

Publication date: 01/23/2012