WhenThe NEWSaccepts nominations for its annual Best Contractor to Work For contest, the applicants are asked to include answers to 23 “yes” or “no” questions that have been developed over the years as a way to measure what makes a contractor the best. The questions relate to specific ways to hire and retain technicians, to train, to avoid technician burnout, and to guarantee work during slow times — while offering a strong benefit program. Affirmative answers go a long way in deciding the eventual winners from each region.

When the application for Casteel Heating and Cooling Inc. came in, 22 of those 23 “yes” or “no” questions were answered with “yeses”; this goes a long way in explaining why the Marietta, Ga., residential contractor is the Best Contractor to Work For in the South.

Hiring and Retaining

When it comes to hiring and retaining, the 25-year-old company was able to check off “yes” to advertising, partnering with local trade schools, and using mentoring and intern programs — as well “as hiring, training, and promoting employees from within in order to attract and retain new staff,” said Richard Eppers, vice president of operations. “Our management team is very active in the local education system, state and local chapters of the Conditioned Air Association, and the heating and air community. This allows the company to network with future graduates, as well as attract new employees.”

Owner Bob Casteel noted that the company has conducted nationwide searches for technicians looking to relocate. In fact, while the business started in 1987 as pretty much a one-person operation, Casteel said growth was important because “it is only when you reach a certain size that you can dictate who you hire.” That growth has continued as the company now employs 50 people; 30 of them are technicians.

In-House Training

Casteel Heating and Cooling realizes that much of training comes in-house. The owner himself came to the industry in 1983 after years as an electrician and was hired on by an HVAC contractor and literally learned on the job. When growth opportunities dried up at that company, he decided to go out on his own in ’87, relocating 50 miles away in Marietta out of respect for his former employer.

“Training is an integral part of our organization,” said Eppers. “We routinely sponsor paid training classes during work hours. We offer internal, factory, and hired specialized industry training for our staff. We also offer an incentive program to our employees and reimburse staff for a portion of their education hours outside this workplace. This promotes personal growth.”

Service technician J. C. McAllister came to the company in 2007 after three years in the field with another contractor. He was hired as an install helper “and did a lot of in-house training,” he said. In six months he moved up to install lead and with the ongoing training and “learning more and more” he reached service technician status at the start of 2011. He said his current focus is earning every available certification through North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

Avoiding Burnout and Downtimes

McAllister noted the diversity of jobs Casteel Heating and Cooling performs as one way to avoid burnout. The company handles residential projects that range from a routine single furnace service in a small home to large homes with eight furnaces, multistaging, and zoning. He said he especially appreciated the company’s focusing on “projects to do around the shop” during downtimes.

For Eppers, the burnout issue encompasses rotating schedules, on-the-job lunches, breakfasts, rewards, paid time off, and buying dinners.

“Casteel promotes a team-centered atmosphere and also is sympathetic to all employees during the business season. We communicate with staff thoroughly to ensure that all the staff stays motivated. We offer team-building opportunities and downtime programs such as paid company trips, submission in local parades, holiday parties, and team contests to keep our staff refreshed and focused.”

Eppers explained the company deals with downtime by “pushing non-pressing projects off until slow times. We also utilize slower times and incorporate paid continuing education classes and use this time to regroup for upcoming busy times.” He also noted the use of preventive maintenance contracts to even out the workload.

Focusing on Benefits

Eppers said the pay increase policy was designed to allow “staff to have full control of their earning potential. We routinely evaluate our staff to promote internal growth” as shown by the example of McAllister moving from install helper, to install lead, to service tech within five years.

“By communicating to the staff, they are able to not only voice their concerns but also adjust their working style to achieve their highest earning capability. We also allow our staff the opportunity to earn additional incentives by offering weekly incentives, bonuses, and sales commissions.”

There are rewards for earning additional certification such as NATE, including tuition reimbursement.

The suggestion box ends up a two-way street. Eppers said, “The company offers an open-door policy with owners and managers listening to all suggestions. Employees are given feedback and updates on their suggestions. This year alone, employee suggestions have increased revenue by $360,000.”

Benefits such as medical, dental, optical, and financial retirement all found Casteel in the “yes” category (with a childcare option the only “no” on the 23 item checklist drawn up by The NEWS for the contest).

The Casteel benefit package also includes long-term and short-term disability, fraud protection, and a 401(k). “The future of our employees’ ability to care for their families is a priority. This is why we offer a benefit package above and beyond most other companies,” said Eppers.

Making It Work

Making a company a good one to work for means creating an atmosphere of productivity and making sure customers are served.

Owner Bob Casteel said, “I’m responsible for the overall culture.” So while he has turned the day-to-day operations over to his son John Hillis, Casteel said he routinely walks from one end of the building to the other to make sure trucks are clean, service techs are in uniform, everybody is addressed as “sir” or “ma’am,” there is no foul language, and there is an atmosphere of respect.

He said, “We want this to be a nice, friendly place to spend your work day.”

To spread the word about the company and show community spirit, Casteel Heating and Cooling participates in local parades and sponsors local sports teams. Its philantrophic nature is reflected in donations to churches and organizations, whether local, state, or national (an example of the latter being the Susan G. Komen Foundation).

There is also an event called “Casteel Christmas” in which the company donates and installs heating equipment for families in need.

Success and recognition have come the company’s way. Eppers said yearly growth is currently at a 25-30 percent rate in total sales. And, Eppers noted, “As a Trane Comfort Specialist, we have one of the very highest customer satisfaction scores in the industry.”

But there is still more to it for Bob Casteel. Customer satisfaction is critical. Customers are left survey cards asking to evaluate a number of aspects of a service call. If anything is less than a 10, the owner is on the phone to that customer to find out how Casteel Heating and Cooling can do an even better — a perfect 10 — job the next time.

Just The Facts: Casteel

Bob Casteel
Bob Casteel

Contractor: Casteel Heating and Cooling Inc.

Owners: Bob Casteel, John Hillis

Location: Marietta, Ga.

Years in Business: 25

Bulk of Market: Residential

Total Sales for 2011: $10 million

Total Employees: 50

John Hillis
John Hillis

Total Service Technicians and Installers: 30

Average Hours Employees Spend in Training: 60+ hours a year

Benefits Beyond Medical/Dental Insurance: Long- and short-term disability, fraud protection, 401(k).

Industry Association and Contractor Group Members: Conditioned Air Association, Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), North American Technician Excellence (NATE), Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Service Roundtable.

The NEWS Selected This Contractor Because: With a high score on a wide range of aspects, The NEWS chose to honor Casteel Heating and Cooling for its emphasis on employee benefits, training, and development.

Publication date: 01/23/2012