Buying a new construction-oriented HVAC contracting business in Indianapolis in 2007 was very risky, but growing that $2 million business during an economic downturn into a $27 million contracting giant in five years is almost beyond belief. That is the story of Williams Comfort Air, president Joe Huck, and five other co-owners who have blended their unique talents into a dream team that has produced amazing results when most contractors were just trying to stay alive. Huck also points to a marketing department that makes the phone ring, ongoing training, and a comprehensive five-year plan that is on track to reach $40 million in 2015.

Started With A Dream Team

Huck is a 38-year veteran in the industry, having started at age 19 making $2.50 per hour. He owned two HVAC businesses prior to Williams Comfort Air, and was part of Blue Dot and Dial One operations, so he has seen first hand what it takes to run a successful operation, and he has seen the pitfalls. Huck purchased an HVAC contracting business that was devoted strictly to the new construction business in Indianapolis which was already on the decline in 2007. “We didn’t read the memo that said this is not a good time to start a business.” In fact, Williams ended 2007 at $8 million.

The major success ingredient was a group of partners who each brought unique talents to the team. Huck is the visionary who is constantly working on fine-tuning and growing the business. He surrounded himself with key people who he had worked with in other businesses to manage the day-to-day operations including Tom Doll, sales manager; Dan Lockhart Jr., operations manager; Jacob Huck, IT/controller; and Josh Huck, HVAC service manager. Jeff Kirkhoff became a partner and general manager of Plumbing when the company purchased Metzler’s Plumbing in 2008.

Joe Huck stated, “Each of us individually, really we’re nothing. Together, we’re supermen, and we do really, really well. This is a perfect marriage of six talented people starting a business, and that’s probably why we’re doing so well, because everyone knows what to do.”

Doll oversees a highly motivated sales team that is not afraid to ask for the sale. He believes, “A lot of time (sales) people are afraid to ask for a certain amount of money out of fear because of the state of the economy, but you can’t prejudge your customers. You have to go in there and offer them what they are looking for and tell them what that particular offer is going to cost. That’s how you’ll get your average cost up there. Once the business is in the door, it’s Lockhart Jr’s operations team that turns the order around and is committed to exceeding the expectations of the customer.”

According to Lockhart Jr., “The ability to get things done the next day is one of the reasons why we’ve been successful. If we sell it today, it’s going in tomorrow.”

Kirkhoff handles the plumbing operation and brings experience as the owner of his own plumbing business. Also, before joining the Williams team, he was on the executive team at Dial One Hoosier, which became a One Hour Air Conditioning and Ben Franklin Plumbing branch under Clockwork Home Services.

Huck also depends heavily on his sons Jacob and Josh. Josh oversees the service end of the business and makes sure all the technicians are not only properly trained, but also properly equipped with the latest technology to maximize their effectiveness in the field. Jacob’s experience in finance and computer technology has enabled Williams Comfort Air to stay on top of all the orders. He has developed a custom-designed tracking system. He said, “You would never want to run a company without knowing whether you were profitable or not. This system just distills it down to smaller and smaller bits.” The system not only tracks the profitability of the jobs, but also success of all the marketing and promotion programs that are a constant part of the business.

Expanding Through Acquisition

Joe Huck grew the Williams Comfort Air business to $8 million in the first year, and he knew he could use the same business principles and inside operational team to grow a plumbing business, so he acquired Metzler’s Plumbing in 2008 and brought in Kirkhoff as a general manager and partner. The company finished the year at $13 million. When 99 percent of businesses were trying to stay alive in 2009, Williams Comfort Air and Metzler’s Mr. Plumber increased revenue to $16 million and then $21 million in 2010. Huck attributed a lot of the growth in 2010 to the government-sponsored rebates for installing energy-efficient HVAC and plumbing equipment.

When the rebates went away in 2011, most contractors’ businesses took a major hit, but not Williams and Metzler’s. The HVAC business was essentially flat, but Kirkhoff decided to grow the service end of the plumbing business by going after the sewer repair and outside drain business. Metzler’s heavily promoted a “$93 or Free” service call for clogged sewer and drain lines. If the Metzler technicians couldn’t clear the drain, the service call was free. The service call included a full camera inspection to see exactly what was causing the sewer stoppage outside. The end result was an additional $1.5 million in new business and the company grew to $23 million.

Huck also used new acquisitions to grow this year, including the addition of Hallam Plumbing Co., and then Shelby Air, which allowed Huck and his partners to acquire an HVAC contracting business in another county. These moves put the company on track to reach $27 million by year’s end, however, Huck cautioned, “When you acquire a group of clients, be careful because they are going to give you a shot and then they are going to wait for you to screw up and then they are gone.” He considers the group of clients to not only include the retail customers, but new employees as well.

Making the Phone Ring

A key factor in the continued success of the companies is a comprehensive marketing program that is designed to generate sales leads, and according to Huck, “The phone rings because the company is a marketing machine.”

Williams Comfort Air has an internal marketing department headed by Suzi Nichols. She works closely with Huck to develop a variety of advertising and promotion programs designed to bring in leads on a consistent, ongoing basis. The company budgets 10 percent of its gross sales for advertising. Nichols uses direct mail, Valpak, Yellow Pages, newspaper, radio, and TV advertising because she believes there is no magic bullet, but she constantly measures the results to determine the return on the advertising investment. Each promotion has its own unique telephone number that ties into a custom tracking system. In fact, Williams Comfort Air has over 200 phone numbers.

Nichols also identified branding as a necessary ingredient to the success of the company. She helped design a corporate color (lime green) and a consistent design for all the company’s promotions and especially for company vehicles. “The vehicles need to scream out, ‘Look at me!’ You can see our lime green vehicles coming a quarter of a mile down the road,” she said with pride.

Partnership with Nexstar Key to Rapid Growth

An unintended benefit of buying Metzler’s Plumbing was a membership in Nexstar Network, a business development and best practices organization that offers business training, systems, and support to independent plumbing, heating, air conditioning and electrical contractors. Huck credits his involvement with Nexstar for helping him train his key people, manage rapid growth, and prepare a five-year plan for his business with an overall goal of $40 million in sales by the end of 2015.

Lisa Schardt, business enhancement specialist at Nexstar said, “Joe is the kind of member who, when you deliver a system or a process or a tool to him, he doesn’t sit there and question it for three or four months, he puts it into place. He is also a firm believer in training.”

Williams Comfort Air has taken advantage of training on leadership, sales, service management, and helping technicians communicate with homeowners to make them a fan. The company has also invested in training for call center personnel that focuses on deflating the anxiousness of customers that call in with a problem and empathizing with that customer. Huck also commits to weekly training at his Indiana headquarters that is often led by the department managers.

Leave No Dirt Unturned

Joe Huck is always looking for opportunity, and the result is a patent on a geothermal ground loop system called the Williams Vertizontal. He was inspired after watching the local gas company bore gas lines in front of his home. The design of the Williams Vertizontal allows them to dig a small pit to contain the fluids and then bore the loop in through a blind hole which could go under the home, septic tank, or driveway. This new loop system can be installed in just about any size yard. Williams installs about 100 geothermal systems a year and sees the new loop system as a great selling tool to provide even more growth for the company.

The new patented product is a prime example of Joe Huck’s role with Williams Comfort Air. Joe claims he doesn’t work for the company, he works on the company. Whatever Huck is working on seems to produce results, millions of dollars of results. If Williams Comfort Air has grown to $27 million in a down economy, what will happen when the business climate improves?

Publication date: 9/24/2012