A Humble Beginning
Prior to his entrepreneurial endeavor, Smith had cut his teeth with two Atlanta-based HVAC companies, learning the installation and sales portions of the industry. In 1953, he married his wife, Rachel, and in 1962 the couple relocated to Marietta, Ga., where they would raise their two daughters and plant the seeds to a successful HVAC contracting business.
“When my folks first started out, it was mom, dad, one other employee, and one truck. Mom managed the inside operations, and dad was out in the field,” said Debbie Abernathy, Earl and Rachel’s daughter and vice president of marketing at E. Smith Heating and Air Conditioning.
The couple found themselves working at all hours, no matter the circumstances, which included Rachel completing payroll paperwork from her hospital bed while birthing the family’s second daughter, Cheryl.
Earl and Rachel focused their attention on the growing Cobb County community, concentrating on new residential installations. In 1967, they teamed up with Carrier Corp. — a relationship that continues to this day.
“Cobb County was very rural and was very much a bedroom community of a growing Atlanta metro area back in the 1960s. There were lots of new residential opportunities, which really helped get the company going,” said Barry Abernathy, president, E. Smith Heating and Air Conditioning. “We recently celebrated our 45th anniversary with Carrier, and we were inducted into the Carrier Hall of Fame in 2008. We’re very proud to work with Carrier, and they’ve been very good to us over the years.”
The company, through the help of a knowledgeable service manager, began retrofitting existing homes in the mid- to late-1960s, which truly helped the company take foot in the region.
“We put together an ad that sold the idea of adding air conditioners to existing homes, which, even in the South, was a very novel concept at the time,” said Abernathy. “This was really our first innovative change, and it worked out very well for us.”
Keeping it in the Family
Barry Abernathy began dating Debbie (Smith) Abernathy when they were in high school. During the summer months of 1972, 1973, and 1974, he worked as a grunt for his then-girlfriend’s father’s company.
After graduating from Georgia Tech he spent a brief five-year stint with manufacturer’s representative Tom Barrow Co. In 1977, Abernathy married his high-school sweetheart and in 1981, he returned to E. Smith Heating and Air, finding work in their service department.
In 1984, Earl Smith was elected to the Cobb County Board of Commissioners. At that time, Barry was promoted to a management position, and in 1998, he assumed the role of company president.
“Over the years, we’ve had some great people on staff, and this really is a family company with a family atmosphere. We owe all our success to our great team,” said Barry Abernathy. “By having good people, we weren’t fighting a battle to continuously retrain people, and that has been key.”
While the company originated with a sole focus on residential installations, management elected to eliminate residential new-construction work in 2004, citing rising prices and increased competition.
“We had to contemplate cutting corners to keep up with the falling prices of our competition,” said Barry Abernathy. “Rather than do that, we decided there was a certain line we weren’t going to cross, thus we moved forward.”
Enduring a Sour Economy
Barry Abernathy said the decision to drop the residential, new-home portion of the business was a very difficult one.
“We knocked off about $800,000 in volume, which was not easy to walk away from,” he said. “But, we honored our warranties, finished our work, and remain great friends with the builders we worked with for so many years.”
In hindsight, the decision couldn’t have been timed any better, as the looming Great Recession snuffed out residential development nationwide.
“How could we have ever known that the market was going to crash like it did; we got really lucky — the timing was fortuitous,” said Debbie Abernathy. “If we hadn’t gotten out when we did, it’s likely that we wouldn’t have been given that choice.”
As a result, the company celebrated some of its most successful seasons. “In 2006 and 2007 we had our best years ever, and then, in 2008, we came crashing down and lost about $5 million of volume in one year’s time,” said Barry Abernathy.
About 18 months after the residential market tanked, the commercial market, and eventually government-backed jobs followed suit, leaving the company, and many other HVACR companies, strained. But, after riding the storm out, the company has since regained its forward momentum.
“About eight years ago, we employed about 70 employees. Now, following the restructuring of our residential operation and the economic collapse, we’re at about 48, which we’re happy with,” said Barry Abernathy. “Today, we’ll do just over $4 million in service and retail, with about 400 or so jobs ranging from simple unit change-outs to complete system overhauls.
“Our commercial side does about $7 million in new construction, and we maintain about 2,500 service agreements. So, we feel we’re heading back in the right direction.”
Celebrating Five Decades
E. Smith Heating and Air Conditioning celebrated its 50th anniversary with an open house event on Oct. 9, 2012, honoring the company’s commitment to the north-metro Atlanta community it’s called home for five decades.
More than 350 individuals turned out to the celebration, including Marietta’s mayor, Steve “Thunder” Tumlin, who presented the Smith and Abernathy families with a key to the city.
“We are very proud to receive such an honor,” said Debbie Abernathy. “We’d like to thank the mayor for taking the time to appreciate small businesses and showing such community involvement.”
In conjunction with Carrier, the company awarded an area resident a new furnace, and collected 757 canned and nonperishable food donations for the Center for Family Resources, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to nourishing area families. E. Smith Heating and Air Conditioning donated $1 for every donated item, and Mingledorff’s Inc. matched the $1 donation, totaling $1,514 in contributions.
The gala was held inside the Earl Smith Strand Theater — a 1930s venue that was on the verge of demolition before Smith spearheaded a community fundraising campaign that helped save the iconic town-square structure.
“I remember going to the movies there when I was a kid,” said Barry Abernathy. “Earl is such a force in the community that as soon as he vowed to save the structure, there was never a question it’d still be standing today. He’s done so much for this community, and much of it has gone unnoticed. He’s a true leader, and I’ve never met anyone else like him.
“As E. Smith begins the next 50 years, we will maintain the strong values of Earl and Rachel Smith. We simply believe this is the right way to do business.”
Publication date: 1/14/2013