Celebrating his 50th year in the HVAC industry in 2013, Butch Welsch, owner of Welsch Heating & Cooling, St. Louis, is showing no signs of slowing down.

Welsch Heating & Cooling has been in business since 1895, with Butch being the third Welsch in charge, following his grandfather and father. Under his guidance the company adopted service and replacement work, shifting from mostly new construction jobs.

“I think our willingness to change has helped us to be able to stay successful,” said the 71-year-old industry veteran. “We’ve stayed on top of the times and tried to change at a proper rate as things were changing.

“When I started in the 1960s, we were essentially a new construction contractor doing add-on air conditioning jobs. We’ve got a pretty good heritage here that I want to protect, so I don’t want to be so aggressive that I potentially kill the goose. We want to keep the goose laying the eggs, and we want to make sure the eggs are the kind that people are looking for today.”

Heavy Involvement

Welsch is well-known in the St. Louis area for his involvement in many different organizations and associations. He’s involved with the St. Louis chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), many labor unions, the Mechanical License Board for St. Louis County, and serves on boards with the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

“These organizations have kept me abreast of the industry, and close to the company and its operations, but they’ve also diversified my thinking somewhat,” Welsch said. “I think all those things have made my career here diversified enough that every day is a new challenge; a new opportunity.

Welsch attributes much of his success to his company’s ability to roll with the changes.

“Either you move ahead or you move backward. You don’t stay the same. We’ve made a number of changes through the years. When I look back and consider where we were and what we’ve become, that’s helped keep it interesting. You have to stay on top of your game when you’re doing that. You just can’t sit back and let the world go by. You’ve got to attack it.”

One of Welsch’s crowning achievements came in 1988 when he was elected national president of SMACNA, something that was not only a great personal achievement, but encouraged Welsch to change how he ran his business.

“Being SMACNA president made me empower our people to make decisions. I found out I didn’t have to do everything myself,” Welsch said. “It has allowed me to develop people who make the right decisions.”

Welsch made 67 trips during his year as president, going from Vancouver to Miami and every place in-between. He said the position gave him the chance to meet fellow contractors, see how they were doing, and gain insight into market and union labor conditions.

In a 1988 press release announcing his election, it was noted Welsch chaired SMACNA’s Business Management Education committee, spent 10 years as chairman of the Residential Programs committee, was chairman of the Future Management Education committee, and a member of the Council of Chapter representatives.

After his tenure as president, he served as a member and chair of SMACNA’s Director Nominating committee, 1993-2010; a member of the NEMI/NEMIC Residential Service/Retrofit Task Force, 2003-07; as a management representative of the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute, 1993-97; SMACNA College of Fellows Board of Governors, 1993-96; the convention committee, 1993-94; the College of Fellows Scholarship committee, 2006-08; and as a trustee of the Industry Fund of the U.S., 1993-97.

“He is very generous with his time,” said David Zimmerman, president and business manager, Local 36 Sheet Metal Workers, St. Louis. “He does so many things in the community and sits on a number of boards. He’s very progressive about what he does, but on the same token, he makes sure things are done right. He has a quality in everything he does.”

To Jack Goldkamp, principal, Design Aire Heating & Cooling, St. Louis., Welsch is like long-time St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols.

“He’s in the clubhouse, studying the video, and when he comes up to the plate, everything’s been done,” said Goldkamp. “Butch has done this year after year after year. I’ve probably known him for 25 years. The guy is just tireless in the way he loves this industry. His intensity is something I really respect.”

Another Reason to Celebrate

Not only is Welsch celebrating 50 years in the HVAC industry in 2013, he’s also celebrating 50 years of marriage to his wife, Carol, who he met in the choir at Washington University in St. Louis.

“We keep telling each other that when we grow up we want to tour like the Partridge Family,” Welsch said. “Our kids sing, our grandkids sing — we’re a singing family, so we’ve kept that carrot out there. We’ve kind of had to stay together so one day we could accomplish our goal of getting our bus touring. Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen, but at least it’s a goal we’ve been kidding about all of these years.

“It’s been interesting, I will say that,” he said. “One of the ways that’s made it happen is our lives and business are very interrelated.”

Welsch’s ability to lead a successful HVAC contracting business has allowed Carol to work as a stay-at-home mom. “She had my daughter 47 years ago, and I remember asking her then when she was going back to work,” Welsch joked. “I’m still waiting for an answer.”

Staying Fresh

Welsch has no plans to retire, but admits he enjoys his annual three-week trips to a beach house on the Gulf of Mexico.

Competitive by nature, Welsch still occasionally laces up the skates and hits the ice to play hockey and can occasionally be found playing a game of handball, but predominantly displays his athletic talents on the tennis courts. He said he prefers tennis over golf, because he feels, unlike golf, he can still play tennis at a high level. He also enjoys calling high school swim meets, as well.

“I play tennis about three times a week, which keeps me in shape,” Welsch said. “I enjoy it a lot. As long as I can do those things, I’m happy. I don’t like daytime TV, and my wife would shoot me if I was at home cramping her style during the day, so coming to the office is the thing to do. I still enjoy working.”

Welsch’s excitement for life is something keeping him young.

“He’s excited about the industry, he’s excited about promoting union sheet metal work, he’s excited about his next tennis game, and he’s excited about his grandkids,” Goldkamp said. “He’s excited about everything. He’s a unique guy. He’s got a youthful approach to everything. Nobody’s willing to put in the kind of effort Butch does. He’s tireless on all fronts.”

Leaving a Legacy

When Welsch started in the industry 50 years ago, he said you couldn’t really call yourself a furnace man because too many companies inadvertently condemned furnaces, giving the industry a bad name. “They were nothing but crooks,” Welsch said.

That’s why he’s strived to leave the industry in a much better place than he’s found it throughout his career, working to put the HVAC contractor in a professional light. He wants to do everything he can to improve the contractor, and said his goal until his dying day in this business will be to upgrade the image of the contractor.

“We provide an extremely important service to the public, and we should be treated as such — as professionals. Just as importantly, we need to operate in a professional manner,” Welsch said. “I work really hard to see that happen, and it’s one of the reasons I get extremely upset when I see things I know right off the bat are scams. We’re a lot further along than we were back then. I’m not at all embarrassed to say I’m a heating and air conditioning contractor, whereas I was not as proud to say I was a furnace man 50 years ago.”

Welsch said when he does finally decide to hang up his boots, he is confident the now 118-year-old company will continue to flourish.

“I don’t think 200 years is an impossible achievement,” Welsch said. “Certainly 125 and 150 might be achievable with the people we have in place now. We’re optimistic about the future.”

And if you ask anybody involved in HVAC or sheet metal in St. Louis, they’ll surely tell you Welsch has left an impressive legacy.

“There’s nobody that can hold a candle to him with all the things he’s done in the industry, with all the different boards and committees he sits on,” Zimmerman said.

“When he leaves the industry, there’s going to be nobody to step in and replace him with the stature, reputation, and respect that he’s rightfully gained.”

Publication date: 9/9/2013 

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