Inside a board room at a downtown hotel in Norfolk, Virginia, 13 contractors from around the country convened in search of ways to improve their businesses.
At this semi-annual meeting of the ACCA MIX Group “Nothing But Net,” an assembly of contractors spent four days giving updates on their businesses, evaluating the host contractor’s shop, and offering advice and wisdom to one another.
The meeting started on a Wednesday evening with members of the group getting together in the board room to catch up. The Nothing But Net group recently brought in a facilitator, industry veteran Mike Hajduk, owner, Callahan Roach, to help make sure things stay on task. Hajduk first addressed internal group maintenance, sharing that each MIX Group’s meeting structure is ever-changing. The group discussed the topics they wanted to talk about — service calls and extended warranties were among the most popular — but they also wanted to make sure the topics they selected made the best use of their time.
“I didn’t want us to force-feed topics,” said Tom Damiani, owner, Damiani’s Comfort Design, San Antonio. “The discussion should be relaxed, yet worthwhile.”
To drum up an internal competition, the contractors each agreed to chip in money for a six-month contest amongst salesmen. The top-earning salesman will receive 50 percent of the pot, 30 percent for second place, and 20 percent to third. The contest was sprung to motivate salesmen and encourage MIX members to remain engaged with each other throughout the year.
After some discussion, the contractors adjourned the meeting and headed out for dinner.
The meeting opened up 7:45 a.m. Thursday morning with Damiani giving a rundown of the group’s visit to his shop during their last meeting. Responding to the group’s previous suggestions, Damiani hired a dispatcher, created an organizational chart, defined job descriptions, and is in the process of training a new installation manager. He is also constantly interviewing people to find new talent to bring into the fold.
Each company then took time to update the group of the latest happenings in their companies. John DiMuccio, owner, Carjon Air Conditioning & Heating Inc., Smithfield, Rhode Island, shared he’s recently increased revenue by 15 percent, but is still looking to make some changes in his organization.
Manny Chaves, owner, Chaves Heating & Air Conditioning, Hudson, Massachusetts, discussed wanting to tighten up his belt, so he made the decision to not buy any vehicles, but to lease them instead. This change, he said, led to record revenue in November and December.
“There’s more money in becoming efficient than anything else we could possibly do,” he said.
Angela Hines, owner, Rubino Service Co., Voorhees, New Jersey, talked about how she feels morale really drops when her company doesn’t have its weekly meetings. For Tom Rostron, of Tom Rostron Heating & Air Conditioning, Manasquan, New Jersey, said his crew suddenly came to the realization that “We suck at marketing, and we suck at advertising,” he said.
He also discussed the ongoing impact of Hurricane Sandy on his business, noting his company has the equivalent of 11 years of new construction work lined up in the aftermath of the disaster. But, the company also lost about 500-550 maintenance agreements due to the hurricane’s mass destruction.
“Now that everybody has new equipment, it’s a lot slower now,” Rostron said. “It’s harder to get the work. We have to look for other ways and that’s what we’re doing.”
At Russell’s Heating and Cooling, which hosted the MIX Group meeting, Marc Sawyer, general manager, suggested the possibility of bringing in service managers or salesmen once a year to share ideas with each other.
“Having a service manager forum might’ve helped us stop some of the issues we had in our service department last year,” he said.
Sawyer, along with president Buddy Smith, instituted a new policy: “Book the damn call.” In fact, it’s become such a motto for the company that the two wear rubber bracelets donning the slogan.
“Booking calls has become the heart of what we do,” Sawyer said.
Steve Lauten, owner, Total Air, Plano, Texas, spent a lot of his time speaking about advertising, noting TV advertising bombed for the company, but he was about to embark on a new radio campaign. “You cannot spend your way to success through advertising,” Lauten said.
One contractor also took the time to talk over an important management decision with the group, deciding what to do about a long-time employee who had been creating trouble. His initial stance was softer, but the group, who knew the person in question from previous visits, suggested he turn in another direction with his decision.
“This is why I’m taking the majority of my time to talk about this, because I want you to critique it and see if there are any holes in it,” he said.
The group also discussed whether double-digit net profit was still a possibility in 2014.
The bright and sunny day started out with a field trip to visit Russell’s Heating and Cooling’s facilities. For many of the contractors, they remembered their last visit to Russell’s several years prior — as did Smith, who kept the large sheets of paper with suggestions on them, and discussed the business’s changes and accomplishments since that visit. Russell’s recently moved to a new, state-of-the-art building that was a definite upgrade from the cramped quarters the company used to call command center.
Throughout the morning, Russell’s employees gave honest and candid interviews to groups of two contractors at a time. The information gleaned from these interviews would become the basis of the evaluation created later in the day.
After a productive morning at Russell’s, which included a look at the old offices, a new training facility, and a tour of the new building, the group retreated back to the familiar confines of the hotel board room to draft a “painfully truthful” SWORT analysis — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, recommendations, and threats.
Smith and Sawyer were both seen to be assets to the company, putting in long hours to make sure it succeeds, as was the company’s dynamic culture.
The contractors went through all the SWORT categories, formulating exactly what to say and how to present it to Smith the following morning. Once the two-hour analysis came to a conclusion, there was no rest as the contractors, looking to make the most of their time together, jumped right back in to discussion topics.
One such topic revolved around recruiting veteran workers, along with places to find new good employees — whether it was looking at oil change places for possible technicians, or a good waitress for a customer service representative. Damiani said people coming out of schools now sometimes lack the right skills.
“Schools need to create the installer; we’ll create the technician,” Damiani said. “That’s the biggest problem schools have right now, they’re trying to create techs.”
Back inside the board room, it was judgment day. Time for Smith to take another turn on the “hot seat,” as the group calls it.
During the session, the group used the SWORT analysis it crafted the day prior and presented it to Smith and Sawyer, who conversed with the group and gave explanations for why certain aspects of the company operated in that way.
“I thought the list was spot on and offered good advice. I don’t think we heard anything we didn’t know already,” Smith said. “But it just elevated certain things to the top of our list. When other people see it and tell you it’s important to deal with, that by itself is motivating, and we also have to go in six months and report back.”
Smith and Sawyer will discuss the list with their installation manager and customer service manager to determine action items to implement, Smith said.
After delivering the analysis to Smith and Sawyer, the members of Nothing But Net went their own ways, but they’ll meet again later this year and start the process over again.
SIDEBAR: MIXing it Up
Nothing But Net is one of about 120 ACCA MIX Groups, said Hilary Atkins, general counsel and senior vice president, finance and administration, ACCA. MIX Groups are made up of, generally, eight to 10 noncompeting contractors who have a goal of helping each other succeed in business. Some MIX Groups date back to the early 1980s, but new ones are popping up while others dissolve and members go their own ways, or merge into other groups, Atkins said.
“The program has evolved as the industry itself has evolved,” Atkins said. “Groups focus much more intently on the burgeoning technology advances of energy efficiency and topics that are cutting-edge, and are clearly more sophisticated in how they review themselves and their operations. What hasn’t changed is the basic premise of the face-to-face peer review; then, and now, members say this is the most valuable piece of the program and one which keeps the groups together.”
Those interested in joining a MIX Group will sign up to be “placed” in a group, Atkins said, but noted ACCA does not place members in groups, as the decision to add new members lies with the groups themselves. There is a time and financial investment required to be a MIX Group member, which is something not every contractor can put forth.
“MIX Group members tell me time and time again that it takes a big effort to make a group successful and keep that success going,” Atkins said. “The candidate list varies weekly, and it is ACCA’s goal to either try to find an existing group for these interested contractors or, more and more often now, to encourage them to start up a fresh new group of their own. In a nutshell, MIX Groups aren’t for every contractor — just those willing to make the necessary investment to be a part of the program.”
Publication date: 5/26/2014