John Philbin, owner, Guardian Environmental Services Inc., still believes in the value of books. He has books on boilers on his shelf from the 1800s and plans on donating his library to the company once he retires.
John Philbin, owner, Guardian Environmental Services Inc., still believes in the value of books. He has books on boilers on his shelf from the 1800s and plans on donating his library to the company once he retires.

If John Philbin’s one thing, he’s honest. Philbin, 67, the owner of Guardian Environmental Services Inc. (GES), Livonia, Michigan, has seen his commercial service company grow from a two-man operation to a company with 35 employees, 28 trucks, and $7-$8 million in annual revenue.

“I’m an honest guy, I’ve always been honest,” said Philbin, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. “It’s the way I am. If I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.”

He believes results are earned through effort rather than handouts.

“I believe in collecting and in doing a good job, but I’ve never in my life taken anything from anyone. I’ve never played the games. I was working outside a government office and an outside contractor told me I could get all this work if I paid him a percentage of what I was going to do. I looked at him and asked if he was crazy. I believe I want to keep my guys working; it might be a little slow, but I’ve always told them if they finish a job today, there will be one tomorrow.”

From the Bottom

Philbin started in the HVAC trade working for free for a metro Detroit company, riding along with a service technician for several months before being hired as a staff member. He eventually worked his way up to service manager during his 10 years with the company.

It was then he met Tony D’Ascenzo, a plumber employed with a local company. Together, built on the idea of providing quality service and a customer-first mentality, they decided to form GES, where they provide commercial service work on critical cooling applications, data centers, communication centers, environmental chambers, health care facilities, office buildings, and light industrial facilities.

But why form a company focused strictly on service while almost abandoning new construction? Well, service is in Philbin’s DNA, he said. “A lot of commercial construction is stop, start, stop, start. I wanted consistency, and service is real consistent,” Philbin said. “From a financial standpoint, construction work has real thin margins. One screw-up and the job’s gone south. Service work, on average, you can be at a higher margin because you’re billing for your time. In the service market, you’re trying to convince a client on a regular basis that their equipment needs to be maintained.”

Dignity and Respect

Philbin and D’Ascenzo drew from their vast experience to establish a culture of dedication when they started their union shop in 1984. That company’s dedication to its employees continues to ring true, as does the worker’s commitment to the company.

“We tend to treat our employees very fairly here,” company vice president D’Ascenzo said. “We don’t expect people to do anything we wouldn’t do, and we want to have the highest-paid people that the market will bear. We want people to be able to retire from here with dignity, and we want to help people send their kids to private school and college eventually, if they want.”

During the recession, the company was forced to cut salaries. Philbin and D’Ascenzo were not exempt from this and led by example.

“It seems a lot of people are looking to pay their people less. During the recession, John and I took pay cuts first. Then, we asked the others to cut back a little to help us get through. As soon as it was over, we restored everyone’s pay. We work together here; we work as a team.”

Nearing retirement, Philbin still takes great pleasure in getting to know his employees. At the end of each day, he fields calls from each of the company’s service technicians to discuss how their day went. It’s been a very important way for him to stay connected.

“I came to the conclusion about 10 years ago that companies lose that personal touch from the boss to those in the field,” Philbin said. “I want them to know I care about what they’re doing. If they mess up and are big enough to admit it, I can help them through it.”

Tom Barker, vice president at GES, has been with the company for 25 of its 30 years in business. He said these calls help the company immediately overcome business obstacles.

“The worst thing you want as an owner or manager is to find out a week later there was a problem,” Barker said. “There’s something about him talking to those technicians every day, it’s almost like a sounding board. They’re calling him and talking to him every day. It’s a big commitment, because you get a lot of phone calls, but I think it’s a good plan to touch base with them so they know you care.”

Safety First

Philbin and D’Ascenzo believe safety is paramount to the success of the company. That’s why they’ve made considerable investments in safety measures on behalf of their employees. “Every single person in the building is trained in CPR and first aid,” D’Ascenzo said. “One of our employees, about 10 years ago, saved his own 8-year-old son from drowning, using CPR to bring him back. That alone, as far as we’re concerned, more than pays for any safety class we’ll have from here to eternity.”

Barker said that personal injuries are the company’s worst nightmare. “Your workforce is the biggest value to the company,” Barker said. “In a service business, where would you be without your workforce? Out of business. If they get hurt, it affects their livelihood, their family, and it impacts the company. It’s super important to have that mindset that you’re trying to work as safely as possible, and not everyone does that, unfortunately.”

Keeping their workforce safe not only benefits the individuals, but it keeps the company running steady, too, Barker said.

“You’re not going to be in the consideration for a lot of jobs if you have too high of an injury record,” Barker said. “Most companies want to make sure you’re safe, and it’s important to Guardian because I want every employee here to go home with all their fingers and toes at the end of the day and be a good provider for their family, work through their career, and retire from Guardian. It’s the only way we’re going to get the job done the next day, if they go home safe the first day.”

And it’s GES’ dedication to its employees and its clients that is leading it to success. “This company has grown because we had a vision,” D’Ascenzo said. “We wanted to provide our employees with the best place to work and deliver to our customers’ value for what we provide.”

SIDEBAR: Company Profile

Name: Guardian Environmental Services Inc.

Location: Livonia, Michigan.

Years in Business: 30

Key Leadership: John Philbin, owner; Anthony D’Ascenzo, vice president; Tom Barker, vice president

Affiliations: The Unified Group, ACCA

Summing it up: “At Guardian Environmental Services, we pride ourselves on providing honest solutions and treating customers and vendors as we would want to be treated.” – Tom Barker

Publication date: 6/9/2014

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