With his trademark long hair pulled back in a neat pony tail, 35-year industry veteran and trainer Gerry Wagner paces back and forth, gesticulating to emphasize important points and coaxing occasional chuckles from his trainees during a September training session at Keystone Sales in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania.
“My personality is in this,” Wagner, director of technical training at Motors & Armatures Inc. (MARS)/Heat Controller Inc., said before class began. “You have to have a pretty good ego to do this, and I clearly admit that. Putting your personality into it and being yourself — to me, that’s the key.”
But Wagner’s effectiveness as a trainer isn’t just the result of his outgoing, engaging personality. As the owner of multiple industry-related businesses — including a small mom-and-pop HVACR contracting firm serving parts of New York and New Jersey and two Internet-based boiler repair parts businesses — his industry experience and knowledge are vast.
Wagner’s experience in the industry, coupled with his engaging and thorough teaching style, are what make him The NEWS’ 2014 Best Trainer.
Many people have influenced or mentored Wagner over the years, but “one who stands out is a fellow named Elwood Weaver,” Wagner said. “He was the executive vice president of HydroTherm Boilers for virtually his entire career. He didn’t have a son, and I was kind of looking for a father figure, so the two of us were just perfect for each other. He really guided my early career with HydroTherm Boilers.”
Wagner said he was still a teenager when he started in the mail room at HydroTherm, where he read and studied every piece of literature the company had.
“Elwood was like a father to me, guiding my early career and helping me to make sound career decisions, pulling some strings behind the scenes from time to time to help me take the next step,” Wagner said, adding that, even though Weaver has passed away, “He’s with me every day.”
After leaving HydroTherm in 1984, Wagner took a position with Harry Eklof and Associates. “This is where I first started conducting technical training classes, initially for the HydroTherm HydroPulse boiler.”
From there, Wagner caught the bug for teaching and has since trained technicians, manufacturer’s reps, distributors, and contractors across the U.S. and Canada.
Roughly a year and a half ago, Wagner took his current position with Heat Controller, where he has quickly become an invaluable asset.
“We hired Gerry as a contract hire based upon recommendations from colleagues in the industry,” said Leon Cogswell, director of sales at MARS/Heat Controller. “He’s very tenacious with securing the proper information to make sure he’s delivering a good, solid, clear message in both technical information as well as the products’ performance and what the company can do for the customer after the sale.”
“Gerry has consistently earned high marks and positive comments from the customers and contractors that he trains,” said Michael Delwiche, vice president of sales, MARS/Heat Controller. “Gerry spends about 26 weeks a year on the road instructing contractors and wholesalers alike and does it in a way that connects with them. He focuses on getting the material delivered to these groups in easy-to-understand language that can be applied in real-world settings.”
Gerry the Jitterbug
Wagner is perhaps best known for his positive and high-energy teaching style, which keeps trainees engaged throughout the learning process. “Anybody who knows me knows I like to have fun,” Wagner said. “I see no reason why I can’t have fun when I conduct a class, and no reason why those who attend my classes shouldn’t have fun, either.”
“He’s a very animated presenter, not one of those textbook, dry presenters,” Cogswell said.
“He engages the audience and keeps the room very lighthearted and open, and he keeps them engaged throughout the training presentation, which can often take up to six hours. He takes all of the training very personal as far as performance. He wants to make sure everyone has the necessary information and that all questions are answered, and he’ll follow up with individuals after the fact. He’ll also stay engaged with them after the session. He’ll send out newsletters and technical information, so he’s continually trying to make contact with his customers.”
What Wagner believes makes him a good trainer is his knowledge and practical experience with the products he is teaching. “Having installed it [and] serviced it yourself, you know the warts of the product, you know the attributes of the product, and you can help the audience avoid problems and also look to the benefits of the products,” he explained.
Wagner clarified that his classes are not sales presentations as “That’s the reps’ and distributors’ jobs; my classes are solely based in design, installation, and service of the product or application. If a technician or installer is comfortable with the product, he or she will purchase it — it’s really that simple.”
Michelle Brubeck, owner, Pinnacle Sales Associates, said Pinnacle has been more than pleased with the training Gerry has provided. “Gerry offers not only the most knowledgeable training classes, but a fun, engaging atmosphere as well. It takes a special person to care about the HVAC world of training to continue contributing, day after day, as he does.”
“Not only does Gerry know more about his profession than most, but I know he can teach it in a manner that can be understood,” said Vinny Mauro, president, Preferred Heating and Air Inc., Dayton, Ohio. “It’s hard to find a person who takes as much pride in his work as Gerry does.”
Tim Randle, owner, Heavenly Heat & Air Mechanical LLC, Park Ridge, New Jersey, said he has attended many of Wagner’s lectures and training sessions and was very pleased with the knowledge provided. “Gerry was able to keep the entire class focused on the large volume of technical information given,” Randle said. “He furthered me to reach into my personal knowledge and add the information given to my 25 years of experience.”
“Gerry’s down-to-earth and professional, yet entertaining approach to training keeps the audience focused and engaged throughout the entire session,” said Stephen Francer, owner and vice president, Francer Industries, Weymouth, Massachusetts. “He tailors the presentation to the level of the audience, whether [they’re] engineers, installers, or sales personnel.”
Wagner said he is just trying to be himself when he teaches. “My advice to other trainers is to put your personality into it,” he said.
Wagner said he is constantly learning new things, both from his trainees as well as from researching information for new training programs. “For me, training is a two-way street,” he said. “I get as much from the audience as it gets from me. To me, it’s an exchange of ideas, and that’s why I dig traveling all around the country and up into Canada to do this. I get a feel, and I get ideas and different concepts for the product from different regions that I travel to. I can see the light bulb turn on from time to time, and my light bulb turns on, as well, when they come up with something I know will work for me and my market, and, actually, I put a lot of that stuff right back into the training module itself.”
Wagner said he is proud and humbled to receive this year’s Best Trainer award.
“It’s wonderful,” he said, “But, I want to be clear: I don’t think I’m the best trainer in the industry, though it’s really great that somebody thinks I am. That’s obviously flattering. I hope it’s going to help take our training program at Heat Controller and MARS to another level. One of the biggest challenges for trainers is to get fannies in the seats, and I’m hoping, with this recognition, that we get a few more fannies in the seats.”
Cogswell said Wagner deserves the award. “It’s certainly nice recognition for something he’s worked hard to achieve from a personal and professional level.”
Wagner plans to expand the training program in 2015 and beyond, especially in the wake of MARS’ acquisition of Heat Controller last summer.
“The people at MARS are pioneers in motor technology, and I am working with Chuck Klose of MARS — who is possibly the industry’s foremost authority on ECM technology — to create a comprehensive training curriculum for the MARS product line,” Wagner said. “I will continue to offer the Heat Controller curriculum … [and] in 2015, distributors will have the opportunity to pick classes from both the Heat Controller and MARS training curriculums.”
Despite the long hours away from his wife, Patricia, and basset hound, Murphy, Wagner says he still wouldn’t trade his career for anything.
“HVACR has given me everything — a career I love, friends all around the U.S. and Canada, [and] the ability to travel and share my experiences with technicians and installers,” he said. “I am truly one of the fortunate people who absolutely love what they do for a living.”
Publication date: 11/24/2014