Forty-four years ago, Joe Oliver, a Yale-educated engineer and young father, found himself laid off from his job at Boeing. With his family dependent on him, he turned to religion in his darkest hour.
“One of the leaders of my prayer group asked, ‘Does anybody have any problems?’ And I said, Yeah, I do — I have a wife, six sons, and no job,” he said. “I was asked to stay after the meeting to pray with them, and one of them asked, ‘Why don’t you try air conditioning?’ I thought, this must be a good word coming from God, so, I talked it over, and we started the business in February 1971.”
Coincidentally, or perhaps by divine intervention, the first person hired at Oliver Heating, Cooling, Plumbing, and Electrical in Morton, Pennsylvania, was named Adam. “That was a good omen,” he said.
Since then, Joe Oliver has rooted his business philosophies in his faith, which has helped the company earn a reputation as a top-notch employer that considers its employees family.
“I think we have the best employees,” Joe Oliver said. “The people who see what we’re about and what our culture is here, they’re the ones who want to stay, and we have a darn good workforce that works together as a team. We’re looking out for each other.”
The Family Business
Even though Joe Oliver, 80, is technically retired, Shanna Reimer, marketing coordinator at Oliver, said he still visits the business frequently, and three of his six sons — Billy, John, and David — are now involved in the family business. Joe Oliver’s wife, Beverly, was also involved in the family business until she passed away two years ago.
“Joe’s still around,” Reimer said. “He sits one office down from me, and I see him almost every day. It’s important to him that he’s involved in making sure the company is following his vision, and he’s the driving force behind that family-friendly atmosphere.”
That family-friendly atmosphere is part of what sets Oliver HVAC apart from other contractors. Norm Comfort, a 16-year, aptly named employee of Oliver HVAC, said he enjoys working for Oliver because the company truly cares about its employees.
“They take care of us,” said Comfort, a team leader and senior service technician at Oliver. “It’s a family company, and they’ve stayed that way, and not many companies can grow this big and keep it family-oriented. I love working here.”
David Oliver said his family’s company certainly cares about its employees, but, just as importantly, the employees care about each other.
“I really think the culture is like a family,” he said. “You develop friendships here, but it’s really that people care about each other — not just that we, as owners and managers, care about associates. Everybody, on all levels, cares about each other and tries to work together.”
That culture and compassion, David Oliver said, comes from the company’s religious foundation. “The company was started at a prayer meeting. In the beginning, it was just my dad and my mom praying over where the next job will come from to put food on the table, and now we pray for the wellbeing of our associates and give thanks for everything God’s given to the company. That passion for God is really why Joe Oliver started the company, and we try to continue that. And the compassion for people, I think, is why our associates love it here.”
Employees love the company so much that it is not uncommon to see several members of the same family working at Oliver.
“My oldest boy works here,” Comfort said. “When we had an opening, we brought him in. I’m proud to have him involved with such a great company. He’s 29 and has been here about five years. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
“It’s somewhere I’d want my son to work with me,” Reimer said. “It’s that kind of place — you want to recommend it to other people.”
In addition to a family-friendly working environment, Oliver employees enjoy employer-paid medical insurance, rotating schedules for technicians, and free training throughout the year, among other perks.
The family-leave policy was especially beneficial for Reimer, whose 20-month-old son was born eight weeks premature.
“He spent most of his first month of life in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit],” Reimer said. “Oliver was understanding about my sudden departure from my role. Company leaders allowed me to take an extended maternity leave of 15 weeks, threw me a wonderful baby shower when I returned, allowed me to create a flexible schedule to accommodate the doctor’s restrictions regarding placement in daycare, and have been more than understanding about time I’ve had to miss for doctor’s visits and ‘lockdown’ times during this past extreme winter due to the baby’s susceptibility to respiratory viruses.”
As for training, technicians at Oliver meet frequently for free training sessions that keep them up to date on the latest technologies and trends.
“We have in-house training Wednesday nights from September to April,” Comfort said. “We divide it up into three sessions — residential service, installation, and commercial — and every third Wednesday, it transfers. We focus on new products, problems, jobs that have occurred, and products that other technicians are running into, and we train on it. We have manufacturers’ reps who come in, and we have a training committee.”
The company also provides training to sales associates and office staff, and soft skills are not overlooked, either. The company also makes a point to recognize employees who exhibit outstanding character on the job.
“I’ve worked for some big companies in the past, and they only ever gave awards for top sales, and most of the people sit back and say, ‘I’m never going to get that,’” Joe Oliver explained. “We recognize people for 49 different character traits and these are awards anyone can receive. When a manager recognizes them, they get it in front of their peers. The manager introduces the person, then shares what the character trait is they’re being recognized for. Then they say how that person has exercised that, and they get a plaque they can put up on the wall. It builds them up, and it’s really a teaching moment for everybody in that room.”
“The Character First program builds up the associates for their character,” David Oliver added. “It makes them think about themselves as a person and how they can be a better person as far as their character goes.”
The end goal is for the entire staff, from the top down, to be confident, capable, and well-equipped to provide the best possible service to Oliver’s customers.
“We’re the kind of company that subscribes to the inverted pyramid support system, where all the managers are supporting the people above them,” said Bernie Sweeney, vice president of sales and marketing. “We’re doing everything to empower them.”
Oliver also works to hire the best technicians it can, then commits to their success with the company, said Rocco Pace, president, Oliver HVAC.
“One of the things I’ve learned through working with ACCA is that one problem of this industry around the country is finding and getting new employees and new mechanics,” he said. To help with that problem, Oliver HVAC partnered with the local community college to help produce knowledgeable and successful technicians.
“We hire for very little experience and great attitudes,” Pace said. “We make a commitment, and we grow from within.”
The Golden Rule
Above all, the company’s success can be attributed largely to one belief widely held by its employees: You should treat others as you would like to be treated. That Golden Rule has been a central theme at Oliver since the company’s inception in 1971, and it continues to be a part of its mission.
“We feel very strongly about taking care of our customers through the Golden Rule,” Joe Oliver said. “It’s about our customers, but, first, it’s about taking care of our own employees. If we have people who are accomplished and hardworking, their heart is with us, and they’re flexible, we want to make it possible for them to retire here.”
“I think we have a unique company,” said Antoinette Coupe, vice president of finance and administration. “Joe is willing to make less money so his employees can make more. We all kind of join in, and that’s the family atmosphere.”
The company also encourages its employees to give back to the community through projects like Oliver’s Heat for the Holidays, which provides heating systems free of charge for local families in need. “We started taking nominations back in September for local families in need of new heating systems. Once they’re selected, we install [the system] absolutely free of charge, and the work is done by employees who are donating their time. We did four last year, and we did eight the year before that.”
“Our motto is to treat people how you want to be treated, and they live it from the top down,” Comfort said. “They just care about people. About six years ago, I was having a medical problem, and the company got together and stood behind me. It felt good to be part of this family — it truly feels great to be a part of it.”
The company’s passion for treating its employees well has attributed to its reputation for providing exceptional customer service, which has helped the company earn an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Keeping customers happy will continue to be the company’s main focus moving forward.
“Our goal is to give that superior service experience — and that’s going to help us grow — by really caring about customers and making sure we take care of everything,” David Oliver said. “We have a passion for people — not only the associates, but customers, too. We want to show them compassion in any way we can.”
In the end, Joe Oliver said, finding the right employees and treating them with respect and compassion has been the key to ensuring Oliver HVAC’s success over the years.
“From the beginning, I had to trust and lean on other people who had more knowledge than I did, and I thought it was a detriment at first,” Joe Oliver said. “But, the longer I’ve been in business, the more I know you have to have good people you can lean on, trust, and work with as a team. I was forced to do that, and that’s one of the main reasons why we kept going — I knew I had to have good people around.”
He added, “We’re really associates, and we’re in this together.”
SIDEBAR: Contractor: Oliver Heating, Cooling, Plumbing & Electrical
Founder: Joseph M. Oliver
Locations: Morton, Pennsylvania
Years in Business: 44
Bulk of Market: Residential HVAC
Total Sales for 2013: $30 million
Total Employees: 225
Total Service Technicians + Installers: 134
Average Hours Employees Spend in Training: Apprentices — 200 hours per year minimum; experienced technicians — 100 hours per year minimum
Benefits Beyond Medical/Dental Insurance: 401(k), short- and long-term disability, vision, and flexible spending accounts
Industry Association + Contractor Group Members: ACCA; North American Technician Excellence (NATE), Better Business Bureau (BBB), National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA), Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors’ Association (PHCC), and Water Quality Association
The NEWS Selected this Contractor Because: It offers exceptional benefits (paid medical insurance and rotating schedules), a dedication to free training, a commitment to customer service, and a yearning to create a faith-based, family-like environment.
Publication date: 1/26/2015