Many businesses evolve over time, but perhaps none more so than Reno, Nevada-based Home Energy Experts. The company, started by Eric Robnett’s parents as a gas-piping business in 1973, transitioned to Nevada Heating & Air Conditioning and began embracing home-performance aspects of the contracting industry about 12 years ago.
Robnett joined the company after graduating high school and became interested in the problems causing high-efficiency equipment to fail.
“Homeowners were complaining about spending extra money on high-efficiency air conditioners and still not being comfortable or saving any money,” Robnett explained. “So, we set out to figure out what we were doing wrong. We started looking at ductwork — I would crawl underneath houses and in attics with a Polaroid camera and take pictures of ducts that were not insulated or leaking to show the customer. I would say, ‘Look, I don’t know if this system is going to work if we can’t get the right air to your house.’ Then, I started selling ductwork. But, we’d still have problems, so I knew there was something going on. I would see a 6-inch duct in one room in a house, and an 8-inch duct in another house, and I remember asking my dad, ‘How does anybody know what size duct to put in?’ That was a turning point for us.”
Shortly after that fateful conversation, Robnett stumbled upon an ad from the National Comfort Institute (NCI), and, one week later, Rob Falke, cofounder and president of NCI, was in Robnett’s offices.
“I scheduled about five customers in two days, and Rob and I went out and tested these homes,” Robnett said. “Rob started showing me static pressure and airflow, and I was blown away by it. I liked what I saw with the performance testing that Rob was teaching me. He opened up a new avenue for me where I could say, ‘Hey, what I’m really selling is comfort, efficiency, and energy savings, not a box.’
“So, instead of showing people brochures and talking about things like SEER, AFUE, and things like that, I say, ‘Let’s take a look at what’s important to you,’” he continued. “And, it’s always the same four concerns: comfort, safety, efficiency, and health. Then I tell them I will take a look at what their current system is doing or not doing so we can figure out how to solve the problem.’ I don’t want to sit there and be the guy who says, ‘If you buy this new two-stage, 16-SEER system, it’s going to solve your problems,’ because I know that it won’t. And, as soon as we start uncovering what is going on, the customer will see it might not be a good idea to put another box in. That’s when we became more focused on performance rather than just operating as a box swapper, as we call them now.”
Since then, Robnett has completely shifted his company’s focus to home-performance contracting and has continued training at NCI.
Three years ago, he decided a name change was in order.
“We wanted to create a shift in who we were and separate ourselves from our competition. There are just so many companies with ‘heating and air’ in their names — so-and-so heating and air — it’s just white noise,” Robnett said.
So, even though Nevada Heating & Air Conditioning had name recognition in its surrounding market, Robnett elected to rename the company Home Energy Experts.
“At first, we had a difficult time narrowing it down. I didn’t know if we were ‘Home Energy Experts,’ ‘Home Comfort Experts,’ or ‘Home Energy and Comfort Experts.’ I just wanted to differentiate ourselves from the basic heating and air guys. Home Energy Experts fixes and installs insulation, seals homes, tests infiltration and exfiltration of air, and does combustion balances and airflow balances. We look at fixing comfort and reducing energy consumption in the home as a whole, not just repairing or installing heating and air conditioners. I wanted to leave the past behind and become something totally different.
“We offer a lot more than just heating and air conditioning,” he continued. “We have a full-service fire-and-hearth division, a plumbing division, a heating-and-air division, and a home-energy division. Also, our name was Nevada Heating, which, in itself, restricted me to the state of Nevada. We’re right on the border of California, and we service areas in California.”
Overall, switching to home performance has greatly benefited the company.
“It’s benefited us financially by allowing us to offer services with minimal competition,” he noted. “When you satisfy people to that degree, they tell a lot of other people, so it’s helped us advertise without having to spend a bunch of money in the Yellow Pages or someplace similar. The word-of-mouth advertising has increased, and customer satisfaction has increased. We have more products to sell besides furnaces and air conditioners, so sales have increased. Warranty callbacks and complaints have decreased. People are happy. The systems work a lot better and are more reliable, and the only way you can verify this performance is if you test them and balance them, otherwise you’re just guessing and hoping.”
Since originating out of Robnett’s parents’ home, Home Energy Experts has grown to 15 employees with 10 fleet vehicles. Additionally, the company’s 2014 revenue increased 19 percent over its 2013 revenue.
The company also took home NCI’s 2015 Medium-size Contractor of the Year award earlier this year.
A DIFFERENT CULTURE
The shift to home performance has also changed the company’s culture, Robnett said. “All our new guys say it’s totally different here than any other place they’ve worked. I also get better technicians, better [employee] retention and more respect, because they feel they’ve found the best place to work. Our employees are concerned if they go to another company, they won’t learn there what they’re learning here. It’s a culture and attitude change.”
Additionally, Home Energy Experts’ customer service and call takers are more educated, Robnett noted. “I heard it the other day — somebody called in to report the air conditioner was not working and our call taker asked several probing questions, including ‘Is the a/c turning on and running, but the room is hot?’ She was able to determine it might be an airflow problem and told the customer we should do an airflow test instead of sending a technician to fix the air conditioner and the customer agreed. So we ended up doing a performance test instead of a diagnostic call.”
Andrew McDannald, operations manager for Home Energy Experts, has been with the company for 10 years, starting as a heating technician right out of high school.
“I believe in what we do — it’s what’s kept me here,” McDannald said. “I charge people money for a guaranteed result. I don’t change boxes or heating and cooling equipment. I evaluate and test homes’ efficiencies, and I actually find out what the problem is, whether it’s the building envelope, heating and cooling system, or duct system. I don’t just go in and sell products to make a profit; I sell solutions. I learned performance and everything I do or practice from Eric.”
McDannald manages the daily operations of the business and says he uses the culture they’ve created to keep his workers motivated. “It starts with hiring people who believe in what we believe in. Our culture is 100 percent customer satisfaction, and all our guys strive for that as much as they get a paycheck, believe it or not. I have a bunch of very competitive guys working for me, so I keep them motivated with friendly competitions like who has the most happy calls and who has the most customers — things like that. We’re just a bunch of nerds.”
McDannald said he doesn’t hire HVAC technicians, and, in fact, previous experience in HVAC is not a job requirement. Instead, he focuses on hiring people with good customer service and communication skills. “We’ve hired guys who were once waiters, former vacuum salesmen, and lots of ex-military guys. Once you have a group of guys that have an integrity-based culture, you attract the same kind of people. And, if we attract someone who’s not, then they don’t even make it past the 90-day probation period. Actually, they don’t even make it past the first week.”
Every employee at Home Energy Experts is trained by Robnett, who largely credits his knowledge to NCI’s training classes. “I build a training curriculum with my notes while I’m there. I sort it out into basic stuff. I look at how it’s going to help the homeowner with comfort, safety, efficiency, and health.”
A big part of the training is what is said, and not said, to a customer. “It’s about how we say it and when,” Robnett explained. “We may be the smartest guys in the industry, but if we go to a homeowner and throw a bunch of information at him, that’s not going to do anybody any good. The homeowner’s going to be confused, and when the homeowner’s confused, he or she isn’t going to buy anything. It’s a process — different pages of information from our training come out at different times, depending on where customers are mentally in what we’re doing, what their needs and concerns are, and what their level of understanding is in what’s going on.”
Nick Rehman, service manager for Home Energy Experts, began working for the company two years ago as a technician. Previously, he worked for a different heating and air conditioning contractor in town. “I had heard a lot about their professionalism, the way they treat customers, the way they take care of their guys, and just the morale of everybody — it seemed like a good fit. I’m an ex-Marine, so I thought that would be the place for me.”
Rehman said the switch to a home-performance company was definitely different.
“The last company I worked for was full of box swappers. We’d go in and change out furnaces or air conditioners, not knowing what caused these pieces of equipment to actually fail. Here, we dive into airflow and a lot more detail on what caused these problems. We’re doing a lot of testing that I never did before, that I didn’t know how to do. As far as I know, we’re the only company in northern Nevada that does that. When I talk to customers, and even other contractors, a lot of people don’t know anything about airflow, so it was definitely a big change coming over here.”
Even though it was a change, Rehman said he didn’t have a problem with the learning curve.
“I already knew how to work on all the equipment,” he said. “The only thing I had to learn was the airflow side of it,” he said. “And, all these guys want you to be the best, so everybody’s helping you. You have a dozen guys all out here teaching you what you need to know — all the little tricks and everything. It made it a lot easier than probably it would have been in most places because everybody wants to help each other out.”
That friendly atmosphere is what Rehman said he likes best about working at Home Energy Experts. “It’s basically like a family here. Everybody helps each other out work wise and personal wise if you have any issues. Everybody’s here to take care of you. I really like how people are treated here and the way we take care of customers; it means a lot to me.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Home performance is not going anywhere, according to Robnett.
“With the way things are these days in our world, energy costs are a concern; they’re never going to go down,” he said. “And homeowners are becoming more educated in the houses they’re buying, how they work, and what it’ll take to make them more energy efficient and comfortable. So, we’ve created a company that focuses on exactly that.”
Not all customers recognize what home performance is, and Home Energy Experts is constantly working to educate both current and prospective customers on the many services it offers. Home Energy Experts’ technicians leave a sheet of paper that shows its location and lists the services it provides with customers after a job is completed.
“Our phone greeting says, ‘It’s a great day at Nevada Heating, Home Energy Experts, and Benjamin Franklin Fireplace,’” Robnett said. “And we have all three of those websites linked to each other. It’s a process to keep everybody understanding who we are and what we do. The goal is to make an impact on the customer and build a relationship so they say, ‘I don’t remember if it’s Home Energy Experts or Nevada Heating — all I know is my furnace guy is Nick, and I’m calling Nick.’ We talk about making sure our numbers are saved in our customers’ phones.”
Robnett said his long-term goals for the company include continuing to grow and develop its service club membership base. “The more customers we have on our maintenance contract, the more people whose homes we have the opportunity to test and offer improvements to.”
Currently, Home Energy Experts has about 4,000 local heating, cooling, and fireplace club members. Eventually, Robnett said he would like to expand into the Las Vegas and Sacramento, California, markets. “But, that’s a long way off. Long term, I’d like to see us help homeowners be more comfortable. And, we do that every day. The goal is to help as many people as we can.”
Publication date: 10/12/2015