Houston Contractor Living the American Dream
Abacus Plumbing & Air Conditioning credits success to rigorous hiring and training procedures
Fifty-four-year-old Alan O’Neill is the personification of the American dream. A master plumber in Ireland disillusioned with his job at the Dublin Airport and life in general, he entered a worldwide lottery for a U.S. Green Card and won.
With nothing more than his plumbing license and a promise to his wife that things would be better, he packed up his family, landed in Texas, and eventually started Abacus Plumbing & Air Conditioning in Houston.
“I saw an ad in the paper regarding the American lottery and answered it during the summer of 1994, just for something to do,” O’Neill said. “In October 1995, my wife called me and said there was a package for me from the National Data Center in Boston. It was a letter saying we were chosen to receive a green card. So, we came to the U.S. in 1996, and I started working for a small, progressive plumbing contractor. The owner sold the business in 1997. I had become the service manager and then was promoted to the president’s position in April 1998.”
O’Neill continued to run the business, doubling its size, before the parent company filed for bankruptcy in early 2003. The bankruptcy presented difficulties in operating the business, which prompted O’Neill to start thinking about starting a company of his own.
A BLOOMING BUSINESS
Abacus was born in April 2003, with O’Neill and his former boss becoming 50/50 partners. O’Neill bought out his partner’s half of the business in 2008.
Abacus, which is mostly a residential company, serves the Greater Houston area. It consistently generates about $1 million in commercial plumbing revenue a year.
The business operated as a plumbing-only contractor for its first nine years. Seizing an opportunity to expand, O’Neill added HVAC services in March 2012.
“We were approached by a private-equity company in late 2011 that wanted to invest in the business,” O’Neill explained. “They already owned a company in Dallas that was really good in HVAC but weren’t doing so well on the plumbing side. They were attracted to us because we were a really good plumbing company. The idea was they could take the Dallas air conditioning model and get it going in Houston. Also, they felt we could give them help on the plumbing side. We closed the deal Feb. 9, 2012, and ran our first air conditioning call on March 6 of that year.”
In September 2014, Abacus expanded again, this time adding electrical services. Today, the business’s fleet includes 150 employees and 80 service vehicles.
O’Neill’s expansion efforts are paying off considerably as revenue jumped from $18.5 million in 2014 to $27 million in 2015.
“The HVAC department went absolutely nuts last year,” O’Neill said. “We budgeted for $7 million, and we ended up closer to $11 million. That was pretty amazing. I didn’t expect to have that kind of growth. We added a couple million dollars on the electrical side in the last year, as well. Plumbing has been fairly stagnant the last few years, but, in 2015, we had about a 10-12 percent increase in our plumbing revenue, as well. Across the board, all three departments exceeded our expectations.”
O’Neill credits the HVAC department’s success to heavy recruiting efforts his staff implemented last winter. “We took a look at our time and decided we needed to upgrade in some areas. Our HVAC manager went down and started searching for the top industry performers in Houston.”
Additionally, O’Neill turned to his current employees for help recruiting new talent. “We set out to find the best possible candidates. And, I’ve found that existing employees are often the best source for finding good people. Good people want to work with good people, so they’re not going to recommend somebody just to get them a job. Most of our guys were added through referrals from existing employees.”
Additionally, O’Neill said the company’s HVAC technicians began training and preparing for the summer of 2015 way back in October 2014. “We approached our summer workload very early. We were on top of our spring checkups and found that, with the training and early checkups, revenue was just a lot better than we anticipated. Our guys were selling really well.”
Chris Crawford, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, took over Abacus’s HVAC department in December 2013. Crawford briefly assumed control of his family’s struggling HVAC business, growing it three times over in a span of four years, before handing control back to his family and joining the Abacus crew.
“HVAC was a new business for Abacus, and it was struggling to get off the ground. I knew it was going to be a challenge, though, I love a good challenge,” said Crawford. “It was a lot of fun growing that department and making it profitable.”
Crawford said Abacus’ reputation speaks for itself.
“I was really impressed with Alan and the general manager; that’s what drew me here,” Crawford said. “We really do go way beyond what most other companies do to ensure our clients are happy. There is not one client who is dissatisfied when we’re done. We ensure our clients are happy with our services, and I think that goes a long way in changing the perception that most clients would have when they envision what a service call is going to look like. That’s why our clients call us over everybody else in town.”
Word-of-mouth recommendations from existing customers are very influential to the company’s HVAC success, Crawford noted. “When I first got here, everybody knew we were a plumbing company, but nobody knew we were doing HVAC. We would talk about it on the phone to our existing clients, and that really helped spur our initial growth, but it really took the first year or so before everyone became aware. Our clients started talking to their friends, telling other people how great our service technicians were when they came out, and the amount of care they took with their homes. That has helped us quite a bit.”
RIGOROUS EMPLOYEE SCREENING
In order to provide the high level of customer service Abacus is known for, O’Neill employs a meticulous pre-employment screening process. The procedure is so rigorous, in fact, that only two out of every 10 applicants complete the process.
“We bring in an applicant for an interview, typically with a [HVAC, plumbing, or electrical] trade manager,” O’Neill said. “If we decide the candidate is a potential fit for us, we send them to a company in town called The Cole Group, which is owned by Don Cole, an ex-CIA agent. He’s developed a system for pre-screening employees where he performs drug screening in his office and sends out for testing along with a 30- to 60-minute interview with the applicant. I’ve had people come out of it and say they feel he went all the way back to elementary school with them. What’s really interesting is we talk to them here and they never admit anything. I’m not sure what he’s doing over there, but he gets them to admit all kinds of stuff — I’m not joking. We’ve had people not come to work for us because of the intensity of the screening process. They said we are crazy.
“We’re very serious about it,” he continued. “Our employees are in peoples’ homes every day, and we just can’t take a chance on having the wrong people in our customers’ homes.”
O’Neill said he has the results of the applicant’s interview, drug screen, driving record, and criminal history report from The Cole Group within 24 hours. Applicants with felonies are automatically eliminated from consideration. Misdemeanors are looked at on a case-by-case basis, depending on the offense.
“It’s a pretty tough process to get through,” O’Neill noted. “Some will fall off at the interview stage, some will fall off at The Cole Group stage, but we’re confident that the people we hire are right for us.”
Additionally, after being hired, new employees ride along with Abacus’s training technicians to learn the ropes. “No technician ever starts with us and goes straight to a truck. New employees will ride one to two weeks with the training technician, who makes the call on when the employee is ready to be turned loose. Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes it takes longer.”
In addition to ensuring customers are happy, Abacus administrators go to great lengths to assure employees are well taken care of.
“The thing that gives me the most pleasure these days is we can take a young man — who may be considered a failure by society’s standards because he decided not to attend college — and train him for three to four years and have him earning six figures. I don’t know of another industry that can do that. I look at my daughter, who went to college to earn a master’s degree, and she makes less than $60,000 as a teacher. I have a young man who graduated high school and spent three years training here without paying for his schooling because we took care of that. He’s now capable of earning six figures or more. Seeing somebody come along and have the ability to make that kind of money is golden to me.”
Additionally, Abacus cherishes its employees and takes steps to help them improve in their personal lives.
“I take an interest in our workers’ personal lives, which I attribute to my background in the military. I want to know what their families look like, what their aspirations are, what their personal and professional goals are, etc. We added it up the other day, and I think we’ve had eight or nine guys buy their first houses while working for us. We’re extremely proud of that. It tells me our guys are successful and have become good at managing their personal finances, which is another course we offer. We take care of the people working for us as much as we take care of our clients.
“I like the fact we can take young guys who come in here with little experience and knowledge and train them to be productive members in the city of Houston,” he continued. “And, the fact their lives are growing, they’re doing well, they feel great about what and they do every day — that’s the best part for me. The people we have working here love Abacus. It’s funny — a few guys decide to leave the company once in a while, but, out of everyone who’s ever left the HVAC department, only one guy stayed away. Within three to four months, they return and ask for their jobs back. It is a great place to work.”
David Nieves, an HVAC technician for Abacus, was drawn to the company because of the good vibes he felt during his initial interview. Nieves has been in the industry for the last five years and previously worked for a commercial air conditioning company.
“I was curious to what the residential side looked like,” he said. “I did research online, looked up a couple of companies, and did a few interviews. When I came here, there was something that stood out about the company. When you walk into a place and everybody seems upbeat and is smiling, that really says a lot about the workplace.”
Nieves said his favorite thing about Abacus is the way he is treated. “Some of the other places out there just don’t compare. And, I like the quality of customer we have here. Our clients expect a lot from us. When we walk in a home, they already know we’re there to provide outstanding service. Customers don’t question our every move, because they know we’re going to do a good job.”
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
O’Neill said he sees unlimited growth for his company, the only obstacle being finding the right employees. “We want to deliver exceptional service to our customers, but finding the employees to do that seems to be a lot harder than finding the work.
“Our general manager came to us last year from the oil industry,” O’Neill continued. “She wasn’t even in our industry, and she’s been a great manager for us. At all times, we’re searching for the best talent available.”
Previously, O’Neill limited his search based on experience and proximity. But, now, he’s looking coast to coast.
“When we look for employees now, especially in management, we’re looking nationwide and looking for the best people we can get, regardless of their background. We’ve found that brings a fresh look into the business. People who come on board as a manager from another industry ask a lot of questions, like, ‘Why do we do that?’ And, you find yourself answering, ‘Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ So, bringing in new people challenges the status quo. You start looking at every single practice and question if that is the best way to do it or if there is potentially a better way?”
O’Neill is hopeful Abacus will someday eclipse the $50 million mark. “We’re in one of the best cities in the country for air conditioning. But, getting more young people into the industry is the biggest challenge the industry will face over the next several years. We have to figure out how to get into the schools and convince young people that the trades can provide an amazing lifestyle, if they’re willing to put in the work.”
Publication date: 1/18/2016