Travis Smith has been actively running and managing his family’s contracting business, Portland-based Sky Heating & Air Conditioning, since 2010. However, he didn’t officially take over until his father — and another business partner — retired from the business in 2013.
And, once Smith took the helm, he implemented a number of new philosophies — several of which were designed to boost the morale of the company’s employees.
And, the policies have not gone unnoticed by the staff at Sky, which recently repaid the boss by nominating him in The NEWS’ Best Contractor to Work For contest.
Smith was elated to learn that he’d been selected as the Best Contractor to Work for in the West.
“I’m very proud [to be named Best Contractor to Work For]. My biggest goal once my father and business partner retired was to do whatever it took to ensure our employees were as happy as possible,” Smith said. “Our employees get treated the same as our customers — it’s in our vision and value statements. Some people say you have to treat customers better than anybody else. I disagree — you have to treat your employees the same because they’re just as, if not more, important. We have thousands of customers, but we only have 38 employees. If you don’t take care of your employees, your customers are not going to be taken care of, and you fall short of reaching your final goals.”
And, Smith and crew are exceeding their goals. The contractor opened a second location in The Dalles, Oregon, just 90 minutes east of Portland, last year, and exceeded $4.5 million in revenue.
CARING ABOUT EMPLOYEES
Keeping his 38 employees — 24 who are technicians and installers — healthy is important to Smith, which is why, after searching high and low, he implemented the most adequate health plan he could find.
“A lot of other people want the employee to have some skin in the game, but we want to make sure our employees stay healthy and utilize health insurance,” Smith said, referencing Sky’s decision to pay 100 percent of employee health insurance. “I see too often where somebody ends up paying 50 percent for the bare minimum, and then employees end up not getting health insurance. Then, if that employee gets sick, he’s out of the workforce. Not only does it harm the individual, it harms their families and the business.”
Additionally, the company offers supplemental insurance for dental and vision, where it pays 50 percent of an employee’s dental or vision plan. Sky’s employees also benefit from a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRA retirement plan with a maximum 3 percent match from the company; up to three weeks paid vacation, depending on years of service; paid holidays; company cell phones; and use of company vehicles for their daily commute.
Sky Heating & Air Conditioning also supplies 100 percent of its technicians’ tools, which is a huge draw for many prospective and existing employees.
“One of the things I’ve noticed about other companies in the industry is they have tool accounts for employees,” Smith said. “A tool account is great. That’s what we used to have, but it’s still their [employees’] money they’re spending on tools to do your job. That didn’t seem fair. My office staff doesn’t have to buy their own computers or printers, so why does my field staff have to buy their own drills?
“It also helps us retain people because, if we grow an employee and train them, the last thing I want is another company to take that employee by offering him or her another dollar per hour during the busy season only to lay them off later,” he continued. “If they have to move to a different company and spend $2,500 on tools, they’re not going to want to make that move for such a minimal amount. They’re going to want to stay with our company because they recognize we’re going to take care of them.”
Smith said, whenever possible, he prefers to promote from within, which is another tool that helps retain talent.
Anthony Crouch, new construction and commercial system designer, started with Sky as an entry-level installer in 2009. From there, he moved to a journeyman installer position to a service technician to lead service technician. Eventually, he was promoted to lead geothermal heat pump installer.
“Sky is a lot different than other companies,” Crouch said. “Most provide a uniform, a vehicle, and that’s it. You’re responsible for all of your own tools, none of them have a retirement match, and most don’t pay for an entire health benefits package — only a portion. There’s a lot of stuff going on here that you just can’t beat. A lot of our guys have been here 10-plus years. We just don’t have much of a turnover rate, because those who work here are happy here, and they never want to leave. I’m one of them.”
EMPHASIS ON TRAINING
Crouch attributes his personal and professional success to the company’s extensive internal training programs. “I’ve learned a great deal here at Sky. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to move up so quickly. The company I worked for prior to Sky didn’t offer a lot of training or high-quality work. Comparing Sky to that company is like comparing night and day. Not only do we have internal training for all of our employees, but we also do a lot of training classes throughout our local distributor network, which are specialized by brand and device. Sky will also fly technicians to other states where these classes are being held for even more specialized training, especially for our geothermal equipment.”
The company pays 100 percent for all employee training, including specialized product training and industry certifications through North American Technician Excellence (NATE). Additionally, employees receive pay increases based on the certifications and licenses they earn.
“The certifications we earn are under our own names, not Sky’s name,” Crouch added. “These certifications benefit the company and us personally.”
One of the things Michele Schmer likes most about working for Sky Heating & Air Conditioning is the family-like atmosphere. Schmer, now the company’s service manager, began her career two years ago as a receptionist.
“We’re like a family,” she said. “We’re all treated equally and fairly, and family always comes first. If we need to stay home or leave because of a sick child, it’s never frowned upon.”
That’s something Schmer can appreciate, having taken two years off after giving birth to twins prior to accepting a position with Sky.
“When I started out as a receptionist, I was answering phones and fielding calls,” Schmer explained. “As times got busier, I would take calls and schedule them for the service department. I had previous experience doing that [at another company]. So, I started doing some of that as well with the customers at Sky. The service manager position was offered to me, and I thought the challenge would be a nice opportunity.”
In cases of bad weather or sick kids, Schmer has the opportunity to work from home, if need be.
“Smith provides everything we need to do our jobs,” she said.
Additionally, Smith also has an open-door policy, according to Crouch.
“Travis is always willing to talk to us. He comes out into the shop all the time to ask the guys how things are going, answer questions, or listen to concerns,” Crouch said. “It’s like no company I’ve ever worked for before. It’s so easy to work with Travis, and, at the end of the day, he’s just one of the guys. Other owners I’ve worked for separate themselves from the crew with that whole ‘successful businessman versus the grunts who work for me’ mentality. Travis is the total opposite. He’s constantly thanking the guys for all their hard work, letting everybody know, ‘Hey, without you guys, this company would be going nowhere.’ Sky is totally unlike any other HVAC company out there.”
Additionally, Smith encourages healthy habits; stresses the importance of kicking not-so-healthy habits, such as smoking and excessive caffeine intake; and promotes work-life balance among his employees.
“Unless there is a real need for an employee to work, we never deny vacation time, and if somebody needs time for family or to take care of their kids, we never say work needs to come first,” Smith said. “This stems back to where my wife used to work. She didn’t get time off approved for our wedding because she didn’t have enough vacation time. They were very strict about it, and she would never get time off, even for doctor’s appointments. She had to be there, and there were no exceptions. I don’t think that’s the right way to take care of somebody. I’m not going to deny [employees] the time they need to take care of themselves. If people are treated appropriately and fairly, they’ll give you the same respect back.”
Tale of the Tape: Sky Heating & Air Conditioning
CONTRACTOR: Sky Heating & Air Conditioning
OWNER: Travis Smith
LOCATIONS: Portland and The Dalles, Oregon
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 36
BULK OF MARKET: Residential
TOTAL SALES FOR 2014: $4.5 million
TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 38
TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 24
AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: Varies by employee and department, but average is two weeks a year.
BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRA retirement plan with a maximum 3 percent company match, up to three weeks paid vacation, paid holidays, company cell phones, use of company vehicles to commute to and from work, paid training with pay increases per certification earned, and 100 percent of tools provided for technicians and installers.
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: Oregon Air Conditioning Contractors Association (ORACCA) and the Home Builders Association (HBA) of Metropolitan Portland Home Performance Council.
THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Owner Travis Smith believes in treating his employees just as well as his customers and has endeavored to provide them with the best health care, retirement plans, training, and tools.
Publication date: 1/25/2016