George “Butch” Welsch is a well-known name throughout the HVAC industry. The 74-year-old owner of the St. Louis-based Welsch Heating & Cooling Co. has more than five decades of industry experience and doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
Welsch was recently honored as the ACCA 2016 Residential Contractor of the Year during the ACCA 2016 conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. The company has also won contractor of the year awards from the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA) as well as many other accolades throughout the company’s 121-year career.
Welsch, who started working for the company full time in 1963, officially took over the business from his father in 1982. Since then, the company has grown to serve the entire metropolitan St. Louis area, including about 25 miles into Illinois. Welsch Heating & Cooling currently has 50 vehicles in its fleet, employs 80 individuals, as well as earned $14.3 million in revenue in 2015.
A LONG HISTORY
Welsch Heating & Cooling’s roots run deep in the St. Louis community, as the business was created by Welsch’s great-grandfather in 1895.
“It was started as more of a general store. We sold pot-bellied stoves because that’s what passed as heat back in those days,” Welsch said. “Then my grandfather took over, but he died in 1929. My dad, who was born in 1912, had to quit high school and take over the company. And, as you may recall, the stock market crashed in 1929. So, here he is, a sophomore in high school, only 17 years old, taking over a family business and the bottom falls out of the whole world. How they managed to survive in those times is amazing to me.”
Welsch often spent summers working for the company up until he got his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis.
He said entering the HVAC business was just what you did as a member of the Welsch family.
“I had been accepted to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and we talked about the advantages of going to MIT versus the advantages of going to Washington University. The thought was that if I went to Washington University, I would probably meet people who would be a lot more advantageous for future business connections. But, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”
Welsch Heating & Cooling belongs to ACCA, SMACNA, the Home Builders Association, and several local area chambers of commerce.
“These associations are beneficial because they connect you with other contractors who you can openly share ideas with,” Welsch said. “You can share financial information and just about anything because you’re not competing with them for business back home.”
“Just being able to talk openly and ask them how they would handle one of your problems is invaluable,” said Denise Webb, service manager for Welsch Heating & Cooling. “You get that different insight, and you really learn a lot from other contractors.”
Welsch also served on SMACNA’s Board of Directors and was elected as the organization’s president in 1988-1989. “I made 67 trips during that year. The best thing about it was I proved I could be away from the business and the world wouldn’t explode. That was good for me. Plus, I got to meet a lot of great people.”
In its 120-plus years, Welsch Heating & Cooling has seen plenty of changes, which has been challenging, Welsch noted.
“We were a heating company, and then, all of a sudden, we had to learn air conditioning and how to properly install air conditioning,” he said. “The machinery has also changed and we embraced plasma cutters so our guys are not cutting everything by hand. Equipment has also changed with all the upgrades in efficiency, starting with furnaces and then air conditioners as the government keeps upgrading its minimum efficiency standards. In the office, we went from typewriters to word processors to computers, which can provide information much more quickly. I’m not sure they’re always more efficient, as they can be a blessing and a curse.”
Paul Heimann, a 31-year veteran of Welsch Heating & Cooling, said computerization has been the biggest change the company has implemented.
“When I first started at Welsch, we had one little computer sitting in the corner not doing much,” Heimann said. “We purchased our first software in 1986, and it has made life so much easier. Also, the technology of the HVAC systems has changed a lot. In my early days, there were just a few choices when it came to furnaces and air conditioners. Now, each manufacturer has several different lines of furnaces and countless air conditioner options. We have to be on top of our game because consumers have all the information at the tips of their fingers. They do their research and have their questions ready when our guys arrive.”
BUILDING A REPUTABLE BRAND
Welsch Heating & Cooling collectively carries more than a century of customer service experience.
“When people call our company, they always speak to a real person,” Welsch said. “We have no recorded answering machines or menus. You don’t find that very much anymore.”
Welsch Heating & Cooling also provides an unconditional guarantee of the work it performs in order to avoid dissatisfied customers. “The work we do is exceptional, the equipment is name-brand, and everything is done professionally,” Welsch added. “We feel these are things we must provide; this is what sets us apart.”
Heimann, who was hired as a general helper and worked his way up to the role of vice president and comptroller, said the secret is treating customers the way you want to be treated.
“We offer pricing that is fair and advice as if our customers are family members,” he explained. “Every situation we are called to is different, and I firmly believe we have a duty to explain all the options and let customers decide what’s best for them.”
Staff turnover is not a problem at the company, as, according to Welsch, more than 40 employees have been with the company for more than 15 years. “These employees know the level of professionalism we require, and the continuous training we provide just re-emphasizes that commitment. Companies that are continuously changing employees cannot achieve the same level of loyalty that we have from our employees.”
Webb, who has 27 years of service with the company, said working at Welsch Heating & Cooling is like working with family. “Our opinions are asked for and are an important part of the decision making. What more could you ask for than to have a job where you feel secure, important, love the people you work with, and, hey, on top of that, you get paid.”
Webb also said Welsch knows every one of his employees by name and walks the halls of the office several times a day to say hello to them all.
“I think he’s really just checking to see who showed up,” she joked. “He will not pass you by without saying hello and stopping to chat for a few minutes. He knows your passions, if there is something that just occurred in your family, and he always asks the right questions. Butch cares, our management team cares, our office staff care, and our field employees care. When you feel this level of compassion, you feel obliged to pass that on. Butch tells us over and over again we can never do too much for a customer. No one has ever gotten in trouble or been reprimanded for going the extra mile for a customer.”
Welsch continues to focus on customers, and is constantly working to improve the relationship between his team and those they serve.
“As an older company, we have a lot of aging families who have been customers for years,” he noted. “We currently have 5,000 maintenance agreement customers. And, a lot of them have been customers forever. But, we’re losing those people; they’re relocating into retirement homes, passing away, or moving away. So, we’re working to connect to and attract a younger customer base. Attracting those younger customers is the biggest challenge we’ll face over the next couple of years.”
Welsch also said the company approaches advertising much differently than it did even a decade ago. “Advertising has changed over the years. Our grandson watches programs on Netflix; he doesn’t watch TV. He just goes on the computer whenever he wants. So, how am I going to reach him? How am I going to reach this generation? They’re texting and they’re on their phones all the time. I don’t know if they pay attention to billboards and some of the things we used to pay attention to. I don’t know how you can drive, text, and look at a billboard at the same time, but, regardless where their attention is, people are always going to need heating and air conditioning.”
Welsch said his company’s marketing strategy is a constant work in progress. “It’s a moving target because, depending on who you talk with, the way to get to these younger customers varies. I think the one thing we do know is that reviews are more and more important, so we’re working on ways to capture reviews from our customers. Just a few years back, I didn’t even know what a review was, and we didn’t have to worry about them. It’s a different world out there, for sure, and I don’t think anybody knows where it’s going, but it’s getting there fast.”
READY FOR THE FUTURE
Whatever may happen, Welsch is prepared for the future, even though he doesn’t consider himself to be a good futurist or predictor.
“The one thing I can guarantee, because it has always been this way, is that things are going to continue to change,” he said. “The one constant across my 53 years in this industry is that change is on the horizon.”
In addition, Welsch said he does have a succession plan in place for his company.
“My retirement plan is I retire for three weeks twice a year,” he explained. “It’s three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall. And I plan to do that until I keel over. That’s my retirement plan, because I don’t plan to retire. I don’t like daytime TV, my wife doesn’t want me home, and I don’t play golf. I play tennis three times a week, and I can’t play anymore than that because my body won’t take it. I enjoy working. I’m involved.”
Eventually, Welsch did say Heimann will take over the company from a management standpoint while Webb will handle things from an operations standpoint.
“Our daughter and son-in-law and son and daughter-in-law will eventually take ownership,” Welsch said. “I’m very comfortable that, for the next 10-15 years, we are covered. We have the right people in the right places.”
Webb said she hopes to continue to do the very best for both Welsch’s employees and customers.
“We want to continue to grow and prosper, but we don’t ever want to become so big that we stop caring. I have some trepidation about taking over the company in general — I would be lying if I said I didn’t — but a 120-plus-year-old company is so well established in the community that things will likely hum along without skipping a beat.”
Heimann said his goals are to continue to provide a fulfilling career for those who work for it.
“Our success has been based on changing as the market’s changed,” he said. “We’ve gone from a new-construction home-building company to a full-service department to a replacement company and now operate as an architectural sheet metal company. We have diversified into several key departments and have to able to level the ups and downs of each market segment.”
Heimann said Welsch is a true HVAC industry icon, and nobody could ever fill his shoes, but he plans to continue to learn from him and others around him. “I believe we’ve built a strong team of managers, and, together, we will accept the challenge of leading this wonderful company for years to come.”
Welsch said the heating and cooling industry’s greatest intangible is its unprecedented staying power. “Providing comfort to our customers is most important. This, coupled with the fact that the industry is always going to be needed in some form, makes it a good business to be a part of. All businesses have good and bad features. And, it’s comforting to know that, despite good days and bad days, the need for our services is not going away.”
Publication date: 4/11/2016