Do Business and Politics Mix?
HVAC contractors debate the benefits of political involvement
This year is already being described as one of the most politically polarizing in American history. And just as voters are expressing very strong opinions at the polls in 2016, HVAC contractors also have strong opinions about whether it’s good business to be involved in politics.
Fred Kobie, president of Kobie Kooling in Fort Myers, Florida, said his family business has been politically involved since its inception.
“We support local county commissioners, school board members, hospital board members, and fire district members, and we support two county sheriff race candidates,” Kobie said. “I believe if you live and work in this community, you should be involved.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Stribling, owner and COO of Sullivan Service Co. in Birmingham, Alabama, doesn’t believe in using his company for any political purpose.
“It makes little or no sense for a business to be involved,” Stribling said. Although he is personally very informed and involved in politics, Stribling doesn’t tie his involvement to his company at all.
Between these two extremes, there are a range of other approaches contractors take when it comes to mixing their business with politics. And, regardless where you stand, it’s always worth examining the benefits and drawbacks of mixing politics and business.
LEVELS OF INVOLVEMENT
According to Paul Edwards, a business author and consultant, there are potential benefits for business owners who become active in politics, but only if they can keep their cool.
“What you want to avoid is being labeled as a hothead or a zealot,” Edwards said. “If you are a fair-minded person who is level-headed in your exchanges with other people, then you can make good contributions politically. And you can advance your business in ways you couldn’t otherwise.”
He continued: “I find that you can make faster, better relationships working in politics than playing golf. It’s a way of making contacts more deeply and more widespread than one might normally do in terms of one’s marketing. And, this is very true for service companies.”
One of the drawbacks for a business owner, though, is that political involvement can be very time-consuming.
“The problem is the time involved. You’re going to have to be judicious about the time you’re going to spend away from your business,” Edwards said.
Yet Edwards pointed out that, in addition to relationship-building, another benefit of becoming politically involved is the knowledge and awareness owners gain. Those who are politically active are better informed about upcoming legislation and regulations that may impact their companies.
“At the national, state, and local levels, if you don’t know what’s going on, you can find yourself saddled with onerous regulations and taxes. But, if you’re involved, chances are you’re going to know what’s happening,” Edwards said.
Todd Washam, director of industry relations, ACCA, agreed it’s very important for HVAC contractors to be aware of political issues that affect them. According to Washam, ACCA encourages its contractor members to engage in politics on local, state, and federal levels.
“As an association, we try to work with our members as we focus on the policies — not the name-calling and mudslinging. It can be a challenge to focus on the policies because we are bombarded by the news with the latest headlines of who called who what,” he said. “In short, contractors need to focus attention on all levels of government that impact their businesses.”
Washam added that when contractors are informed, they can communicate their knowledge to employees and customers.
“Our contractors are in people’s homes every day, sitting with families at the kitchen table to discuss very expensive equipment and the hard work it takes to install it,” Washam said. “Sometimes people want to know why the price of a job might be so high, and our technicians have to explain all of the regulations and legislation — from the federal, state, and local governments — that can increase the price of installing new equipment,” he said.
Jon Melchi, vice president of government affairs and business development, Heating, Air-conditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), further explained how business owners can educate employees on political issues.
“In this day of mass communication, a recent study showed that employees view their employers as a better source of information than political parties [like Republicans or Democrats],” Melchi said. “We encourage our members to educate employees.”
While he noted business owners are often uncertain what they can say to employees, Melchi said, “It’s completely appropriate to communicate the issues, and it’s important to stick to black-and-white policy and business issues.”
Melchi also stressed the importance of voting and noted that HARDI is rolling out a voter registration drive this year. He recommends that employers be flexible with their employees on Election Day, allowing them to come in late or leave early to encourage voter turnout.
But, he cautioned, “What [employers] cannot do is tell employees how to vote or, if someone disagrees with them, to hold that against them.”
It’s also important for contractors to maintain compliance with the laws regulating political donations, Washam noted.
“If business owners are considering political donations or becoming active with a campaign, then they have to follow the rules of the Federal Elections Commission and any state and local election laws,” he said.
Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, New York, is one contractor who believes in the importance of discussing politics with employees.
“I feel it’s our responsibility and duty to inform employees of the stances of each candidate and what that stance means to everyone — the employee, the company, and the community,” Isaac said. “I have found that many of our younger employees are either misinformed or under-informed in many ways politically, and they have relied on media sound bites to form their opinions.”
Yet, Isaac said many of these same employees are looking for someone they trust to advise them.
“That’s where I try to play a role,” he continued. “I don’t push one candidate over another because, many times, after outlining what the policies mean, I don’t have to. Employees have repeatedly asked me about what the specific positions of the candidates will mean to them in the long term, and they’re looking to see what I think.”
Overall, Isaac said, “I try to cut through the party politics to arrive at an objective answer.”
Craig Jones, vice president of Slasor Heating & Cooling Inc. in Livonia, Michigan, also believes he has a responsibility to discuss politics and educate those around him.
“I’ve become somewhat involved in terms of sharing my opinions with employees, customers, and friends when the opportunity presents itself,” he said. “I definitely would not want to offend a customer, though.”
Jones has put yard signs supporting specific candidates in front of his business. And when he speaks to employees about political issues, he tries to dispel misleading information they may have learned, often through social media.
“When topics come up — like taxes, wages, health care, government regulations, and how they impact take-home pay, the cost of doing business, and our ability to hire more people — I feel compelled to paint the complete picture,” he said.
But, Jones added, “We’re very careful to not offend a customer with our position on politics.”
For those who avoid mixing politics with business, the most frequently cited reason is their desire to maintain good customer relationships.
“Most issues and candidates are only supported by 50 percent of voters; therefore, a business that openly supports something politically stands to alienate half its customers,” Stribling said. “Where is the business sense in that?”
Stribling explained he is open to discussing politics with both customers and employees, but only in a nonjudgmental way.
“In general, we’ve become so partisan in our politics there is little room for civil discourse and rational discussion,” he said.
But, Stribling continued, “If a customer wants to talk politics, I will. If we agree, all the better. If we are in disagreement, I politely listen and nod my head, sometimes with the comment, ‘I hear what you say.’”
Paul Sammataro, president of Samm’s Heating and Air in Plano, Texas, also prefers to keep politics out of his business.
“I do not like to discuss politics, period,” Sammataro said. “Look at the favorability of Congress or most candidates. You have a better than 50 percent chance of a heated debate.”
Sammataro avoids all political conversations with customers and has trained his employees to follow this policy, as well. He tells them to avoid the topic, even when they agree with a political comment made by a customer.
“You never know if a coworker or family member on the call may have a strong opposite opinion,” Sammataro said.
Taking a public stance on a candidate or an issue can certainly invite a strong opposite reaction, but that doesn’t worry Kobie.
“I’ve lost customers for expressing my views in the past, and when it happens, it happens,” Kobie said. “I believe as a business leader I have a responsibility to participate and I do.”
Plus, he said, “I think the ones who leave over something like this are few and far between.”
As an example of Kobie Kooling’s commitment to politics, Kobie noted his office is currently serving as the campaign headquarters for a candidate for county sheriff.
For business owners who are willing to weather the risks of political involvement, there are ample opportunities for business owners to get engaged, Edwards said.
“The first thing I would do is assess what your own interests are, both as a human being and as a business,” Edwards said. “Then, take a look at the political landscape to determine the level that issues are being decided and see where there are opportunities to participate at that level. The more people that participate in our political process, the better our country will be,” he said.
Summing up his perspective as a politically active business owner, Kobie said: “We work and live in the community where these laws take effect, and they have an effect on our livelihood. If you’re not involved, you shouldn’t complain.”
Publication date: 6/6/2016