When their HVAC contracting business began to suffer during the Great Recession in 2008, Ray and Tina Bramble of Front Royal, Virginia, didn’t throw in the towel and give up. Instead, they decided to convert their independent business, LCI Services Inc., into an Aire Serv franchise.
“We were mostly doing light commercial business, and the market started slowing down,” Ray Bramble said. “We got a call from Aire Serv about an opportunity to become a franchise. So, I went and visited them and was blown away. I met some great people, and they had such a great structure from the office dispatch program all the way to how the technicians meet and greet customers. It’s the whole nine yards. Tina did most of the research — she went out and looked at what it would cost to get a dispatch program, have a full-time consultant, and did an invoicing of the whole gambit, and, believe it or not, the costs were very similar. The only difference was we wouldn’t have been part of an amazing organization, such as Aire Serve and The Dwyer Group.”
The Brambles officially converted into Aire Serv of Bull Run in 2009. Before converting, they were earning about $100,000 in revenue. During its first year as an Aire Serve franchise, the company increased sales by 400 percent to $460,000. And profits kept growing from there, with $863,000 in revenue earned in 2011, $1 million in 2012, $1.6 million in 2013, $2.3 million in 2014, and $2.5 million in 2015.
Additionally, the company now performs about 80 percent of its business in the residential market throughout northern Virginia. The location still does about the same volume of light commercial business, but it now makes up only 20 percent of the company’s overall revenue, Ray Bramble noted.
“Quite honestly, there’s no golden tree out back — there aren’t any investors,” Ray Bramble said. “It’s all basically sweat equity and a lot of time and energy. Buying a franchise is a lot like buying a gym membership. It can either work you or you can work it. None of it’s easy. It’s not like you buy a franchise and instantly gain customers. You have to do all the small things. That’s how we attribute our success.”
The Brambles’ Aire Serv location was named Aire Serv’s 2015 Franchisee of the Year. The company also gained the International Franchise Association’s 2015 Franchisee of the Year Award for its outstanding performance and the contributions it’s made to enhance the growth and development of franchising.
“Ray and Tina exemplify the best of what we want an Aire Serv to be,” said James Walker, vice president of operations, Aire Serv. “They maintain a workplace culture that creates opportunities for growth and achievement for their employees in an atmosphere that is fun and respectful. At the same time, they are a tent-pole business in their community, constantly supporting other local businesses and keeping up great relationships with their customers in the market. They live life by the code of values and treat others as they would want to be treated.”
The Brambles have additionally won Excellence in Leadership, Top Gun, Recruiter of the Year, and Builders of the Year Awards from Aire Serv, as well as a Best of HomeAdvisor Award in 2014 and Angie’s List Super Service Award in 2012.
Ray Bramble began his HVAC career working for a property management company after serving in the military.
“I didn’t see much room for growth for my family and I,” he said. “It wasn’t something I could hang my hat on at the end of the day, and I was just so tired. I was looking for something more. I wasn’t satisfied with pushing a time clock. So, I left the company, started doing service work, and started working with people. I’ve been a pretty independent person my whole life, and I just didn’t like working for other people. One of the biggest drivers to have my own company was financial, but, really, it was more about self-satisfaction in being able to help so many people. Believe it or not, in the service world, you get to be the hero all the time. We have the ability to change peoples’ health. That’s very appealing to me.”
The Brambles started out with three employees, Ray Bramble, Tina Bramble, and their oldest son. Today, the business has grown to include 19 employees and 12 fleet vehicles.
“Ray and I never actually really talked about, or even thought about, going into business together,” said Tina Bramble. “But, when we received the call from Aire Serv, we both started talking about it. I was really excited because I kind of wanted to work from home; that’s always been a dream of mine.
“We planned for about a year for me to continue to work outside the home, but within the first three months, we realized there was an opportunity for me to come on full time and really help grow the business. So, that’s what we did.”
The Brambles followed recommendations on hiring practices to bring in some key employees to help grow and run the business, Ray Bramble said. “You only have so much in your head; you need other opinions and leaders in your business. If I wanted to grow, I needed help. There’s only so much we can do otherwise.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about helping people, Ray Bramble noted. “My favorite thing about this industry is we can change the customer’s paradigm. When you can actually change someone’s monthly expenditures by educating them about their options and then see them invest in something to save them money over the long haul, that’s the fun part. We also get to reach out, meet, and interact with those we help, which is fun, as well.”
In addition to growing their business, the Brambles have managed to create a family atmosphere in the workplace. The company has an open-door policy and holds regular team building exercises with employees. “We went zip lining last year,” Tina Bramble noted. “It’s a family oriented culture. We speak to our employees, find out what their goals are, and learn what makes them tick. They can talk to anybody here and share aspects about their personal lives.”
Tina Bramble said that between her and Ray, she is the social butterfly of the two, which is an advantage when it comes to networking and volunteering in the community.
“Tina has a marketing budget and she loves to spend it,” Ray Bramble said. “But, part of our success has to do with how well Tina manages the marketing aspect of business. She’s granted us visibility in the community. And people appreciate when a company gives back to the community.”
Tina Bramble started Project Love, in which the company gives away a heating system for a family in need. Community members nominate people, and then the Brambles visit several homes before narrowing it down to a final three. From there, the customers select the winner via Facebook.
“This was the second year we did this,” Ray Bramble said. “We plan to continue it every year. We work with our supplier to get the equipment at zero cost, and we supply all the materials and labor.
“We don’t just fix what’s wrong today, we look at the entire system and affirm that the system is going to prevail until the next maintenance visit,” continued Ray Bramble. “It’s the Aire Serv difference. We make systems more comfortable, efficient, reliable, and safer. Anything we touch, we guarantee for a full year, sometimes up to 12 years on parts installations. We also have a live person on call for 24-hour service. You can’t get that with most companies. On top of that, we employ and encourage all of our technicians to be NATE [North American Technician Excellence]-certified. That’s above and beyond most companies in our area.
We hire and train our technicians to consistently exceed industry standards.”
Donald Laing, service manager, Aire Serv, said the company truly takes the customer’s best interest to heart.
“They go the extra mile to please a customer and address all the IAQ needs of that customer,” he said. “It’s different from a lot of places I’ve been. The teamwork is amazing. Everybody works toward the same goal.”
Laing, who has only been working for the Brambles for fewer than four months, has been in the HVAC industry for more than 30 years.
“Ray is very hands-on and involved in the day-to-day operations,” he said. “It’s absolutely a family culture here. Everybody is on a first name basis. They [Ray and Tina] talk to employees throughout the day and ask about their families. I’m very excited to be here. I’ve been in this business since 1980, and I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years.”
Laing manages four service technicians in the field and two installation crews and has been busy putting together a training schedule for the offseason.
“It’s all about the customers. If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business,” Laing said. “If you lose that focus, you lose everything.”
The biggest change the Brambles have faced was the growth of the business, according to Ray Bramble.
“We were able to move out of a residential location into a legitimate business location where people can walk through the front door,” he said. “We moved to Main Street USA, if you know what I mean. Very small percentages of HVAC companies actually have business locations where you can walk through the front door and meet a live person ready to shake your hand or answer any questions. It’s not that type of industry.”
When it comes to current challenges, Aire Serv of Bull Run, like the rest of the industry, is having trouble finding experienced technicians amidst a nationwide labor shortage.
“We have a plethora of applications for unqualified help,” Ray Bramble said. “It’s one of the reasons I started teaching at the local community college — to find good help. Because if it’s not raining, you’ve got to make it rain. I have to find good people. In our industry, all the qualified techs are working for other companies. And it’s not an overnight process. It takes time and experience to be able to do certain things in our industry.”
In addition to teaching at the local community college, Ray Bramble said he is looking to start a co-op program at the local high school. “The problem starts there. You have to find kids who are not going to college who actually have the technical ability. It starts with the vocational programs in the schools. We’re not doing a good enough job showing the possible career paths in the high school level.”
FOCUSING ON THE FUTURE
The overall goal is to remain competitive in the market, but still make a profit, according to Tina Bramble. The husband-and-wife team are working to expand the company from $2.5 million to $5 million within this decade. Eventually, they plan to sell the company to fund their retirement.
As for the future of the HVAC industry, Ray Bramble believes there will always be a need for skilled technicians on the refrigeration side of the business, but he is concerned with the possibility of the profession becoming a plug-and-play industry for homeowners.
“My concern is the HVAC system may become an appliance that belongs to homeowners exclusively, like a toaster or microwave,” he explained. “What I mean, is you can go down to your furnace, get a diagnostic code, go on Amazon, and have the part you need shipped to your door. At some point, our industry may change in that regard to where a homeowner may not need to call a company.”
Tina Bramble added that smart thermostats sort of have that capability now. “You have thermostats communicating with systems that will tell you what the problem is basically. It reminds you to change your filter, and there are different codes on there, like Ray said, that may diagnose the system. So you order it off Amazon and watch how to fix the problem on YouTube.”
“Our industry is changing, and that’s why we have to change with it,” Ray Bramble said. “We have to be up on the latest changes. Like thermostats and home automation; I’ve seen homes being monitored by companies, almost like security systems. Not everybody is a do-it-yourselfer. I think home monitoring is a positive change in the industry that will allow people to prevent problems via monitoring systems. And, whether we like it or not, that’s the direction this industry is going.”
Publication date: 8/22/2016