LAS VEGAS — Karl Zellmer has seen a lot in his 36-year HVACR career. The vice president of air conditioning sales for Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions has seen technology change, the unitary market become incrementally larger, and even the movement of Americans to the West and Southwest in greater numbers.
He has helped lead the industry from recip to scroll, through refrigerant and SEER regulations, and in numerous changes to building and residential controls.
Today, in addition to helping Emerson champion modulation technologies, compressor electronics, and helping contractors sell the concept of comfort, Zellmer is receiving numerous honors, including the inaugural Legends of HVACR Award, which was presented to him at the 2017 Service World Expo.
QUITE A CAREER
At the beginning of his career, Zellmer worked for Ford Motor Co. in Cincinnati. When the industry took a downturn, a couple of his colleagues came to Copeland Corp.
“They told me about this interesting company in Sidney, Ohio,” Zellmer said. “I interviewed, and in 1981 got hired for a purchasing position.”
While he admittedly did not know much about the HVACR business, he has always been mechanically oriented and is a self-described gear head.
“As a kid in Texas, I knew I liked air conditioning,” Zellmer joked. “But I got into the technology and learned from our good engineers. After being around it for a while, you get to the point where you are comfortable enough with it that many of my customers think I am an engineer even though I started in finance. Of course, I’m guessing I’m one of the few finance guys who rebuilt two car engines.”
Soon after joining Emerson, Zellmer began moving up the corporate ladder. He held many positions, including pricing manager, product marketing, field sales, plant manager, director of marketing, and director of sales.
“I continued to get additional responsibilities,” Zellmer said. “I don’t mind working hard if you are winning. It is fun to win.”
When you ask Zellmer about his greatest accomplishments in the industry, two items immediately come to mind. The first is the mentoring he has done for employees at Emerson. In fact, during his 20-year tenure as vice president of air conditioning sales for Emerson, Zellmer has developed several future Emerson leaders, including at least seven people who became vice presidents under his tutelage. Zellmer often claims to have a team that has 500-600 years of compressor experience.
The second item, and perhaps the one Zellmer is most known for, is being the product marketing manager when the company launched the scroll compressor. Zellmer often talks about the Copeland Scroll compressors installed worldwide as his “millions of children.” And one long-standing piece of company lore is that Emerson’s compressor nomenclature, which starts with Z, stands for Zellmer.
“We’ve had some stops and starts, but it has become an industry standard,” Zellmer said. “Now we have made about 150 million scroll compressors and continue to evolve the technology.”
Zellmer also likes to look at charts of Emerson sales and jokingly point out how the company’s growth aligns perfectly with his tenure in the business. Long-time colleagues shared stories from times when budgets were tight, and Zellmer would encourage sales teams to take customers to Mexican restaurants where you can get “a lot of chips and chimichangas for the money.”
Several coworkers fondly remembered rides in Zellmer’s oversized passenger van that he called, “the team bus.”
“We would all pile in and ride to meetings,” Zellmer said. “It was really a team-building experience, even when it broke down on the way home from a customer visit.”
Zellmer is highly respected throughout the HVACR industry.
“He is a stalwart supporter of contractors,” said Paul Stalknecht, president and CEO, ACCA. “Karl listens for issues from contractors and then leads Emerson to help contractors to succeed,”
The key to Zellmer’s industry success is rooted in his investment in relationships and preparation. He is always prepared for meetings.
Although he likes to humbly say he has a “face for radio,” Zellmer has presented to thousands of contractors at industry events like ASHRAE, AHR Expo, and many others, including Emerson’s E360 forums, HVAC on Air podcasts, and company webinars. His presentations, always well attended, are peppered with his candid assessment of the industry and his colloquialisms, in equal measure.
Zellmer was the face and voice of Emerson’s 2005 Get SEERious campaign aimed at helping contractors and homeowners make the transition to the 13-SEER minimum efficiency rating. The campaign earned national media coverage, including a spot on the “Today Show,” and helped educate contractors with its resource materials and regular surveys on preparedness.
Today, Zellmer sees a much different industry than the one he walked into some years ago. He said the biggest obstacle the industry currently faces comes from Washington, District of Columbia.
“I think there are a lot of upcoming regulations facing us in commercial and residential,” Zellmer said. “All have an impact on the cost and value proposition to the customer — some of which do not make sense. The efficiency level becomes a burden on the industry and can shrink it. At some point the homeowner decides they can’t afford it and they just fix it.”
Publication date: 10/16/201