There is nobody harder on a contracting business owner than another dozen business owners, according to Larry Taylor, an HVACR industry advisor and coach.
“When you’re sitting in a room full of another dozen entrepreneurs and they’re telling you you’re full of bologna and doing all the wrong things, it’s an ego-beating trip, I promise you that,” he said. “And that’s something you don’t get from school or a manufacturer meeting or even an association meeting. That’s why MIX Groups are so valuable.”
ACCA’s Management Information Exchange (MIX) Group is a contractor-to-contractor networking and information exchange program. Most MIX Groups consist of 10 to 12 HVACR contractors and ACCA members from noncompeting areas. The goal is to help every company improve by getting honest and frank counsel from peers.
MIX Groups typically meet twice each year and travel to each other’s companies to review sales, operations, policies, advertising, staff, strategies, facilities, etc. However, they are often in close contact between these biannual meetings — enough so that a close bond forms among group members.
“There are many stories in the industry about MIX Groups,” Taylor said. “Stories such as members helping a fellow member through the death of a spouse. Having built those relationships with 10 to 12 other contractors allows you to have someone to lean back on to assist you in troubled times.”
Taylor speaks from his own personal experience when his son was in a dirt bike riding accident and broke his back.
“Needless to say, we went to the hospital, and that was our primary focus at that point in time,” he said. “We had our MIX Group members call and offer assistance to the team back at the office, offering to come down as we needed to help manage the sales department, or whatever the case was at the time. That’s just an invaluable asset you get from your participation in a MIX Group.”
Taylor was involved in several MIX Groups during his career, right up until he sold his company in 2012. Now, he acts as a facilitator for MIX Group meetings upon request.
“Most people involved in a MIX Group will tell you it’s the best thing they’ve ever done for their business,” Taylor said. “Entrepreneurship is a great thing, but it’s also very lonely. By joining a MIX Group, joining ACCA, and going to conferences, you’re no longer on this island by yourself. You have people you can reach out to.”
ACCA currently has between 50 to 60 active MIX Groups and approximately 30 contractors on a waiting list to get into a group. ACCA does not place anyone into a group — contractors are invited into an existing group or start their own.
“When an existing group is looking for a new contractor to come into their group — let’s say a member retired — they will contact me to see which candidates are out there,” said Todd Washam, director, industry and external relations, ACCA. “I’ll send them somebody who wants to apply for a group, then the group does their own evaluation. They essentially have their own hiring procedures on how they bring a contractor into their group. They have very specific criteria they are seeking in a candidate. It can take a year before they finalize the decision. Some groups have to be a unanimous vote to bring in a new member — some may just be majority.”
Contractors interested in joining a MIX Group must fill out a profile, which includes information, such as size of the business, number of employees, what types of services they offer, what markets they operate in, and more. Because the process to join an existing MIX Group can be lengthy, Washam said he works with the members on the waiting list regularly. Though he’s rarely successfully in his efforts, he encourages them to form new groups.
“It takes a lot of work, and contractors are busy people,” he said. “They don’t want to take all this time and interview eight contractors and question if they are the right eight to start a group. We also try to be realistic about what it takes to be in a MIX Group. It takes about $7,000 to $10,000 per year because of travel costs and entertainment while visiting a member facility. Additionally, if your group hires a meeting facilitator, that can increase the cost, too.”
Washam reiterated that these group members are in constant contact with each other, often doing monthly or bimonthly conference calls.
“These people are best friends when they’re in a group,” he said. “A lot of them go on vacations together. They’re not just in contact for business purposes.”
While Bret Foxson, owner, Comfort Tech, Millersville, Maryland, has only been part of a MIX Group for two years, the experience has already benefited his company.
“My group spent some time at my shop in the fall,” he said. “They pointed out some potential issues that were easier to see from an outsider’s perspective. They suggested a number of improvements that we could make. I enjoy having like-minded, ambitious friends that can help me and share in my success, while I help them and share in their success.”
Dan Weis, owner, Weis Comfort Systems Inc., Fenton, Missouri, is also relatively new to being a MIX Group member, having joined in 2013. Weis, who was serving on the board of his local ACCA chapter, was influenced by his fellow board members who were all part of a group at the time.
“They were always going on about how great it is to have a peer review group, and how it’s done wonders for their businesses,” Weis said. “It’s really helped me with organization and accountability, big time. The opportunity to see behind the door of someone else’s business is huge, and it gives you great perspective. You get ideas of how to streamline and make yourself more cost efficient as well as more profitable. I just love having a sounding board with no filtration whatsoever. ”
Weis said the most important thing about being part of a group is being open and honest.
“You also have to be willing to change,” he added. “If you’re not willing to change or not open to change, the MIX Group is going to be a waste of time. You can’t think you have all the answers. You have to be willing to invest time and money because there are going to be some expenses, but you hope that comes back to you in return on your investment by the knowledge that you get in return.”
On the flip side, Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, New York, has been indoctrinated into MIX Groups at a young age, thanks to his father, who ran the business before he took over.
“I’ve been exposed to MIX Groups my whole professional life — 20-plus years — with my father’s group, and I’ve been in a couple of different groups myself. It’s really been integral to our company. Most small heating and air conditioning businesses are kind of out on an island a lot of times. A multifaceted and diverse board of directors is something a normal small business wouldn’t be exposed to. For us, it is kind of like our board of directors, our sounding board. I can honestly say there isn’t a single thing we do as a company that hasn’t been influenced one way or another by our MIX Group.”
Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning hosted a MIX Group meeting in April.
“It’s an intense week where the other members come in, interview our employees, and provide a written report that can be anywhere between 10 to 20 pages long — things we can improve upon. Then, they hold your feet to the fire because the very next week, someone is calling you and saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing about that?’ That should tell you right there that having another set of eyes on something is definitely worth the investment.”
Isaac said his group has a great cross section of companies, ranging in size from $5 million to $240 million in revenue.
“Size does not matter, to an extent,” he noted. “I’m a witness to the fact that the $240 million company gets good ideas from the $5 million company.”
Isaac’s MIX Group is also currently interviewing a new candidate. The group is looking at the company’s size, business mix, ownership, culture, leadership, and who will be participating in the meetings.
“Our group is designed as an individual membership — the company doesn’t belong, the individual belongs,” he explained. “That person then represents the company at the meetings. That’s beneficial because we’re not getting the general manager one year, the president the next, or the service manager after that. There is one person to develop that relationship and trust. We also look at personality when we do our interview. We want to see what they can bring to the group. We don’t want someone who is just getting ideas; we want them to bring added value as well.”
Location is also a contributing factor because the prospective company cannot be competing with any of the other current group members. Isaac noted that he wouldn’t even consider any company in New York because his business operates throughout the entire state.
“You get out of it what you put into it,” Isaac added. “You’re not just going to show up and expect to get value out of it — you will pick up a lot of stuff through osmosis, but it’s an investment of both time and money. I recommend if somebody’s not in a group, that they get involved. It’s something they won’t regret.”
Publication date: 8/6/2018