Symbiosis in Action: One Family, Two Complementary HVAC Businesses
Vincent’s Heating & Plumbing and Online-Access enjoy a mutually beneficial partnership
Way over in the “thumb” area of mid-Michigan, Vincent’s Heating & Plumbing Inc. and Contractor’s Online-Access Inc. harmoniously coexist within the same space in the city of Port Huron. It’s not out of the ordinary for an HVAC contracting company to share a building with another business; however, in this case, both businesses share equal ownership by the Squires brothers.
In addition to being family, Daniel Squires, president, Vincent’s Heating & Plumbing, and David Squires, president, Online-Access, are business partners and friends, often vacationing together.
“The strength of our business is our partnership,” Dave Squires said. “We did it differently than everyone else out there who says someone has to own at least 51 percent or else decisions won’t get made. The problem with that philosophy is you end up dragging people where they don’t want to be. Our philosophy, even when my father was part of the partnership, was everybody has to be 100 percent, meaning you respect your partner.”
“Dave and I have a strong Christian faith,” Daniel Squires added. “We have family ties, we have faith, and we have shared values in the way we treat people. A partnership can be tougher than a marriage. The toughest thing in business is when you end up with partners who have different values.”
Another thing that benefits their partnership is how the brothers have completely different personalities, noted Colleen Keyworth, sales and business development, Online-Access, and Dave Squires’ daughter.
“They are super different, but they complement each other,” Keyworth said. “My grandma always said Dave was the kite and Dan holds the string. There have been times when Dave has an idea, gets super excited about it, runs over to the other side of the building, and comes back with his head down. There’s this practicality that they each see a different side of something.”
The two businesses truly are family-run companies. In addition to Keyworth, Dave Squires’ younger son Andrew; his other daughter, Sarah Orchard; and his sister-in-law, Kerry Darden, all work for Online-Access. On the Vincent’s side, Daniel Squires’ son Brendan and daughter Alanna both work for the company, as does Keyworth’s husband, Rob.
“I started my business so I could keep my family employed,” Dave Squires joked. “Every day is take your kid to work day. It’s been enjoyable. I get a few more years with my kids to try and straighten them out.”
The company was founded by Vincent Unte in 1957. The Squires’ father got the ball rolling when he went to work for Unte, with the understanding he would eventually acquire the business. The sale closed in 1971.
Both brothers worked in the business while they were in high school.
“We were encouraged to grow beards as soon as we could because it cut down on customer complaints that they were sending kids to do the job,” Dave Squires said.
“The first summer I worked for my dad, he paid me $20 a week,” Daniel Squires added. “I averaged it out, and I made 57 cents an hour. I went to him at the end of the summer and said this has got to change.”
Later, both brothers left the business to attend school. Daniel Squires received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Walsh College and also has a Master Plumbing license. Dave Squires earned his bachelor’s in business as well as an HVACR technology degree from Ferris State University, and he holds the company’s mechanical licenses. Upon their return home, their father went against the advice of his accountant and gave each son 25 percent of the business — something that was completely unheard of.
“His reasoning was, ‘if you’re going to screw me, I’d rather know now than later,’” said David Squires. “It was devious, really, because then we felt responsible for the company. And we started growing it from that point.”
The brothers officially took over the family business in the early ’90s. Dave Squires took a brief hiatus when he developed a refrigerant recovery machine, sold it to Mueller Brass (now Mueller Industries), and worked with them for about three years. Upon his return, the company joined Contractors Success Group and learned marketing best practices. That was also when the company started pushing to get into the internet in 1999. Online-Access launched in 2000.
“We were writing marketing and selling it to other companies,” Dave Squires said. “One of the things about having a very small market — we back up to Canada — is you get very creative. Online Access started up as a marketing company. We also brought in a website developer, my brother-in-law. He helped us create our first content management website. It was very crude and rough. And by about 2002, we hired some local kids going to Kettering University to rewrite our program. What they wrote was so good, nothing out there could touch it. We ended up hiring them, and that’s how we became an internet company in 2002.”
Online-Access has grown to over 450 contracting clients in North America and Australia. In fact, Dave Squires jokes that Online-Access is slowly pushing Vincent’s out of the building.
“It’s the story of the camel and the Bedouin,” he said. “The camel slept outside, and the Bedouin slept in his tent, but during the night, the camel puts his nose inside, then his head, then his body, and by the next morning, the Bedouin is outside.”
What’s unique is how both businesses benefit each other. Online-Access regularly uses Vincent’s to test out ideas, and Vincent’s benefits from Online-Access’ marketing expertise. In fact, Vincent’s has grown over 20 percent each year for the past three years, Daniel Squires noted.
“Learning what they do on the Vincent’s side gives me the trust factor for my contractors when I do training because I’m familiar with the issues and challenges in their businesses,” Keyworth said.
BUILDING A BETTER BUSINESS
While his brother was developing Online-Access, Daniel Squires was busy developing processes and efficiencies for Vincent’s. He spent time narrowing down the scope of service the company offers, backing out of the commercial market in the early 2000s. Now, the company is 100 percent repair and replace in the residential market.
“Most people in this industry are trying to be all things to all men, but then you have all kinds of learning curves and inefficiencies when you’re doing that,” Daniel Squires said. “One of the things I determined early on was the need for a target market. This is our sweet spot in terms of making money. For us, in this area, one of the first things I looked at was the oil business.
Half of the stock on our truck was for oil heating when maybe 5 percent of the work would be oil. And the oil stock we had was heavy, cast-iron stuff, and so, one of the first things I did was decide we weren’t going to do oil anymore. It was tough because we had some customers we had to give up, and some of them had some hurt feelings. But it was a business decision.”
Daniel Squires also used this time to take a good, hard look at his inventory system.
“One of the best things I did was create a standardized inventory,” he explained. “Every truck has the exact same stock, with the exception of a few trucks that have both heating and plumbing stock.”
So every truck has the same supplies in the same place, and they get restocked every day. The techs communicate which parts they have used after a job, and a parts person pulls those parts and puts them into the techs’ bins.
“This has allowed us to reduce the amount of stock the techs carried because we’re replenishing on a more frequent basis,” Daniel Squires continued. “The other thing it did was provide more inventory control. Before, guys would come in and grab a particular motor for a job just in case they needed more. So they would have five or six of the same motors on their truck. Then the next guy would come in looking for that motor, and the shelf would be empty, so we would order some, and we would end up with all this stock. After I developed the standardized inventory, I went through a box of Kleenex, figuratively speaking, because of all the stuff we had on our shelves that was obsolete because we weren’t keeping track of it.”
Inventory is one of the most important things a contractor can control for profit, Dave Squires added. “Your money is either in inventory or it’s in profit, and you can’t spend inventory,” he said. “Dan’s background in accounting allows us to look at things — like inventory — from an efficiency standpoint. When we had our last recession and things slowed down, our sales retracted just like everybody else’s, yet we stayed profitable because instead of working on the top end of the business, we focused on the back end to reduce costs.”
Both companies have grown over the years. Vincent’s now employs 20 people, while Online-Access has 21 employees.
The two companies also benefit by sharing resources. For example, Colleen Fenner-Mortimer is the assistant general manager for Vincent’s, and she has worked for the company for the past 15 years. But she also functions as the controller for Online-Access.
“My job is wearing multiple hats,” she said. “I multitask pretty well. My job for Online-Access is human resources, and I see the financial aspects, payroll, accounts payable, etc. And I have one more hat with Vincent’s, helping make all the departments work well together. Time management is key for both of these roles. Dave and Daniel are both very supportive.
“It’s a really great place to work,” Fenner-Mortimer continued. “The owners are fabulous people — they really take care of all the employees. They go above and beyond. And that just works out really well because the employees take care of them, too.”
CHANGING THE DYNAMIC
About three years ago, Daniel Squires started sending out a monthly print newsletter for 11 months of the year (he takes January off). The newsletter is intentionally printed on computer size paper in black and white to show it was home-produced. It includes a “Through My Eyes” section where he writes a column discussing his personal life, relating back to his business in some form or fashion.
“It’s not a slick piece, but I got sold on it when he [Daniel] had a medical procedure on his heart and wrote about it in the newsletter,” Dave Squires explained. “He got get-well-soon cards from customers. It hit me then: We’re the nation that watches the Kardashians because we want to know how other people see things.”
About 3,500 newsletters go out each month, and that list includes maintenance agreement customers and people who have done business with Vincent’s within the last three years.
“Up until I did this, the face of the business was my technicians, while the voice of the business was the people answering the phones,” Daniel Squires said. “Once I started doing this, I became the face of the business. I will get phone calls from people and they feel that they know me. I’ll go out for a job, and customers will go, ‘Oh my, you’re THE Daniel Squires. You’re the owner.’ It’s almost like I’m a rock star. It’s changed the dynamic of how customers relate to the business. People want to do business with people they know and like.”
The response from the newsletter has shown Dave Squires how marketing is changing.
“It’s all about transparency and engagement,” he said. “It’s no longer about price because you can’t be a price contractor and be successful. You can’t just throw money at it. That’s the biggest thing we’ve learned. Everybody just wants to throw money at it, but it’s so inefficient versus going out and actually engaging with people, writing articles, and giving your perspective because people will be drawn to it.”
“One of the things I learned a long time ago is most everyone in the industry bases their marketing on some type of super-duper special,” Daniel Squires added. “When I changed my paradigm to focus on what is unique about what we offer, it opened up a whole new vista, because now I can brag about what makes us different than the competition.”
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE
It’s been an interesting ride for both the Squires brothers as they’ve grown their businesses side by side.
“My future goal is I want to see to it that Vincent’s is able to continue to provide top-quality service in our local market area,” Daniel Squires said. “That’s what we’re known for. And I want to continue to provide a great place for people to work. I take it very seriously when I hire someone, because then I’m responsible for them and their families. I have to be wise in the decisions I make because it’s impacting a lot more people than just me. I want to be able to have continuity that when I am ready to move on, the business will be able to successfully keep going. It’s just like having kids. You want to ensure the next generation does better than you do and succeeds without you.”
Dave Squires has his sights set on future market trends.
“Eighteen years ago, we didn’t believe we had a large enough market to support both of us with just HVAC and plumbing, so we started Online-Access, when it was just a gleam in my eyes,” he said. “Since then, we’ve been able to use it to build out, and it’s given us freedom to try new things. For example, our Community Engagement Program we’re just about to release [where a contractor features three local charities on its website, and the community votes on a winner for a large cash prize] is huge because of the connection and brand awareness it creates within our community. We’re pushing our web development toward systems to make it easier for a contractor to engage with his community, because we see the age of getting free leads on the internet to be a train wreck in two years for contractors because of Google Local Services. If we do it right and pull it off, we can get contractors more business, more control of their communities, and less dependence on Google — plus, put $1 to $2 million into good local charities every year all over the country.”
In the meantime, both Squires brothers continue to monitor the industry through organization memberships like Service Nation Alliance, Southeastern Michigan ACCA (SEMIACCA), and National Comfort Institute Inc.
“I have an attitude that there is a wolf chasing me at my heels and that I have to stay ahead of that wolf,” Daniel Squires noted. “And so I’m always looking ahead to what things are happening in the industry, legislation, efficiency standards, new technologies, and so on.”
Publication date: 9/17/2018