2018 Best Contractors to Work For: Technology Delivers Convenience to HVAC Customers, Gratitude to Employees
Hoffmann Brothers focuses on training, retaining employees
Who likes reading the comment section?
Hoffmann Brothers’ staff sure does. So much, in fact, that they read them aloud at their monthly staff meetings.
“We always read positive comments that customers make about the service we provide,” said Tom Walker, HVAC service manager at Hoffmann Brothers Heating, Air Conditioning, Plumbing, Electrical & Appliance Repair, St. Louis. “Google reviews, Facebook reviews, if someone calls in … and we do a vote for what [employees] think is the best comment: ‘Technician was kind and courteous’ versus ‘did quick work.’ And the person who wins gets a $30 gift card.”
Walker has been with the company since December 2007, when he hired in as “just a regular service tech working in the field.” Service, he said, is the company’s heritage.
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“That’s just always been the roots we’ve had: working for homeowners, repairing things, fixing stuff when it breaks,” Walker said. “We put a lot of focus on quality service. It’s probably one of the things I liked about it from the beginning ... the focus on quality of work that we provide.”
Quality of service, both to customers and employees, has paid off big time for Hoffman Brothers.
“It’s our reputation: We’re a top-notch company to work for,” said Kyle Ernst, HVAC installation manager.
Handwritten birthday cards, impromptu celebrations, 100 percent medical coverage for the whole family, competitive wages, and a team spirit — these are the types of things that make employees excited to work at Hoffmann Brothers and what helped the company earn The NEWS’ 2018 Best Contractor to Work For award in the North Central and Canadian region.
Hoffmann Brothers is located in St. Louis and serves a 35-mile radius, doing repairs of air conditioners, heat pumps, commercial refrigeration, toilets, drains, water heaters, lighting, and other home services in 80-some municipalities across the metro area. The company’s jobs are 70 percent residential, 30 percent commercial, and 100 percent service-focused: no new construction.
“Our model is direct to end user,” said Chris Hoffmann, general manager. “No one gets in the middle between us and the customer.”
Hoffmann Brothers, a family business, celebrated its 40th anniversary last year.
“My dad, back in 1988, was a mechanical engineer designing bottling lines for Anheuser-Busch,” Hoffmann said. “He and my uncle Tom left when they were in their 30s … went to a broker, bought a four-man business.” Their dad gave them a loan — on condition that they pay it back — “and they were off,” he said.
Hoffmann Brothers is part of ACCA, has an A+ rating and is accredited with the Better Business Bureau, and is a member of the Nexstar Network.
“Nexstar is incredible,” said Walker. “For our business, it’s really been transformative. It really is a best practices organization. What they do, and the road map they’ve created for their members — it’s really incredible.”
Hoffmann Brothers joined Nexstar about three years ago and took its message to heart.
“We’ve been really aggressive … we have processes now, in the field, in the office, to set ourselves up for success,” Walker said. “We’ve become a process-driven business, and we have the accountability in place to really drive our success.”
One of the processes they’ve updated is the daily call board, to take advantage of one of the company’s biggest assets: service agreements.
“Before, whoever called us were the calls we had on the board,” Hoffmann said. “We realized if we have 5,000 maintenance agreements … why aren’t we outbounding to our customers and scheduling around peaks and valleys?”
Due in large part to advance booking, Hoffmann said the company really doesn’t have a slow season.
“It’s really rare to have departments fall below that 40-hour mark,” he said.
Service techs average about 46 hours a week.
“We have the work booked and ready to go,” Hoffman added. “It’s steady, year-round.”
Under the new system, every trade has a minimum call goal to schedule before everyone goes home. They work three days in advance.
“Today, we’re gonna have three for our residential service guys tomorrow, with two calls for them booked the next day, and one for three days out,” Hoffmann explained. “In a year, we haven’t missed a call goal. Some companies spend from 6 to 12 percent to get the phone to ring on marketing. We’ve spent less than 4 percent.”
That has paid off: The company made $18 million in revenues in 2017, and they were just shy of $25 million at the close of 2018.
“If you look at the last two, three years, we’ve experienced 30 percent growth year over year,” Walker said. “Everything is growing here, from our office staff, to field staff, plumbing, electric division, and a lot of that is coming from customer demands.”
Recently, the company simplified its maintenance offerings on the residential side by creating a home protection plan, which also helps drum up more business, Hoffmann said.
“You have appliance technicians out on a dishwasher call, educating them on the benefits of HVAC maintenance,” he said. “Even with plumbing or something that’s not part of the HVAC trade, [our customers] see quality work, and it reflects well on the company as a whole.”
Long term, Hoffmann is looking to see the company grow at 20-plus percent revenue growth a year.
“We’ve got great people on our team now, great processes in our business to help us be intentional about our growth,” he said. “In the next two years, we’re looking to make a meaningful acquisition.”
BUILDING THE TEAM
As the company is growing, it’s taking steps to make sure there are enough technicians to do the work. Right now, that number is 130 full-time employees — 45 in the office, 85 in the field — with seasonal workers brought on during the summer. Thirty of those full-time employees were hired last year.
“And we need another 15,” Walker said.
“As the company is growing, we’re going to need more and more positions,” said Ernst. “We see the labor shortage, so we’re kind of preparing for what the company is seeing in the future. That’s why we’re hiring now.”
Some of the newer hires are customer liaison positions, in preparation for the changing demands that customers are coming to expect of home service companies.
“I think the bar’s been raised, and it’s about being more convenient for them from a scheduling perspective,” Hoffmann said. “When we schedule a call now, we don’t do the old ‘We’ll be there between 8 and noon.’ We say, ‘We’re going to call you 30 minutes before your call, go about your day as usual.’”
Looking at the scheduling technology contractors now have at their disposal, Hoffmann called it “almost Uber-esque.” The company recently equipped all the technicians with tablets, capable of bringing up each customer’s history.
“I think the companies that will be most successful are those who are using technology to deliver convenience ... speed,” he said.
The company also puts strong emphasis on continuing education. In 2017, Hoffmann Brothers purchased a new 30,000-square-foot building as its headquarters, and it recently bought another 30,000-square-foot space next door, specifically for live training: geothermal heating and cooling, tankless, zoning, high-efficiency systems, all set up permanently.
“Our goal is for every guy to work on every type of equipment,” Hoffmann said. “We’re constantly bringing in training to the center, constantly sending out guys to training.”
The company also partners with local trade schools, runs an internship program, and pays 90 percent of the cost of external (nonmandatory) training courses. If the class is during normal business hours, Hoffmann Brothers pays the technicians their hourly wages as well. All required technical training is 100 percent paid for by the company. Techs get at least 40 hours a year of training.
“What we’re seeing with the younger guys is, we’re trying to speed up the training process rather than just rely on on-the-job training — speed up their careers,” Ernst said.
For example, one guy did ride-alongs for six months.
“Twenty-six weeks of the year, he was training,” Hoffman said. “Those are the kinds of investments we make.”
CARING FOR EMPLOYEES
Of course, it takes more than good training to make a company the best contractor to work for.
“It’s about impacting people in their lives outside of work,” Hoffmann said. “When we make a decision, we look at it through three lenses: how it’s going to impact the company, how it’s going to impact the customer, and how it’s going to impact the team member.”
One move that “really resonated” with staff is turning off the on-call at 7 p.m.
“No longer is it that they’re eating with their family and have to run out and do that call, or they’re in bed at 2 a.m. and have to get up,” Hoffmann said.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it, as far as retention and recruitment,” Walker said. “I guess it just comes down to being happy at the place you work at.”
To that end, he shoots to help everyone feel like part of a team.
“So they understand the team they’re working for isn’t just like, they’re a number out there working for a company that doesn’t care about quality,” he continued. “I hear when people apply, say, ‘I’ve heard about the quality of work you guys do.’”
Like Walker with his comment contest, Ernst runs mini competitions in the installation department to encourage good craftsmanship.
“We give out bonuses for the best pictures of recent installs we’ve done … kind of accolades, in our department meetings,” he said. “It’s a lot of impromptu pats on the back. Everything’s very natural.”
While Hoffmann said the company does ask people to work harder in the summer, incentives are there for those who put in the work.
“We’ve created a lot of win-win scenarios,” he said. “If that individual is really willing to step up and help the company be successful where they’re working extra hours, there’s financial incentives for that. And if a team member had an exceptionally long day or week, we will find a day of their choice to get the employee off work early.”
There’s also paid time off from the day of hire, something the company started recently.
“A lot of techs coming in are young, maybe just had a family,” Hoffmann said.
Brand-new hires now start with 10 days of paid vacation and 10 unpaid personal days. After five years, it goes up to 15 days each, and after 10 years, it goes to 20.
“We never deny any type of vacation request,” Ernst added. “We’re very understanding that life happens … to give everybody that work-life balance.”
The company even has a coach who can offer advice on lifestyle choices, alongside service systems.
“He gets into living life intentionally and operating at your peak performance all the time: at home, at work. Things like exercising, working out,” Hoffmann said. “One day [during a meeting], I sat next to a tech … and we were both unhappy about our level of exercise.”
So they decided to each get a workout machine.
“I offered to pay the first $250,” Hoffman said. “It’s an online bike, so you can see how the other person did and hold each other accountable.”
On the wage front, entry-level wages are $17 per hour, and the company aims to get techs to $34 per hour within four years. The company pays 100 percent of health coverage for employees and their entire families, and new mothers receive six weeks’ time off at 50 percent pay. Starting this year, all employees are eligible for advanced 401(k).
“We sat down with our foremen, field leadership … and we landed on, bolstering our retirement,” Hoffmann said. “That’s an additional $300,000 we’re going to invest in our retirement benefits in 2019. The fact that we put our money where our mouth is — tools, benefits — people see the opportunity to grow into positions, people want to be part of a winning team, and I think there’s a lot of excitement here.”
OWNER: Robert Hoffmann
LOCATION: St. Louis
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 40
BULK OF MARKET: 70 percent residential, 30 percent commercial
TOTAL SALES FOR 2017: $18 million
TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 130 full time
TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 85
AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: At least 40 hours per year
BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: Up to 4 percent company match on 401(k) pretax plan for all employees, long-term disability insurance, six paid holidays/year, life insurance, six weeks’ time off at 50 percent pay for new mothers, company-paid vehicles, annual tool credit of $250, personalized business cards, equipment and service discounts, anniversary awards, referral bonuses, iPads for field techs, and monthly cellphone reimbursement.
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: ACCA, Better Business Bureau, and Nexstar Network.
THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Hoffmann Brothers’ dedication to its employees, its culture of camaraderie, and its stellar website helped earn the company The NEWS’ 2018 Best Contractor to Work For honor in the North Central and Canadian region.
Publication date: 1/14/2019