2019 Best Contractors to Work For: HVAC Company Trains Happy Employees to Make Happy Customers
Bruce Krinkie and his father had a vision. If they could find employees who wanted to make customers happy, they would take on the job of teaching them how to install and repair HVAC equipment. Teaching the technical skills would require effort, but teaching technicians and a support staff the fine art of making people happy seemed next to impossible.
“The employee either has that in them, or they don’t,” said Krinkie.
Bearing this concept in mind, he and his father set out to not only make a top-notch HVAC company, but also to create a work environment that would foster amazing customer service. It is this dedication to customer service and the training of the current and future HVAC workforce that helped earned Krinkie’s Heating, Air Conditioning, and Plumbing of St. Paul, Minnesota, the title of The ACHR NEWS’ Best Contractor to Work For in the North Central region.
Krinkie’s and its owner’s roots stem deeper than the 35 years the doors have been open. It actually all started over 70 years ago with his grandparents, who transitioned from farming to selling cheese graters. The cheese grater business turned to coal, which turned to fuel oil and eventually became a heating company. Now 66, Krinkie has buried his father, who had begun this vision with him, but he continues to carry on the mission of Krinkie’s Heating, Air Conditioning, and Plumbing.
Some might assume that his duties are carried out from behind a desk, but according to Jeff Madison, general manager of the company, that is not at all the case.
“My first week when I started working here, Bruce was up in an attic doing an installation where it was 110°F, and he was crawling around with his employees, getting his hands dirty,” he said. “This set a strong tone for what I was walking into. He’s not going to send someone to do something that he won’t do, and I live by that as well.”
Madison has been at Krinkie’s for about five years and has learned the Krinkie way direct from Krinkie himself. Having been in HVAC his whole life, Madison had years of experience with duct cleaning, residential installation and service, and managing operations. His customer service experience card was full as well, and Madison has always put the customer first in his daily business practices.
“When I started working for Bruce, however, he taught me that taking care of the employee first is my responsibility, because then the employee is going to take care of our customers and put them first,” he said. “I had to shift and see how Bruce operated and the way he treated his employees. It is now part of my job to make sure that they know he puts his employees first — and this has been a shift for me because I’d never thought that way in the past.”
The effect that Krinkie has had on Madison is not a singular occurrence at the residential contractor’s business. In fact, his favorite part of the business is the interaction with his employees.
“If you want to be a successful contractor, you can’t just sit in an office and say to your people, ‘Go get it done,’” he explained. “If you do, then you have these little robots that don’t really care about your customers, and making customers happy was why this company was built.”
One example of the time Krinkie spends with his employees is showing up on a job site to see how things are going, offer assistance, and meet the customer.
“This tends to show my technicians that I’m interested in what they are doing and not just giving them a task to do,” he said. “As for the customers, they often can’t believe that I am there introducing myself and lending a hand.”
Although he doesn’t go to every job, Krinkie has received positive feedback from both employees and customers. Sometimes he heads to jobs to drop off parts.
“If a technician needs a part, I’m the first one to say I’m going to bring it so I can meet his customer and spend some time with my employee,” he said.
TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Taking care of technicians at the job site is just one aspect of valuing employees. Back at the shop or in the homes of the technicians, Krinkie is also taking care of issues that affect a technician’s overall well-being. To accomplish this, the company provides medical and dental insurance and offers a 401(k) match program. Krinkie’s pays for training and incentivizes its technicians to participate in education programs by giving a bump in pay for each additional certification achieved.
“When you enroll in classes, you submit your invoice to the office, and you get reimbursed for the class as long as it is trade related and benefits you in your job,” said Joe DeWaele, a service technician for the company.
DeWaele describes himself as just a technician at the end of the day, but his responsibilities at the company find him working with pipefitting, plumbing, sheet metal, and as an advisor to other technicians who request assistance with a job.
“Bruce and Jeff together make our environment easygoing,” he said. “They give us all the tools we need to be successful. I don’t go to work and stress out. I don’t ever wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh crap, I don’t want to go to work today.’ They make it enjoyable.”
At one point in his career, DeWaele briefly left Krinkie’s to work on his own and see what he could accomplish as an owner of a service company.
“I thought the grass would be greener on the other side of the service business,” said DeWaele. “What I found was that I am not a very good business owner; I’m just a really good guy.”
With this knowledge under his belt, DeWaele went back to Krinkie’s and was rehired. Krinkie is the only person, besides himself, that DeWaele has ever worked for, and he plans on it remaining that way.
The company has a pay increase policy that is honored through yearly reviews. This is in addition to the pay bumps received for further certifications. Busy and slow seasons are handled with multiple tactics and communication. To avoid technician burnout in the busy season, Krinkie’s uses rotating schedules, on-the-job lunches, breakfasts, rewards, and paid time off. There is usually year-round steady work at the company, but if things get slow, DeWaele said that the technicians rotate on days and off days.
“Not only is our general manager always concerned about asking too much of us, but he is also always thanking us when we give our all,” he said. “We have a great team, and everyone helps everyone. If it gets slow, we rotate on days off and always do our best to generate business for the slow time. I don’t remember the last time anyone was laid off, and personally, I have never been laid off.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Krinkie isn’t just taking care of his current workforce and customers; he is also looking to the future and actively cultivating a workforce for his company. To do this, Krinkie established a state-approved apprentice program on site. The company takes applicants ages 18 or older and places them in the program. It is a combination of classroom and field experience, as well as mentoring. After four and a half years, the apprentice is qualified to take the journeyman’s test for the trade they chose within the company.
For those under 18, Krinkie’s offers a summer internship program specifically for high school students to learn about the trade and see if they like the idea of being a tradesperson in the future.
CELEBRATION AND CHARITY
Many of Krinkie’s employees consider their coworkers to be family, and as family, they are busy together throughout the year. Together, the company and its employees raise money for charitable causes in the year and include their customers in the endeavor. Last year, they made a contribution to the hurricane relief fund.
“We have a get-together at Thanksgiving and Christmas for just employees and have a dinner during the day,” said Paul Nelson, service technician, Krinkie’s. “They also will take employees and their spouses out for a Christmas party.”
Nelson started with the company as an apprentice 30 years ago and has progressed to service, tune-ups, and no heat/cool calls.
“My favorite company event is the annual fishing trip and competition,” he said. “These things, along with many others including the great ownership, are what keep me here.”
Nelson isn’t the only one who likes the summer fishing trip. It is a company favorite.
TEAMWORK: Many of Krinkie’s employees consider their coworkers to be family, and as family, they are busy together throughout the year.
When problems arise, everyone at Krinkie’s deals with the issues head on. Krinkie and Madison work closely together, and if they are facing any challenge, Madison said they try to take care of it right away. The leadership and its employees also often make decisions as a team.
“Unilateral decisions are not common at Krinkie’s,” Madison added. “If you bring others into the process, then it isn’t leadership dictating the rules; it is a team deciding what works best for the majority.”
To help with this process, Krinkie’s hosts a meeting every other Thursday to talk about what is working well, what isn’t working, and how the team can fix it for the future.
“We’ll just go over the stuff that goes wrong and say what we can do better next time,” said Nelson. “I’ll tell you what, we are very appreciated here, and the management does a great job of letting us know we’re doing a good job, over and over again.”
As for Krinkie, he said that one of the biggest things he has learned over the years is to have the best employees that can be found.
“It’s like making grandma’s cookies — they are homegrown,” Krinke explained. “And that’s what I would say about my employees.”
Krinkie’s Heating, Air Conditioning and Plumbing
OWNER: Bruce Krinkie
LOCATION: St. Paul, Minnesota
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 35
BULK OF MARKET: Residential
TOTAL SALES FOR 2019: $4.75 million
TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 20
TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 14
AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 41+
BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: There is an annual fishing contest, holiday parties, and all national holidays are paid time off. The company matches all the competitive benefits of large companies, including a 401(k) match.
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: Service Nation Alliance, Service Roundtable, Better Business Bureau
THE ACHR NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Dedication to customer service and the training of the current and future HVAC workforce that helped earned Krinkie’s Heating, Air Conditioning, and Plumbing of St. Paul, Minnesota, The ACHR NEWS’ Best Contractor to Work For title for 2019 for the North Central region.
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