Meet the Wholesaler: Chris Baker
Delivering on customer service and helping contractors to attack the callback
Name: Chris Baker
Title: President & CEO
Company: Value Added Distributors/Virginia Air
Number of Locations: 20
Number of Employees: 92
Year Founded: 1987
Main Lines: York, Ruud, Armstrong, Daikin, Atco, Honeywell, Hart & Cooley, Aprilaire, Southwark Metal, Diversitech
The discipline required to compete as a triathlete can certainly carry over into the HVAC distribution business. Family experience in the industry doesn’t hurt, either. But those factors don’t guarantee success.
Chris Baker looks for ways to cultivate company attitude and customer knowledge to strengthen their own performance. Doing it well has led the original Virginia Air Distributors Inc. name to become a bit of a misnomer, with business spreading well beyond state lines. Learn how Baker got this far and what he sees ahead for distributors in this edition of Meet The Wholesaler.
You’ve got branches in several states across hundreds of miles. How did that develop, and how does that geographical spread change what you do as a leader in terms of managing the business and the team, consistency of performance and company culture, etc.?
Baker: To be honest, it’s probably one of the biggest challenges of our business: managing 20 branches across six states and making sure our team members are engaged and continually providing the same high level of customer service we strive for.
It developed over decades based on acquisition opportunities — in particular, two expansions about 15 years ago into Ohio and North Carolina, and more recently, about five years ago, into South Carolina and a new business subsidiary in Virginia.
I think it’s also the byproduct of the customer segments we serve. We typically (not always) focus on small- to medium-sized mechanical contractors who prefer delivery to their office or job site; we’re working on expanding our capabilities for more transactional customers who prefer pick-up and for whom ultimately we’ll need more branches to better serve.
What was the worst business advice you ever received?
Baker: Easily, “Customer service is not sustainable.” It was told to me by one of our competitors as we were discussing our competitive advantage.
I do concede there are many businesses in our industry that compete mainly on price or a strong consumer pull brand. Both of those models typically lack customer service cultures.
Ours is clearly a customer service culture model — one that requires much more work and time to successfully execute, and one that is utterly reliant upon awesome team members to deliver day after day.
I would also add I think it’s a harder model to execute consistently — and possibly why many others choose not to do so. We’re constantly reminding our customers to “Expect More From Us” in everything we do!
Your website lists training courses in areas including heat pumps, ductless training, and installation, VFDs, motors, and controls. I’m always interested in this side of distributors’ businesses and related ideas they’ve come up with. Would you talk about how Virginia Air’s training program has developed and what the most popular courses are?
Baker: Training is certainly one of our core strengths. I believe we have one of the best technical training departments and trainers in the business. They provide both technical support and technical training to our contractor customers.
With the challenges finding skilled workers, the demand for entry-level installation and service training is probably the most popular currently.
Along those same lines, we’ve seen a growing reluctance by contractors to send their employees to distributor facilities for training, so we customize and tailor a lot of our courses and teach them at our contractors’ facilities.
“Callback Avoidance Training.” I saw that on your list and think that’s a great phrase/concept for a course title. Would you tell us some of what goes into that?
Baker: Callbacks are one of the most dreaded words in the contractor’s vocabulary. Typically, it means the job wasn’t completed correctly the first time, creating a customer service issue and also a non-billable event.
Our technical training team worked to identify the most common callbacks contractors experience across a number of categories, including airflow, refrigeration, wiring, start-up, and diagnostics, and then they developed specific training for each.
I see you’re not the first Meet the Wholesaler participant to be part of a family business. You’re also a business school alumnus from UVA. Did you have a career at Virginia Air in mind when you were in school?
Baker: It probably depended on the day, as that answer changed frequently. I worked in the business many summers, but after college, I was definitely “distracted” doing triathlons and related pursuits.
In retrospect, it was the absolute right time to do it, and when I did start full time into the business, I was ready, excited, and certain.
Speaking of school, what was your favorite college or high school course? Was it the content? The teacher?
Baker: I was very fortunate to attend the McIntire School of Commerce at UVA. It’s a school within a school for third- and fourth-year students only; like any school, you have to apply and get accepted. It was basically a graduate-style business program, with a lot of case studies in conjunction with block-and-tackling in subjects like accounting.
Overall, the program was excellent and incredibly engaging. An added benefit: I’ve never had the desire or need (not knocking MBA programs) to attend a graduate business school.
How were your early years in the company? Were there one or two experiences that served you especially well further up the ranks later on?
Baker: My first assignment after starting full-time employment was to figure out what was wrong with our second and only other branch at the time. As one would expect, the team was less than thrilled when the 24-year-old boss’ son showed up to babysit.
Long story short, they had the same product, pricing, programs, etc., as our other branch, which was incredibly successful, but they could not make it work. No surprise, the issue was leadership and the team’s commitment to customer service. Once we all got pointed in the right direction (it didn’t take long), it took off like a rocket.
I’ve seen over and over again when we have a branch that is not performing that this is often the exact problem, and thus we have to find the right leader — someone who is truly committed to his people and customer service.
Would you tell us about the hardest decision that you have had to make in the HVACR business?
Baker: As a growth-focused company, making any strategic decisions involving steps backward is often very difficult but very necessary. For instance, closing a branch, shutting down a department, or abandoning a strategic opportunity. I find we often try to hold on too long, and our optimism and unwillingness to admit defeat clouds our judgment.
What has been the biggest challenge for the company since you’ve been in your current position?
Baker: I think like most companies in the HVAC industry, our biggest struggle has been finding, retaining, and developing great people. We have an outstanding team and a great culture, but it’s been very hard finding good new talent in our industry for many reasons.
In addition, once we get good people onboard, we are definitely challenged by our geographic disparity mentioned above in getting them the training they want and need. I’d say this also extends to our ability to helping our contractor customers finding talent as well — we definitely want to help and find solutions but have not found or executed a sustainable strategy yet.
Have you found any particular industry groups/associations especially worth your time?
Baker: I am very proud to have served on the NATE board and executive committee. Our entire organization strongly believes in NATE, all of our technical service managers are NATE-certified, and we hold NATE certification courses at all of our branches.
We go far as to help subsidize the cost of the NATE tests for our program contractors. Hopefully, one day 100 percent of all HVAC contractors will have their NATE certifications. The industry and all its participants will be much better off when that day comes.
What would be your dream job outside of this industry?
Baker: Resort owner or manager at a Caribbean resort with crystal-clear blue water. However, I’ve also read Herman Wouk’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” so I kind of already know how that story ends!
Wrapping up, any piece of advice you’d offer to other distributors?
Baker: Enjoy the ride. While our industry is incredibly competitive and has many challenges, we’re also very lucky to be in a mature and growing industry. As I say often, “everybody needs it and they don’t make it like they used to” bodes pretty well for us!
See more articles from this issue here!