Atlantic Westchester Serves Public Clients in Competitive New York Market
Firm finds ways to become more professional, maintain family environment
Atlantic Westchester started as a mechanical construction firm in Bedford Hills, a town north of New York City, in the early 1960s. As the area boomed over the next decade, the firm thrived on all the new construction. Then came the downturn of the 1970s. Everyone stopped building, and Atlantic Westchester struggled. In 1979, Gene Hammer and a partner bought into the company. In 1986, Gene Hammer and his wife, Madeline, became the sole owners.
Their son Bud graduated from college at about that time. Like many young college graduates, he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do, but he knew he didn’t want to work for the family business. He tried several ventures, trying to find a way to make his marketing degree work for him. None of it made him happy, so he went to see an employment counselor.
“She helped me discover that I was born and wired to be a mechanical contractor,” Bud Hammer said.
His father hired him as a dispatcher/service manager in 1989, replacing his mother in these roles. Bud Hammer went to night school to learn the technical side of the business and found he understood these aspects of HVAC better than he expected.
Atlantic Westchester Navigates Generational Handoff
Bud Hammer’s wife Lisa, a CPA, joined Atlantic Westchester in 1994, and the family started to prepare for a generational handoff. The timeline for that changeover sped up when Madeline Hammer grew sick and the senior Hammers moved to Savanah, Georgia, in 1998.
Today, the firm focuses on commercial service and maintenance. Atlantic Westchester works with many public clients, such as schools and local governments, along with servicing health clubs, office buildings, and other businesses. They avoid residential, restaurant, and retail properties.
“In our marketplace, it’s very common for our competition to be a construction company first and a service company second,” Bud Hammer said. “We’re a service company first, and we do construction because the opportunities come along. The focus is to build long-term, repeatable business with our clients and to be in a position to fix things when they need to be fixed, to upgrade when the opportunity areas, or to just make whatever that client has in that building work better.”
The challenge with public facility managers is they sometimes focus more on a short-term fix than on long-term value. This can cause Atlantic Westchester to lose out on bids. Tom Burbank, Atlantic Westchester’s vice president of service and tech operations, said the firm tries to find like-minded clients who want more of a collaboration.
Atlantic Westchester employs 34 people at its union shop. Bud Hammer said the firm focuses on being the employer of choice in its market. He is very involved with the union in worker development and holds a seat on the Joint Apprentice Training Committee. Bud Hammer belongs to Local 638 in New York City and Local 21 in Westchester County of the United Association. Two of his employees both teach at the union HVAC school.
Sean Dunleavy, Atlantic Westchester’s vice president of projects, automation, and operation, is one of those teachers. He joined the firm in 2012, after five years with a controls contractor. Dunleavy grew up in a union electrical household and always wanted to work in a mechanical field. He was confident in his technical skills when he joined the company, but has learned about the business side in the past eight years.
“I’ve had a great learning experience to really understand the HVAC business,” Dunleavy said. “That’s an experience I can’t put a price on.”
Bud Hammer also develops relationships with trade schools to attract young people to the business. Most of Atlantic Westchester’s technicians are homegrown. The company pays above scale, but the key to maintaining morale is treating employees with respect and dignity, he said.
“We get out of their way and allow them to practice their craft,” he said. “We don’t scream. We try to consider our field technicians as our partners.”
Atlantic Westchester’s Strategies for Success
Atlantic Westchester Invests in technical and soft skills training. The firm also spends money on new vehicles, uniforms, tools, and technology. Despite all this investment, Bud Hammer said getting right people in the right positions remains the biggest challenge he faces.
Another is scaling policies and procedures as the company grows. That growth has come both organically and through acquisitions. Last year, Atlantic Westchester bought Dunleavy’s old employer. As soon as a company passes a certain size, Bud Hammer said, it needs a written guide to provide clear, proven ways to ensure consistency of service.
To help with that, Bud Hammer invested in a Linc franchise from ABM Building Services. This franchise provides a model for creating standard operations, along with training and networking. It also includes a model for pricing and structuring service agreements. Under the terms of these agreements, Atlantic Westchester assumes all the responsibility for keeping a system up and running. The base price includes all repairs and parts.
“What that does for our company and our perspective is it raises the ante in the game to be held accountable at a much higher level,” Bud Hammer said. “Any time there is either down time or failure, we’re on the hook to make it right, and we’re not getting paid any extra. So the better job that we do, the fewer issues we’ll have, and that’s a built-in incentive program.”
Despite the growth, Burbank said Atlantic Westchester maintains a family environment. For example, staff usually eat lunch together when in the office.
“I don’t feel like I’m a number in a system,” Burbank said.
The work environment also allows Burbank to pursue his interest in energy efficiency. He shared this interest with Bud Hammer when talking about a potential job following Burbank’s graduation from the University of Vermont. Burbank likes to walk into a building and figure out what it takes to make it function at its highest efficiency.
“As I grew more within Atlantic Westchester, I got a better understanding of how a proactive maintenance company could be a great partner by keeping a building operating efficiently,” he said.
Both Burbank and Dunleavy were recognized by The ACHR NEWS in its “Forty under Forty” rankings. Atlantic Westchester works hard to earn recognition at all levels. For example, it was the first HVAC firm in Westchester County to receive a green business designation. Bud Hammer believes networking plays a crucial role in promoting his business.
Bud Hammer is a very active LinkedIn user in addition to community involvement. He and several employees regularly post and comment on the website.
“I’ve always been persistent, but polite,” he said. “If I’m being pushy, I back down. I’m not pushy guy. But I also don’t like to give up. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but how else do you learn some times?”