Ben Uscilla started Highwood Mechanical Contractors with his brother John in March of 1994. The firm operates in Hamden, Connecticut, a suburb of New Haven. The area features several major medical facilities and educational institutions, including Yale University. Highwood offers a full-line of HVAC products to residential and light commercial clients, with a focus on installation.
ACHR NEWS: How did you and you brother end up in business together?
Uscilla: Back in 1986, when I graduated high school, my father told me we didn’t have the money for us to go to college. He advised us that the HVAC industry was up and coming. I went to a one-year trade school and off we went. My brother is 11 months younger than me. When we came out of trade school, we went to separate companies. Then we decided to do our own thing. It worked out pretty well.
ACHR News: How big is your company now?
Uscilla: Right now we have a staff of five, including the two of us. We have had many opportunities to make the company larger, but decided for a number of reasons to keep the business small. I asked questions of guys who were contemporaries of mine who took their businesses to a different level and I realized that the bottom line wasn’t necessarily any better. In fact, it could be worse. Also, we control the quality of what goes out the door.
Right now, we have three licensed tradesmen – myself, my brother, and one long-time employee. We also have two registered apprentices. I handle scheduling and bids. My son, Aaron, comes in to the office once a week to help me with administration. He also does the marketing.
ACHR NEWS: How has business been lately?
Uscilla: We have a whole group of builders in Connecticut that we work for. We also do a lot of add-on and replacement work for folks who have systems that are past their useful life. We also do repair. In the spring, industry locally was struggling. But because we have strong relationships with our clients, we were able to not miss a beat. We didn’t have to tap the loan program.
ACHR NEWS: How did you get through the downturn 10 years ago?
Uscilla: We actually had some of our best years in 2008, 2009, 2010. It all revolved around our ability to maintain a great relationship with our clients and provide the services they were demanding before and after the recession. The vast majority of my builders were very loyal. Although they slowed down, we offset that by acquiring new business. If we had a builder who had been doing 10 homes a year and was then doing only two houses a year, we were able to create relationships with four more builders. Although they were only dong a small percentage of what they would usually do, it all added up.
ACHR News: What do your customers want these days?
Uscilla: The clients are much more educated today. They have more general knowledge, some of it accurate, some of it not so accurate. Clients are looking for comfort and efficiency. It’s my job to provide information for them and to give them choices. I give them what my experience has led to for results in a particular scope so they can make an intelligent decision. The last thing I want is for a client to make a call after an installation and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this technology?’
They’re very interested in technology. They also want to maintain indoor air quality. Here in the Northeast, we deal with a pretty long cold season, from November to the beginning of May. So we they’re looking for warm floors, radiant options.
ACHR NEWS: What’s it like working with your brother?
Uscilla: We were very close since we were children. We look alike; we act alike. It’s challenging at times, just like when we were 10 or 12 years old, and sometimes more challenging than others. But as young or old, you mature. We understand each other’s perspectives and we come to an agreement and move on. When we were younger, we were both gung-ho. Now, we’ve settled down into a good routine. He has his duties and I have my duties.
The key is that nobody is counting hours. If you start counting hours or days – I worked 10 more hours than you this week or you worked three more hours than me this week – that’s a problem. That’s never been issue. We both realize we both have to give 100 percent, no matter what you feel is happening in the business at that moment. That’s true for any relationship.
ACHR NEWS: How is it recruiting apprentices?
Uscilla: It’s been difficult over the years. We try to acquire quality employees. We run ads online. On occasion, we do recruit from trade schools, but it just seems the younger generation has not gotten into the trades. When I started, someone like myself with mechanical ability who wanted to do better went into the trades. Today, those kids are going to college. The ones going to trade schools aren’t necessarily the people who want to learn how to work.
It's a shame. They’re just not educated or have the desire. We’re fortunate right now that we have two very, very good apprentices. I really hope that going forward that parents of teenagers, both boys and girls, would tell them that the trades are a very positive place to build a career. I often talk to friends of ours or clients who have kids, and I tell them that if they don’t want to go to college, you shouldn’t push them. There are some real opportunities out there. We need people to fix things.
If you told me 26 years ago that our business would be where it is today, I would have said you’re crazy. It’s amazing. We’re just going to keep moving on.