Marc Cowden knows how to turn around struggling HVAC operations. He did it several times in his career. So when he finally decided to buy his own business, he knew what he was getting into. Or he thought he did.
Cowden bought Beco Air and Heat in Arlington, Texas, in October 2019. The owner was older and in poor health, so the business declined. But it had what folks in home improvement call “good bones.” Beco started in 1974 as an engineering firm and evolved into an HVAC contractor. That meant a customer base built up over the course of a half century. Some of them had soured on Beco, but Cowden was prepared to win them back.
Then the pandemic started. Having a lot of long-standing customers meant having a lot of customers in the most vulnerable group for COVID. Many wanted no one coming in their homes. Cowden’s crew took every step to accommodate their customers, but it still proved challenging. After that came the equipment shortage and an even tighter labor market.
Despite these hurdles, Beco is on track to net 12% to 15% this year. It helped Cowden to have some experienced people to work with, especially Charlie Bell, Beco’s general manager. Bell started in the HVAC business shortly after Beco’s founding. He worked in the service division for Lennox for 10 years before joining Levy & Son. Levy was expanding into HVAC and Bell started that department. Bell met Cowden when the latter joined Levy.
Training Their Own Technicians
Starting an HVAC department at a successful plumbing company proved far different from rehabilitating Beco, Bell said. Bell and Cowden responded by putting the correct systems in place to make the company successful. Bell also recruited two technicians who used to work for him.
Finding more technicians is another hurdle to overcome. Cowden said he spent $3,000 for online ads and it returned two candidates. He has hired two young, inexperienced technicians and is training them to do more than maintenance.
One of them is Austin Pritchett. Pritchett graduated from trade school recently and was working at another firm before hiring on with Beco in March. The previous firm had him working from six in the morning until after midnight many days. Pritchett said Cowden takes much better care of his employees.
He also appreciates Cowden’s efforts to make him a better technician. Pritchett said he takes all of his questions seriously. Cowden meets with Pritchett one-on-one once a week.
“I’ve learned more than I learned in the whole time at trade school,” Pritchett said.
Wells said Cowden’s teaching skills always impressed him. He knows the technical side, Wells said, but where Cowden really shines is on sales and customer service. That will prove critical for Beco’s future prospects, Wells said.
Stocking Up Avoided Shortages So Far
Management put the necessary systems in place for profitability, Wells said. This means pricing jobs properly and being productive. The goal now is to add more technicians and get more trucks on the road. Wells said Beco really needs a standalone install department.
“We’re profitable,” he said. “We just need more business.”
Gaining business will mean having product available. Cowden avoided that problem this year by stocking up in the spring. His brother is a master plumber and had told him his firm was struggling to find water heaters. As a result, Cowden placed a large order. It costs more upfront, but it turned out to be a good investment following the summer’s price hikes.
Next spring’s outlook remains uncertain. Cowden expects strong demand. He said the years 2004-2006 were a major replacement cycle, and much of that equipment is reaching the end of its life. Cowden believes the factories will have capacity to meet his demand. The technicians to install the equipment remain his biggest concern.
“The equipment is going to come,” he said. “But where are the technicians going to come from?”
Cowden works to create a culture that makes retaining staff easier. That means creating personal relationships with all of Beco’s employees. Right now, the company is small enough that an all-staff meeting means getting together for breakfast at a local restaurant.
“Those things make it more difficult for people to come in and say, “I’m quitting,’” Cowden said.
In addition to staffing, Cowden said his biggest challenge is advertising. Beco targets 6,000 homes via a direct mailing delivered every six weeks. The company also advertises on Google and Facebook. Cowden said it’s hard to measure the results.
“It’s difficult right now,” he said. “It’s kind of falling on deaf ears.”
Committing money to either adding employees or increasing advertising is the biggest difference between being a manager and being an owner, Cowden said. He managed a $5 million company before, but even then he only saw part of the picture. That made it easier to make decisions.
“There are certain aspects of the financials that you just don’t deal with as a general manager that you do as an owner,” Cowden said. “It’s different when it’s your money.”
Despite the challenges, Cowden said he’s excited about being an owner for the first time. He enjoys the challenge of taking a smaller enterprise and watching it grow.