Like many others entering the field of HVAC, Brian Huft, president and owner of Huft Home Services in Elk Grove, Sacramento, and Yuba City, California, had a familial connection. As a young man looking for a job, his brother-in-law encouraged him to apply for an installation position at the contracting firm where he worked. Huft got the job and stayed with the company for nine years before starting his own company in 2004.
Huft credits that first job with much of his success, noting that the company sent him to trade school and taught him everything he needed to know about HVAC. Once he decided to start his own business, the company wished him well, and to this day, he still has a great relationship with his former employer.
Relationships are, in fact, the cornerstone of Huft’s business, and he works diligently to nurture those bonds with both employees and customers. And employees like Huft’s installation coordination department manager, Carlos Delgado, are grateful for that, noting, “We’re treated like family here. At a lot of other big companies that I’ve worked for, you're just kind of a number, but not here. Here, they treat everybody like family. Brian also takes really good care of the customers, and that’s another huge reason why I like working for him.”
While Huft appreciates those kind words, he is quick to point out that his employees are “all really nice and super cool,” and they are the ones who keep him motivated. He loves the team of people he’s built over the years, and he enjoys feeling that he is responsible for both them and their families. That is why he has worked so hard to create a culture that is positive and supportive.
“It’s really important to me that we have a good environment to work in,” he said. “It's not an environment where you get yelled at or cursed at if you do something wrong. Instead, we use it as a training opportunity to try to make you better. Nobody gets demeaned and looked down on if they make a mistake, because we know that none of us are perfect. My thought process is it's how you handle that mistake and move forward that differentiates us from everybody else.”
Huft strives to be a good boss, and he often points out that he is not the reason for his company’s success. “Without the 98 people that we have working for us, none of this is possible,” he said. “Understanding that and knowing that and having the right people in place and the right mindset and attitude every day, that's what makes us different.”
And employees see a difference. Indeed, a better culture and positive environment are the reasons why Kenny Bell, HVAC installation supervisor, came to Huft.
“I love it here,” he said. “Everyone here is a good person. Everyone is out to help one another, and no one is bashing each other. It's also a family-oriented company, which I like. It's a great company overall and Brian is a great employer. He socializes with the guys, and if you go to him with an issue, it's solved immediately. He is also very concerned about your overall well-being as a person.”
Mathew Hooten, senior installation technician, also came to Huft for the environment. He had several friends who already worked there, and he was impressed by the fact that not one of them ever had anything negative to say about the company.
“The management team here is just different than any other company,” said Hooten. “They care more about employees, and it's not just the job. They want me to install the equipment correctly, not just put it in and walk away. Brian really cares about the homeowner, and he's super hands-on if I need to call him. He'll show up on a jobsite, and he’s not afraid to get dirty. He's really involved, and no matter what he's doing, he'll drop it and come out on the jobsite and get in there with us to make sure everything goes smoothly.”
TAKING CALLS: Call center supervisor Ryan Reid works on his computer while owner Brian Huft looks on. (Courtesy of Huft Home Services)
It’s that problem solving nature of the HVAC business that Huft particularly loves. “When customers call us with a problem, they're upset, and then we're able to fix it and make them happy, and it's just a lot of fun being able to help. It’s gratifying to make people happy and build relationships with customers that we've had since we opened.”
In fact, if there’s one piece of advice Huft would give to others starting out in the HVAC business, it’s to build those relationships with customers, rather than simply focusing on the money.
“If you're constantly chasing dollars, that’s not the right mindset,” he said. “Focus on taking care of customers and making people happy. If they’re happy, they’re going to tell their friends and family about the great service they got from you versus the guy who just tried to sell them something. There’s a difference. Be thorough, take care of the customer to the best of your ability, and make them a lifelong client. The money will come later.”
Building a School
In order to keep customers happy, it is necessary to have a well-trained staff of technicians who are skilled at installing and servicing HVAC equipment. That’s easier said than done, due to the technician shortage that has plagued this industry for years. Instead of simply complaining about the lack of labor, Huft decided to be proactive and create his own in-house HVAC trade school. No experience is necessary, and best of all, students are paid for the training.
SCHOOL DAY: HVAC school is in session, with (from left to right), Andrew Keith, a former warehouse driver for Huft and now a student; Bradley Martinez, the instructor at Huft U; Brian Huft, owner and CEO; and student Elijah Treadwell. (Courtesy of Huft Home Services)
“The difference between our trade school and a regular trade school is that a regular trade school will take anybody who’s willing to pay them,” said Huft. “We’re very selective, because we’re actually hiring employees. They get paid to go to school, so they start out making an hourly rate, and after 30 days, they have medical benefits, just like all our other full-time employees. Best of all, they’re not accruing debt. In a regular trade school, students aren’t getting paid, and they’re accruing debt. Our techs can hit the ground running without accruing debt, and they're already making money from day one of school.”
To create the new school, Huft tapped the talent already working at the company, which included Christopher Van Dyke, general manager and now part owner, and Bradley Martinez, an “amazing” technician and field supervisor. Together, they created the curriculum for the trade school, which started in February 2021. The school was built to accommodate up to 12 students as a time, and the coursework lasts 12 weeks.
“The first eight weeks are classroom and lab,” said Van Dyke. “After the first three weeks, students take the EPA licensing exam, then they receive their $3,100 tool package. Once the classroom and lab portions are completed, the students have three weeks in the field, either in service or install. Once that is finished, they come back in for one week to study for their NATE testing for their core and their specialty. The last day of the class is actually taking their NATE certification, then they graduate from the school and start working.”
Right now, the bulk of students attending the trade school are friends or family members of current employees, who have seen how successful a career in the trades can be, and they want to get involved. To keep that momentum going, Van Dyke is actively recruiting for his next class by looking for people who work in hospitality, hotels, restaurants, and other service industries. He also plans to have a booth at various job fairs in order to get people interested in the HVAC trade.
“Everybody needs heating and air conditioning, and that’s going to be the case no matter what's going on in the world. It's not a luxury,” he said. “I want to let them know that there is an opportunity out there for them, and no experience is necessary. In just a few short months, they could be making money versus going to school for a year. We start from zero and in three months, they can hit the ground running and not waste a ton of time. Three months is not a very long amount of time to start a new career.”
HONING SKILLS: Continuing education is important at Huft Home Services, and here Kristopher Price, HVAC installation apprentice, works on honing his skills. (Courtesy of Huft Home Services)
Training doesn’t end once technicians graduate the school; in fact, continuing education is a way of life for all employees at Huft. Service technicians receive training every Friday morning, and the HVAC install department has a two-hour training class two Saturdays a month.
“Training is important to us, because people's time is important,” said Huft. “If technicians who are better equipped with skills and knowledge can show up to somebody's house and take care of them in one visit, that’s better than not knowing what they're doing and having to send someone else out there. That’s better for the homeowner, because if they're taking time off work to wait for a technician, they don't have to take another day off because the guy couldn't figure it out. It's also good for us, because we've now helped that customer in one visit, and techs can move on to other customers. They're able to service more and do more.”
Huft can’t help but be optimistic about the future. Since March 2021, the company has grown from 48 employees to 98, and the expectation is to hire more in the near future. In addition, revenue was up over 100% last year, and there are plans to add electrical and plumbing to their trade school.
“I hate to say it, but the pandemic has been good for business,” said Huft. “So many people were working from home, and they discovered how uncomfortable they were. They started doing a lot of projects that they had been putting off.”
Shortages of equipment and components did affect the company over the summer, but Huft adapted by making changes to the way materials are acquired.
“We have more inventory than we'd like to have, but unfortunately, you have to buy it when you can get it in, not when you need it, otherwise you won’t have what you need,” said Huft. “So we acquired another warehouse just to house all the equipment and bits and pieces to do our jobs every day to make sure we're ready for customers when they need us.”
The supply chain issues are still a struggle for Huft, but it’s gradually getting better. He doesn’t think things will be back to normal until late in 2022, and he expects finding certain items will continue to be a challenge. Customer demand continues to be strong, though, and he expects that will be the case for the foreseeable future.
“We are very optimistic about the year ahead,” said Huft. “We're focused on the opportunities we will have with our incredible team. We want to add more people, keep going with the school, and grow the company to get where we need to be. We grew a lot in 2021, but we plan on growing even more in 2022.”
Huft Home Surfaces
CONTRACTOR: Huft Home Services
CEO & President: Brian Huft
LOCATION: Elk Grove, Sacramento and Yuba City, California
YEARS IN BUSINESS: 18 years
BULK OF MARKET: Residential
TOTAL SALES FOR 2021: $17 million
TOTAL EMPLOYEES: 98
TOTAL SERVICE TECHNICIANS AND INSTALLERS: 72
AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: 52-plus
BENEFITS BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: 401K; medical, dental, vision; bonus and gifts for big jobs that come in under time and budget; laundered uniform service; gas card; vehicle to take home; rotating schedules; on-the-job lunches and breakfasts.
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERSHIPS: ACCA, Service Nation Alliance, Nexstar, NATE
THE ACHR NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Finding technicians is a difficult job for most contractors, but instead of complaining about it, Brian Huft decided to be proactive and start his own HVAC trade school. No experience is required to be admitted, and students are paid to attend school. In just three short months, they are ready to become service technicians and installers. By devoting the time and energy into creating his school, Huft has taken a major step toward solving the labor shortage, which has been a problem in the HVAC industry for years.