Name: John Steele
Title: Vice president of sales and marketing
Company name: CFM Equipment Distributors Inc.
Number of locations: 6
Number of employees: 73
Year founded: 1984
Main lines: American Standard, METUS, LG
The folks who put together the dictionary might want to consider illustrating the term “work ethic” with John Steele’s portrait.
The California native, whose father was a master mechanic, has been working steadily from a young age; he put in 30 hours a week in high school, even while playing on school athletic teams. Steele has worked for a pressure-washing company, for UPS, as a construction laborer, and later as a general contractor, concentrating on framing and finish carpentry. He’s also worked in HVAC distribution and sales.
In 2018, Steele was featured in the Distribution Trends Top 40 Under 40 feature as a sales and marketing manager at CFM Equipment Distributors Inc. in Sacramento; his title there is now vice president of sales and marketing. DT sat down with Steele — who is still under 40 — via Zoom recently to talk about his career and the state of HVAC wholesaling. Below, edited for clarity and length, is the conversation.
DT: Tell me about your background. Did you come from the equipment side, the business side, or get into distribution from another direction?
Steele: I was a general contractor before I got into this business, and I grew up in the trades. My uncle was an HVAC contractor, so I worked with him during some summers as well as, you know, a few other generals, and then I went and got my general contractor’s license. And when I moved back up to northern California, a friend of mine worked for Watsco.
I went to go work for them and started in the warehouse, and then was a truck driver, then warehouse manager, then worked on the counter, and then became the assistant manager. And they said, “Well, we’d like to move you to either a branch manager or territory manager.” And it was about three weeks before the economy totally crashed. And I said, “Oh, I’ll go sales, I’ll try that out.” … Did that for eight years before coming over to CFM.
DT: How has CFM managed to stay ahead of the game given the problems of the last two years?
Steele: It all comes down to the quality people.
The words that our owner gave me, which I thought were very good words of wisdom, were: “Become a force multiplier. Build a team around you, because I need you to create 10 people that can do what you do better than you do.” And that was a real challenge for me, initially, and it took me a while to grow into that.
But the great part is, we really have an excellent team. That just makes the difference.
The second part that’s really been successful, that’s helped us through this, has been just the relationships we have with our vendors, and especially our contractors. The supply chain is difficult. It’s a massive problem, especially for contractors that rely on us every day for their business. And if we hadn’t really focused in on the communication and that relationship side, I think we probably would have lost half our dealers.
DT: So what keeps you motivated about your work, aside from the obvious benefits of earning a living and providing jobs and goods to people?
Steele: Probably the biggest dynamic for me is being part of a team. When you go to work, and you love the people that you work with, and there’s that team camaraderie, it just makes it fun. That, to me, is the biggest motivator.
With any job, there’re always the headaches, the struggles, but, you know, you gotta work. So you might as well enjoy the people you work with. To me, that’s really the dynamic. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else, because the reality is, I just got great people.
We’ve hired, over time, just to give you some examples of names, we hired my dad. … I hired my high school principal. I hired my basketball coach. And they were people that had nothing to do with HVAC, but they were great people that cared, that worked hard, and it created an opportunity for them to help them in their life. And in return, CFM got incredible employees that that put in more effort and energy than anybody.
DT: So what was the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Steele: I would say the best career advice I received came from the gentleman who actually got me hired at Watsco. And his advice was very, very simple: Outwork everybody.
DT: How were you able to do that? That can be a tall order, depending on the competition.
Steele: It can be a very tall order. I’m a very competitive person, and so, for me, that’s part of the drive piece — that I’m going to find a way to win. I don’t have every answer. But I know places to call to find answers. And if I don’t have an answer, I will find an answer.
One thing my dad always taught me was the measure of a man is the willingness to stand behind his word and do whatever it takes to do what he said he would do. And it’s really difficult to, you know, find people that have a high work ethic.
Interesting dynamic when it comes to work ethic. I’ve seen Millennials come in here with incredible work ethic, and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em come in with lousy work ethic. And I’ve seen the other dynamics in the other generations as well.
DT: What was the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
Steele: The worst career advice I received came at Watsco as well. It came from a higher-up over there whose name I’ll leave out. And it was basically that every person’s replaceable. And you know, that sounds horrible, right?
Every person, I understand from a value standpoint, at that moment — people can be replaced, and people in some cases should be replaced. But an individual leaves a unique stamp on the world, just like yourself. You leave a unique stamp on the world.
What unfortunately happens in the corporate model is, we take the value of an individual being and we take that away, and we say, “Hey, you know what? We’re just gonna ratchet this into a number. And that number is now what we’re going to dictate based on the value of that role.”
There’s so much more value within an individual person. The real responsibility of leadership and management in a company is to unlock the capability and the potential within the individuals, because when you can do that, that’s what a team is. A team is not me going out there and saying, “OK, team, here’s what we’re gonna do today. Everybody do my work”; it’s me going in and investing in those people to unlock their internal potential, and helping them become the best version of themselves, that really just builds a chemistry and a team. And those people, they outwork anybody, they put their best effort in every day, and they really work hard
DT: If you weren’t helping run a distribution company, what would be your fantasy job, however realistic or unrealistic?
Steele: Right now, I’d say I want to be the president of the United States. ‘Cause I could probably help a little. But you know, I would say for the most part, my passion has always been in consulting and public speaking. That’s always where my passion has been.
DT: So what kind of what kind of public speaking job would you would you want as a fantasy career?
Steele: Motivational speaker, probably. I like the rah-rah.