Record attendance, standing-room-only educational sessions, and plenty of networking opportunities marked the 2022 HARDI conference, which wrapped up December 6.

The four-day meeting, dubbed Ignite, at the Marriott Marquis hotel in downtown Houston brought HVACR distributors together with manufacturers and people from businesses that serve the industry. More than 1,800 attendees got a chance to hear from lineup of six keynote speakers that included sales gurus, an economist, a Harvard business professor, and Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s baseball executive who took an analytical approach to building a winning team.

“It’s been phenomenal. And the dynamic nature of the content has been great,” said HARDI CEO Talbot Gee. “The team did an amazing job pulling together content from all over the place. And it’ll be really hard, I think, for our members to leave here without some really good takeaways.”

Indeed, HARDI members flocked to the breakout sessions, listening to author and business coach Matthew Pollard talk about the power of differentiation; to HARDI governmental affairs director Alex Ayers, who spoke about the transition to A2L refrigerants, upcoming federal energy efficiency standards, and new incentives for energy-saving measures; and to HARDI director of market intelligence Tim Fisher, who predicted a slowdown in industry growth.

Gee called the overcrowding a good problem to have.

“They go to all the sessions. They want to learn, they’re here to learn,” he said. “They’re here to get better, which is my favorite part of the job.”

Some 187 distribution companies were represented at Ignite and approximately 250 exhibitors — manufacturers and HVACR-related service businesses — took part in the December 5 booth program in the Marriott’s huge Texas Ballroom, which has a capacity of more than 4,000.

Some of the conference highlights included:

• Pollard’s well-attended presentation on the value of differentiating one’s business and responding to unmet needs in the marketplace. A niche approach, Pollard said, is a good lead-acquisition strategy and a business that starts with one niche can build up on a series of niches.

“Niching is by far one of the most successful ways to grow a business,” he said. “Everyone is not your customer.”

Pollard, who was also a breakfast keynote speaker, added that business people can find success in slowing down, stepping back, and reassessing strategy in order to “fly forward,” despite a prevailing business ethos that says they should be hustling at all times.

“It feels much better to hustle, to work hard,” because that has become the default expectation, he said.

• Harvard Business School associate professor Laura Huang’s lunchtime keynote on decisions based on data and logic versus those based on a “gut feeling.”

While not discounting a logical approach, Huang praised the value of an intuitive one, saying it could be useful in situations that are complex or chaotic, or in which the evidence does not clearly point in one direction.

A “gut feeling” is thought of as something nebulous, she said, but it can to some extent be quantified and it can be helpful to understand how one’s personality, thoughts, and experiences mesh to influence intuitive decision-making.

“Intuition is actually learned. It is based on experience,” Huang said.

• Ayers’ talk on upcoming federal HVACR product regulations, and others that are being considered, including a Department of Energy (DOE) proposal to require a minimum annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) standard of 95% for non-weatherized, gas-fired furnaces. If adopted, the rule would essentially mean a phasing-out of noncondensing gas furnaces.

“This is a significant market shift if it’s finalized in its current form,” Ayers said. (The DOE has finished accepting public comment on the plan and has until the end of next September to issue a final decision.)

• The “State of the Channel” talk by Fisher and Paul Giudice, the CEO of CoMetrics, which helps businesses and nonprofits use data to understand markets. The two spoke about various factors influencing the current HVACR market and Fisher said current signs point to a slowdown in industry growth next year.

“I don’t expect there to be any sort of steep dropoff. But I think demand starts to slow,” Fisher said. “There is a price cushion, to some, some degree. And that, in theory, will hopefully protect top-line values.”

In addition to Pollard, Huang, and Beane, whose talk was closed to the media, the other Ignite keynote speakers were Anirban Basu, an economic consultant and the founder of the Sage Policy Group; Carl Gould, the founder of 7 Stage Advisors, a business coaching and consulting firm; and Dion Flynn, an actor, comedian, teacher, and the creator, with Jeanne M. Stafford, of “The Improvisor’s Mindset.”