In the HVAC industry, many people get started because they like to fix stuff and their abilities lead them to ownership. But they don’t teach how to run a business in trade school, so technicians who become owners sometimes run their business with the mindset of a technician, when they need to be running it as a business owner.

“Technicians are already used to fixing equipment. And if they can do that, then they can fix their business,” said Don Harris, founder and president of Dependable Services and Service Success Group in Atlanta, Georgia, during a breakout session at Service World Expo, held in mid-October titled, “From Wrenches to Riches: Transforming from a Technician to a TRUE Business Owner.”

Technicians have to look out into the horizon and address things not as a technician, but as a business owner. In order for that to happen, a technician has to step out of the truck and into the office.

“You got to figure out how to start thinking more about the business instead of being the best technician.”
Don Harris
Founder and president
Dependable Services and Service Success Group

Retrain Your Brain

Maybe the biggest aspect when going from technician to owner is knowing that the brain must be retrained.

When a technician focuses on what they normally focus on (equipment) they don’t have time to learn how to manage a business. Harris knows this from personal experience. He, too, started as a technician who, on a whim at only 20 years-old, opened his own business.

“I was focusing on what I was doing in the field and ignoring what I should’ve been doing about managing my business,” he said.

So he started losing money, getting tired, and getting frustrated. With his eye on the wrong prize, Harris came close to failing at his business many times — until he changed his mindset.

Trapper Barnes, owner of Infinity Texas Air, located in Kaufman County, Texas, started as a helper in the field who was intrigued by the mechanical side of HVAC, so he decided to put himself through a tech training school. From there, he became an installer and became really interested with the business side of the industry. So he started doing sales.

“One reason was I was happy to be out of the attics,” Barnes said. “But there was something that flipped.”

Barnes always knew he wanted to own his own business, but he didn’t count on the sales side of things speeding that process up. But that’s when he started to understand that there was more to an HVAC business than fixing an air conditioner or heater.

So he made the decision in May of 2010 to invest his entire savings in his business and open its doors.

“I really had to focus on understanding leadership because the first couple years in business I thought, ‘Okay, just get out of the way — I’ll do it myself.’”

How, then, does someone retrain their brain?

“By spending more time working on the business and less time in the business. You got to figure out how to start thinking more about the business instead of being the best technician,” Harris said.


Get a Hold of the Business

In addition to mindset, Harris said there are two other very important legs of a business that a technician-turned-owner needs to be able to grasp: numbers and systems.

Arguably the most important aspect of grasping numbers as a business owner is knowing the cost of doing business. An HVAC business owner has to calculate the cost of doing business and the service labor rate, keep track of their financial statements, educate themselves on their cash flow statements, and pay attention to KPIs.

Harris noted that owners can’t keep charging what they’ve been charging over the years because the economy is just too different. And that’s thinking like an owner.

“You have to solve problems and tackle opportunities, and analyze patterns over time to monitor your overall company health,” he explained.

Technicians-turned-owners also have to have systems in place — a set of principles and procedures according to which everything is done in order to have an organized operating framework.

“Any business that operates efficiently and delivers consistent results has to have systems,” Harris said.

“You want to keep it simple and keep it to 7-12 steps,” Harris said.


Four Reasons Businesses Fail

According to Harris, there are four big reasons that businesses in the HVAC industry fail:

  1. Lack of startup capital
  2. Poor cash flow
  3. Lack of (service call/sale/install) demand
  4. Poor management

“Notice how none of those four reasons talk about your ability to fix stuff? That’s not why your business fails,” Harris said.

If a technician-turned-owner doesn’t know about marketing, how to present themselves to customers, or how to get leads because they are too busy in the field, they’ll start running into problems.

One of the biggest problems Harris has realized over time is that most service business owners are just too good at what they do and they’ve never been taught to run a business. They jump into entrepreneurship but then try to figure it out all on their own.

And when a business starts going down, there’s two options: reasons or results.

“How much are you willing to accept as the business owner? It’s your responsibility … and if you want results, you’re absolutely going to have to change,” Harris said. “You can’t keep doing things the way you’ve always done them and expect different results. That’s called insanity.”

Technicians can and do often have a leg up, because of their in-field knowledge and abilities, to run a successful HVAC business.

“I think that having that understanding of what it feels like to be in a 140° attic, or what it feels like to wonder about a technical problem, [employees] know that you can back them … that you’ve been in that situation before. And it’ll lead to having empathy and knowledge to help them out of that situation instead of leaving them out there on an island,” Barnes said.

If an owner feels like a technician, they’ll always be one and their business will reflect it. But by moving forward in a business as a business owner, an owner will start to feel different about who they are, which needs to happen when they step into an ownership role, because the HVAC industry is a monster of a business, said Harris.

“It’ll either take you down or you’ll learn how to tame it.”