In the face of stubbornly high industry unemployment rates and a construction market that remains slow, it’s understandable why so many sheet metal and HVAC contractors are in survival mode.

When you’re not sure where, when —or if — your next project is coming, it makes sense to conserve cash wherever you can.

But some contractors take a different approach. While it may not be the time to go on a machinery-buying binge, there are companies that continue to invest, regardless of economic conditions.

Henry Hoff, president of Hoff Heating and A/C in the St. Louis suburb of O’Fallon, Mo., is one such contractor. His company, which started operating in 1983 from a detached garage adjacent to Hoff’s house, is today what he calls a “midsize” operation with 30 employees who work in a facility that the company moved to in 1989. It features a showroom as well as a sheet metal shop, and the primarily residential company has branched into indoor air quality and technologies such as geothermal heating and cooling.

Slow times

The last few years have not been the best for Hoff Heating, something that could probably be said by a lot of HVAC contractors. The St. Louis region has been battered by the economy.

“It’s been slow for the last five years or so,” Hoff said, adding that the early 1980s — when he first entered the industry — was a similar time.

But the contractor said he has finally started seeing signs of improvement.

“There seemed to be a little bit of an uptick last year as far as new construction goes,” he said. “Nothing significant, but at least it’s going in the right direction.”

And that was good enough for Hoff to recently decide that it was time to purchase a new machine. In his case, he had been considering a clinching machine made by Mid-Rivers Machinery Inc. of St. Peters, Mo.

“This has been on our radar screen for a few years, and I just kept putting it off and putting it off,” Hoff said.

The machine, known as the Clincher, is used to fasten metal together without the need for welds or rivets.

Hoff wanted to replace a spot welder that the company had been using. The machine had been giving the company problems when making some sheet metal fittings. He acknowledged that while business might still be slow, he figured now was still a good time to buy.

“I always try to invest a little bit back into the business every year,” he said. “We’re trying to be prepared when things do turn around.”

Past investments the company has made include a large-format scanner for emailing blueprints and building a training room for installers and service technicians.

A turnaround?

And the industry may indeed be turning a corner, according to Al Morgan, president of Mid-Rivers Machinery. Morgan has been designing, building and selling sheet metal machinery for three decades. Snips caught up with him after he had just delivered a new machine to a customer.

He said 2012 was the best year he’s ever had. Morgan said he sold 20 machines in just December

Clients have been contacting him from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Australia.

“They’re cautious, of course,” he said, but still buying.

At Hoff Heating and A/C, the Clincher is working out well.

“It’s been working great,” Hoff said. “The guys really like it. We’re using it for things I never thought of using it for. It’s pretty versatile.”

For reprints of this article, contact Renee Schuett at (248) 786-1661 or email