Heating, cooling, and refrigeration equipment wholesalers gathered in Columbus, Ohio, in early May to dive into the details of distribution marketing, sales, and supply-chain management.

But many breakout sessions at the Heating Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) Focus conference touched on topics that affect the entire HVAC industry and, more broadly, a rapidly changing economy impacted by technology, societal trends, and the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2023 Focus took place at the Hilton in downtown Columbus, HARDI’s home town, on May 9, 10, and 11. The conference drew more than 200 attendees, from HVAC wholesalers to representatives of businesses that support distribution companies.

There was time for socializing and networking, upbeat opening and closing keynotes, and 18 breakout sessions, led either by HVAC professionals, academics, or sales, marketing, or supply chain experts.

“I’m proud of the excellent program our team put together, and I was incredibly impressed with the talent and engagement of the professionals our members sent to our home town for the conference,” said Talbot Gee, the HARDI CEO. “The power of data and good analytics rang throughout the conference, which is why HARDI will continue our own investment in that area.”

HARDI members can look forward to more of that type of “constant content,” Gee added, including at this year’s annual conference in Arizona in December.

Here’s a look at some of the recurring topics discussed during this year’s Focus.


Disruption is Constant

“When are we going back to the way things were? The answer is never.”
- Steve DeNunzio
business lecturer, Ohio State University

Business upheaval is here to stay, and distributors who want to succeed have to manage that.

“Nobody is going to act the same way after this disruption,” said Greg Toler, COO of the distribution company Peirce Phelps, speaking about the supply chain.

Toler, who emphasized that wholesalers need good inventory data and an internal supply chain “champion,” said his company has been going through “a lot of pain” and that he recognizes the HVAC supply chain isn’t returning to what it was four years ago. “We’re never going back there again,” Toler said.

“When are we going back to the way things were?” asked Steve DeNunzio, a senior lecturer at Ohio State University’s Max M. Fisher College of Business. “The answer is never.”

DeNunzio spoke about the workforce of the future, saying that the gig economy, the work-from-home (WFH) trend, the declining birthrate over the last 15 years, and an increasingly nonwhite and multigenerational labor force will all affect the workplace of the future.

But DeNunzio also used an historical perspective to sound an optimistic note, citing examples from past economic disruptions.

“What happens during these times of disruption is we leap forward,” he said.


The March of Technology

Technological change has brought both opportunities to be embraced as well as challenges to be tackled.

“The technology changes faster than we train human beings to deal with it,” DeNunzio said.

“There is a huge opportunity in the marketplace to use AI (artificial intelligence) to help us grow our businesses,” said Benjamin Cohen, founder of Proton AI, which offers an AI platform for distribution businesses. But AI, Cohen added, requires a lot of data to work optimally.

To illustrate the reach of AI, Cohen said that about 80% of the content watched on the streaming service Netflix is brought to viewers through personalized, AI-driven recommendations.

HVAC distributors, Cohen said, can use AI to: 1) automate order entry; 2) optimize pricing; 3) forecast inventory; 4) quickly generate text; and 5) drive sales and increase their “wallet share.”

DeNunzio said that although high-wage jobs are less likely to be fully automated than low-wage ones, even parts of high-paying jobs that require advanced training can be automated. Automation will create jobs, too, DeNunzio said, such as for machine caretakers, change managers, and problem solvers.


People Still Matter

Despite technological advancements, WFH, demographic change, and the rest of it, distribution is still a people-oriented business, and good relationships need to be developed and maintained.

“The brand is only as good as the people who stand behind that product,” said Ben Poole, founder of HVAC Tactical, a clothing and gear brand designed to promote HVAC as a profession. “Relationships dictate a lot of things.”

Poole, who’s worked as an HVAC technician and founded a couple of contracting companies, said that, as a contractor, it was good working relationships with distribution employees who understood his company’s needs that kept him loyal to certain distributors.

“The best wholesalers have the best people, and those people love people,” he said.

DeNunzio said that soft skills will continue to be valuable even as work tasks are increasingly automated, and that teamwork and empathy will be important parts of the workplace of the future.


Passion Matters, Too

A passion for one’s profession is vital, too, whether one is servicing an HVAC system, navigating difficulties in the supply chain, or running a company.

“Unless you have passion and a champion, you’re not going to get there,” Toler said.

Entrepreneur Megan Reilly, COO of Tippi Toes Inc., a dance franchising firm, and founder and host of the “Who Is Your Momma?” podcast, said she’s long had a passion for business. She even played “business” as a young girl, she said.

“I’ve always loved business,” Reilly said during a May 11 closing keynote. “It’s always something that’s resonated with me.”

“I think you have to be passionate about anything you do in life,” said Poole.