WICHITA FALLS, TX — James Lane is proud of growing his own technicians. He’s grown his own management team, too; and his home-grown value system dominates the business.

Hiring high school and junior college grads and training them in-house works for Lane’s company, James Lane Air Conditioning & Plumbing. The service manager, for example, was fully trained in-house.

In addition to James Lane, ceo, the management team includes daughter Deloris Lane, president, and sons Leo and Louis Lane, both engineers and vice presidents of the company.

Lane AC is a 42-year-old, family-owned business serving residential, commercial, and industrial markets. Besides hvac, its staff of 60 is busy with sheet metal fabrication, design-build, plumbing-piping, and fire protection.

Recently it was James Lane’s value system that drew the spotlight to this North Texas hvac company. The company was honored by the Better Business Bureau in 1998 with its prestigious Torch Award. Judged by an independent panel, the award recognizes “demonstrated ethical practices toward customers, employees, and communities.”

Lane’s company was recognized in the one- to 99-employee category during that year and was a finalist for the national award in 1999.

(A point of interest — six Texas companies were included among the 22 finalists.)

Tornado challenges

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In 1979, Wichita Falls experienced a devastating tornado, leaving hundreds of people homeless and many injured. Forty-five lives were lost in Seymour, Vernon, and Wichita Falls.

Eleven of Lane’s employees’ homes were destroyed or severely damaged. His warehouse soon filled with furniture and whatever else those families could salvage. “It was an opportunity to show how we value our people,” says Lane.

There was a lot of work to do, says Lane. And with a warehouse full of furniture, it wasn’t easy.

Lane faced something else. With all the work now available, several employees wanted to go into business for themselves. “The opportunity was out there,” says Lane. “I’d have done the same thing.” However, “Not one of them is in business today.”

How did the company respond to the loss of employees? In addition to hiring new ones, “We did everything we could to help our people get back on their feet,” Lane says. That included serving lunches for them at work because there were few places to eat.

Customers valued

Says James Lane, “We will not have a dissatisfied customer. We bend over backwards to please the customer. We don’t care what it takes.”

In one case, when a house didn’t cool as it was supposed to, the company “jerked out the unit and put in a new one.

“We don’t argue; we want them to be happy,” Lane says. “What if the unit is OK and the problem is mostly in the customer’s head? What if the unit is three or four years old? We replace the unit.

“If you’ve got one dissatisfied customer, you can lose six more,” Lane says. We don’t lose any this way.” On the other hand, the satisfied customer will tell others Lane AC took care of them.”

He sees no problem with billing issues either. If the customer has paid the bill and still isn’t satisfied, “We’ll refund their money.”

Employees, too

“In today’s manpower crisis, hvacr contractors must sometimes turn business away because they haven’t the trained technicians to get the job done properly.”

Lane is proud of employees who’ve been on the job for 32 years — “longer than most people have been in this business.” The company’s employees enjoy good benefits, including uniforms, up to three weeks’ paid vacation, paid holidays, and 40 hrs a week guaranteed.

Also included are health insurance and a 401K to which the company contributes 25%. Employees may use their five days of sick leave for family illness or funerals. Flu shots are available annually for employees and their families.

Turnover is low, in part, because of recognition. After Monday morning truck inspection, the company buys lunch for the driver of the cleanest truck in each department. He also receives a $10 tool allowance.

The employee of the month is selected on the basis of customer comment cards. Letters praising someone’s work are signed by managers and posted for all to see.

The employee of the month receives a $30 tool allowance and sometimes recognition in the local newspaper.

Finally, there’s a $5,000 annual award for workers who have had no accidents; that includes truck accidents, stepping through the floor, and the like.

Training new hires

An excellent training program also benefits workers wanting to learn new skills and further their careers. The company is proud of its 1,200-sq-ft, carpeted, well-equipped training room.

New hires may be recent high school and junior college grads, which Lane AC grows into skilled installers and technicians.

Help came recently from a grant through Vernon Regional Junior College. Says Leo Lane, “That was a joint venture between the college which has a big hvac training program and the state of Texas.”

The grant helps with on-the-job training and salaries for installers and trainees and is designed to help them develop their skills.

“Instead of sending our people to a manufacturer for training on new methods and equipment, we’ll bring a representative from Carrier or Rheem water heaters, for example, to our company to train here,” explains Leo.

“Yes, it’s expensive, but those sessions allow our employees to ask specific questions about products and how things work, which they might not do in a more crowded situation,” says James Lane. “Often these sessions run afternoon into evening with a meal provided.

“We get better training, more specialized to our needs,” James continues. “The manufacturers love to come; they get to know our company better.”

Market focus

Design-build became a new focus for Lane AC about 10 years ago.

“With plumbing and piping, sheet metal, fire protection, and design work, we can offer the whole package,” says Leo Lane.

“We’re working in six states, including Virginia and Georgia,” he continues. “We are active in the community with representatives in Rotary, Lions, and Optimist Clubs. We also participate in United Way campaigns and serve on the Board of Commerce and Industry and the corporate board of the Boys and Girls Clubs.”

Final thoughts from James Lane — “You’ve got to take care of your customers. You’ve got to take care of your employees. You’ve got to take care of your business. That’s what we’ve always done.”