SAN JOSE, CA — “My No. 1 principle is: ‘If you continue to do the right thing with your employees and your customers, you’ll succeed.’”

So says and believes Jerry Hurwitz, owner of J & J Air Conditioning, one of the winners in The News’ first-ever “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.

But what is the “right thing”?

“Doing the right thing is about honesty and honoring your word,” he answers, “but it’s also something less tangible. I like to put myself in the position of my customers and employees. How would I want to be treated? How would my actions make me feel if I were on the receiving end?”

Hurwitz’s philosophy of doing business reverses the old adage “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Instead of Hurwitz’s good fortune trickling down to others, he makes a point of telling his employees that “What’s best for the customer is best for J & J.”

Building trust

As an example, new customers sometimes request monthly maintenance visits because that’s what other companies recommended.

“When we recommend maintenance only once every three months, they’re surprised,” Hurwitz says. “Sure, I could make more money if we serviced the account every month, but we make recommendations based on what’s best for the customer, not for me. We don’t recommend things that aren’t needed.

“Most customers don’t understand what we do and don’t see what we do, so they have to trust what we do. If we acted in a way that would be in conflict with the best interests of the customer, it wouldn’t be right. We want to instill a sense of integrity about our company. There are always opportunities in which I could take advantage of my employees, but that would undermine the trust we have here.”

And no one can say that the owner is not dedicated to his job. He leads by example.

“Jerry puts in more hours than I do, and I sometimes begin my day at 6 o’clock in the morning and leave at 6 o’clock in the evening,” says construction manager Dave Agnew, a J & J employee of 11 years. “A lot of other places, it’s like he’s the boss and he’s off on a cruise or in Hawaii — you know, he’s never there. Those contractors just want to make as much money as they can and then jump out of the business, leaving 12 or 13 guys without work. That’s not Jerry. He’s always the hardest working person in the company.”

Administrative assistant Norma Welles concurs.

“Jerry will do anything that needs to be done. If he has to drive a forklift or lift boxes, he’ll do it.”

“Jerry has his finger on the pulse of the work,” says service technician Ron Cabanayan. “Jerry knows what it’s like to be in the field. He never asks anyone to do something he wouldn’t or couldn’t do himself.”

No yelling and screaming

Being a technician, Cabanayan appreciates his boss’s kind ways.

“Jerry praises you when you’ve done a good job,” he says. “And if you mess up, he talks to you in private.”

“In contracting, it’s usually pretty cutthroat, a lot of yelling and screaming to get the job done,” says Agnew. “Jerry isn’t like that. I can always sit down and explain to him why things aren’t going to be done on schedule. I’d get a page from some other contractors I’ve worked for, and I didn’t want to call back because I knew it was going to be a screaming match. I never feel I have to avoid Jerry.”

“What I like, too,” says Cabanayan, “is that with Jerry, there are no barriers. When you go into his office to talk with him, he comes around his desk and sits in front of you, face to face.”

Of course, beyond the “warm fuzzies” are the good salaries and benefits.

“I always tell new hires that if you want to work in a non-union shop, you can’t do better than J & J,” says Agnew. “You’re not going to find a non-union shop that offers better benefits than Jerry.”

Benefits include medical and dental insurance, a $25,000 life insurance policy, and a profit-sharing program for employees working at least 24 hours a week.

“J & J offers one of the most generous 401K programs in this area, with the company making a contribution equal to 15% of the employee’s annual salary to its profit-sharing/retirement plan,” says marketing and training coordinator Carol Welter. “The company’s 401K plan is so exceptional it was highlighted in an article in the Wall Street Journal addressing exemplary small business retirement plans.”

“Other companies make a lot of promises that never come true,” says installer Scott Ray. “The last company I worked for promised a great profit-sharing program, but it never made a profit in the four years I was there.”

Giving people a chance to succeed

Perhaps it’s because Hurwitz wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth that he can relate to his technicians in the field and they can relate to him.

“I flunked out of college when I was 19,” he unabashedly admits, “and started working for a refrigeration wholesale house. An old-timer there was teaching nights at San Jose City College. He’d turned 65 and was told he’d have to quit. They needed an instructor to replace him and he said I ought to apply.

“ ‘Me?’ I thought. ‘What business do I have teaching?’ But I applied and got the job, and started teaching air conditioning and refrigeration classes there part-time. I taught 13 or 14 years part-time, then three and a half years full-time. It was the most incredible experience. I was teaching at a community college — me, a guy who had been a terrible student, who barely got out of high school.

“That experience taught me that people can excel if you give them a chance. You don’t have to go the academic route to succeed. In fact, most of our good mechanics are very bright, but not at all academic.”

Service technician Dave Eklund is one of those shining stars.

“He can train himself to do anything just by reading a book,” says construction manager Dave Agnew. “A few years ago, he asked me a few questions about computers because he’d never touched one before. Within a year he built his own computer from scratch and taught me how to build my own. He’s the kind of guy that could go out and do anything he wants.”

So why does an electronics whiz like Eklund stay at J & J?

“Freedom,” he says. “A lot of contractors track every nut and bolt, check up on where you are every second. Working for J & J, I can pursue something out of the ordinary rather than changing filters every day.”

Agnew also relishes the autonomy of his job.

“Jerry gives you the freedom to do whatever you need to do the job right. He’s not chasing around and looking over your shoulder all the time.”

With Eklund, loyalty to J & J and particularly to Jerry has deep emotional roots as well.

“I lost my son to leukemia a few years back,” he says. “Jerry’s support was beyond belief. He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Come back to work whenever you feel you can. Take your time.’ At the end, I was off for a month, and Jerry paid me for my time. He didn’t have to, but he did.

“There’s a personal touch here, and that comes from somewhere. It’s Jerry’s company, and it starts there, with him.”

Sidebar: A boss who really cares

Like nearly every J & J employee, service technician Ron Cabanayan has his own story of how owner Jerry Hurwitz helped him out.

When he was first hired, Cabanayan’s wife, Mary, who now works part-time at J & J as a file clerk, was in the hospital with a blood clot in her leg.

“Jerry told me not to worry, that he’d put her on the company’s medical insurance immediately. But the insurance rules said we had to wait two months before we were covered. I told Jerry I could take the money out of my savings, but he said, ‘I made you a promise and I’m going to stick to it.’

“He picked up the bill. That’s the kind of guy Jerry is.”

When construction manager Dave Agnew was looking to buy a house, Hurwitz offered to lend him the down payment.

“I didn’t take the money because I either wanted to do it myself or not at all,” says Hurwitz. “But it’s good to know Jerry is always there to help you out.”

Money isn’t the only way Hurwitz helps his employees. Flexible hours is another.

Construction assistant Rhonda Yee says Hurwitz is “very accommodating of working moms.” Yee and her sister, service administrator Roxanne Klein, work during their children’s school day, then go home to “be moms.”

“Basically, Jerry feels that if your employees are happy, things go more smoothly,” says administrative assistant Norma Welles.

It also may be unusual in the industry to retain a technician once s/he’s been injured, but Hurwitz did not do that with Agnew. He promoted the tech to construction manager when his knees gave out three years ago.

“J & J doesn’t discard good service technicians,” says assistant service manager Susan Leeper. “Jerry tries to place them elsewhere when they have knee problems.”

According to marketing and training coordinator Carol Welter, Hurwitz is even thinking of starting another business “so when guys can’t work out in the field any more, they could transition into something else.

“It’ll be a business for mechanics who aren’t ready to retire yet, but whose joints can no longer take the lifting and the strain on their bodies. Just think about it: Truly, how many owners would even think about something like that?”

Sidebar: Another accolade: Award-winning training

J & J Air Conditioning owner Jerry Hurwitz ensures that ongoing training is a key component at J & J with in-house A.I.R. (Air Conditioning Instruction and Research) classes.

Established in 1983 as a training program for J & J technicians, A.I.R. filled such a big need in the hvacr community that soon customers and even competitors were asking to take classes. A.I.R. conducts seven classes a year, with J & J employees attending free of charge and averaging 5 1/2 hours of training a month. J & J is to receive ACCA’s Training Excellence Award for 1999, to be presented at the association’s annual conference this month.

“Jerry’s interested in bringing the whole industry up, not just his guys,” says construction manager Dave Agnew. “Many of the students are our own clients. We want to bring them up to speed so when we go in and say this is the problem, they’ll know what we’re talking about. We have facility managers in our classes who want to get a better understanding of what they’re reading on a repair list.”

On-the-job training is impressive too.

“We have apprentices go out with a journeyman to learn how to do something,” says journeyman tech Grant Matsunaga, who has been with J & J for more than 18 years. “Other companies send an apprentice to do something and he’s alone.”

“My coworkers are like teachers,” says new hire Ramon Lucatero, a ser-vice tech. “I ask questions and they answer right away. They don’t say, ‘Hey, I’ll tell you later.’ I like that.”

“You’ve always got support on the job,” says Dave Eklund, a service mechanic who has been with J & J for 13 years. “You’re not just thrown out there in a sink-or-swim situation.”

Sidebar: Just the facts - J & J Air Conditioning

Winning contractor: J & J Air Conditioning

Owner: Jerry Hurwitz

Location: San Jose, CA

Years in business: 22

Bulk of market: Industrial-commercial

Total revenue for 1999: $5.7 million

Total employees: 39

Total service technicians and installers: 27

Average annual hours employees spend in training: 65.6 (or nearly 5.5 hrs/month/employee)

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Long- and short-term disability insurance, $25,000 life insurance policy, 401K with company contributing 15% of employee’s salary to its profit-sharing/retirement plan.

The News selected this contractor because: From the field technicians to the office staff, every employee is encouraged to expand his/her skills and knowledge base, and appropriate education classes and workshops are company paid. Employees are also entrusted with a great deal of responsibility for performing his/her job and contributing to the overall success of the company. The compensation plan is structured to reward those employees who continually strive to achieve excellence.