ALBUQUERQUE, NM — The long arm of consolidation has found its way into this scenic Southwest community. And at least one independent contractor hasn’t been fazed by the Wall Street competition.

“I don’t understand the benefits of consolidation for my company,” said Mike Salmon, owner of Anderson Air Conditioning Co. “Consolidation is not a problem and it is not a factor in how we do business. It took me 30 years to get where I am and I’m not selling to anyone.”

Salmon thinks enough of competitor and consolidator Wagner Mechanical/Blue Dot Services, Inc., that he recommended The News pay the contractor a visit while we were in town. This mutual admiration and professionalism is typical of many contractors in this area.

Wagner and Anderson are about a 1/2 mile from each other, yet their business profiles are worlds apart. Salmon likes the idea of staying independent and relying on his worker-friendly environment to expand his business.

Besides relying on 70 years of service in the Albuquerque area, Wagner is looking to strengthen its hold on the market.

“We looked to the horizon and decided to fight against the encroaching competition from ‘Big Brother,’” said Don Wagner, owner of Wagner Mechanical. “We saw what consolidators were doing, what utilities would be doing, and what Home Depot was doing. We didn’t want to fight the giants by ourselves.”

Let’s see what makes these two contractors tick.

Anderson Air Conditioning

When one looks at the Anderson logo, the first thing to greet the eye is the “Anderson Air Corps” and the accompanying air corps insignia.

The company was a former Trane Comfort Corps franchise which featured a military-style logo. When Trane canceled the franchise, the Anderson owners wanted to adopt another military-style logo. They took on the air corps logo and it caught on well, especially with all of the retired U.S. Air Force personnel in town, thanks in part to nearby Kirtland Air Force Base.

The company had an unusual start back in 1961. Tommy Anderson, who had been working for another contractor, bought the business from the owner, who basically “skipped town and left the phones ringing,” according to Salmon.

Anderson eventually expanded the business from service to installation and took on a few partners. When he sold out in 1996 to his son, Lyle, and to Salmon, he had a sales volume of $3.5 million.

Today, Lyle Anderson takes care of the production end of the business and Salmon runs the sales and business side. Taking a page from the consolidator’s book, in 1999 they opened a branch to the north in Santa Fe.

Expansion, diversity

“It got to the point where we were doing so much work in Santa Fe, we generated about a half million dollars of work,” Salmon said. “We were able to secure some good local talent so we leased a building and invested in equipment. Since then it’s been going great. We expect to do $1.5 million up there in the first year.”

Salmon has been impressed with the business’ growth in recent years. He credits the company’s diversity and its balanced markets. One-third of Anderson’s business is in service and two-thirds is in installation. Commercial accounts make up for 60% of the revenue.

“Albuquerque is a small marketplace and you have to be diverse in order to survive if one segment of the market goes down,” Salmon said. “We specialize in everything.

“Residential has been down this past year, but our commercial side has more than made up for it. The weather has definitely affected the residential business.”

Salmon credits the company’s success to a number of different reasons. Anderson sends out survey forms to customers after the work is completed. He said the vast majority come back with complimentary remarks.

The company also does a lot of design-build work and new custom home installations. Salmon remarked that Santa Fe has a number of vacation homes belonging to out-of-state residents.

He is particularly proud of Anderson’s preventive maintenance contracts. “We offer an optional five-year parts and labor warranty for residential and light commercial customers. We underwrite the warranty ourselves if the customer purchases the maintenance contract and continues to renew it.

“We’re doing close to $400,00 per year in this program.”

Salmon cited an example of how he won the bid on a Santa Fe project because the company went the extra mile to show its care and expertise. “We bid [to remodel the La Posada Hotel] and we were the only contractor who went from building to building, room to room, and wrote down what needed to be done,” he said. “We were not the low bidder but we won the job.”

Need more techs to do more work

Salmon would like to continue to bid on high-profile and unusual jobs but there are a few roadblocks in the way — namely the lack of qualified help.

“We’ve worked our backlog of jobs down and the bank is willing to lend us money for expansion, but we don’t have the people.”

Salmon thinks one way to attack the problem is by instituting more training programs for his people, citing a 10-fold increase in training programs compared to nine years ago. He wants his managers well trained to deal with the turnover in the trade.

“When Intel expanded [into building maintenance services], they stole 15 service technicians from us,” Salmon said. “It was a complete turnover. Their wage scale was so much higher. We’re paying a higher wage now and it has had an impact on our pricing structure.”

For now, Salmon will continue to make Anderson an inviting environment to work in. “We offer a stable environment,” he said. “We are a haven for people who want to grow and expand. If someone is looking for a place to park themselves, they probably won’t last long here.

“If you want to be successful, you have to let people live up to their potential. We have that environment here.”

Wagner Mechanical/Blue Dot services

Like so many successful family-owned businesses, Wagner Mechanical boasts more than two generations of ownership. The commercial-residential service company was founded 72 years ago by Victor Wagner, who passed it on to his son Victor Jr. in 1948, who eventually passed it on to present owners, sons Don and Doug, in 1986.

Don (a former oil field worker) and Doug ran the business together until last year. Doug decided to retire to pursue other interests and Don, not wanting to shoulder the load by himself, began looking for other options.

Enter Blue Dot Services.

“We began looking for purchasers on our own and through a broker,” he said. “The broker contacted Blue Dot, who was very interested in us because they didn’t have any contractors in New Mexico.

“They acquired us last September and two days later, they acquired another contractor for Wagner to run in Rio Rancho,” which is 25 miles north of Albuquerque.

The former Grizzly Plumbing & Heating Co. is a good complement to the many markets Wagner serves: heating, cooling, refrigeration, and plumbing.

The question of product lines

The only other consolidator in the area, Service Experts, was recently acquired by Lennox, which set up an interesting scenario. Wagner has been primarily a Lennox dealer.

“We were a Lennox dealer,” said Wagner. “Since Blue Dot and Lennox are competitors in the acquisition market, once Blue Dot acquires a contractor, they begin to phase out Lennox [if the contractor sells it] and look for another supplier.

“Lennox always gave us good customer service and very few other companies in town sold Lennox. But now we are looking to replace them with Carrier.”

Wagner is excited about the relationship with Blue Dot. He thinks both locations have great potential as long as — like a broken record — they can hire enough qualified workers.

The question of qualified techs

“Our biggest obstacles are ourselves — our own limitations,” he said. “We need to become more acquainted with the local trade schools.

“I’ve been aligned with the Albuquerque school system with their school-to-work program. They have kids who don’t want to go to college but are ready to accept a position in the workplace.

“I’ve taken a student as an apprentice. After two years we will encourage him to take his journeyman’s exam, which will make him much more valuable to us.”

Wagner employs 22 people in Albuquerque and 16 in Rio Rancho. Obviously he would like to increase those numbers and he has the backing to do it.

“Not having enough people is the only factor that holds us back,” he said. “Blue Dot is willing to spend money on equipment and trucks. They have a great benefits package.”

Wagner said that so many other factors make his company and the Albuquerque area a good place to live and work. He said the company has never laid off anyone because of lack of work. Plus, “Not many companies can say they’ve been around for over 70 years,” he said.

“Longevity is a key to our business. With Blue Dot, we now have more opportunities for someone to develop a career path, from service tech up to management.

“We are now one of the major players in the Albuquerque service industry. Ours is a positive and upbeat work environment and we have a good reputation around town.”

Wagner is also known around town for a familiar landmark in front of its building. If you are driving down Candelaria Road, you may see an older model, medium-blue service van, the “vintage” member of an otherwise modern fleet of vans. It may be parked directly below a sign board that Wagner uses to give passersby a light-hearted thought to ponder — another “vintage” landmark of the company.

“We’ve never used the sign for advertising, just to make people chuckle,” Wagner said. “It’s actually sold jobs to people who have driven by and enjoyed the signs. Once every quarter-year, we had a local radio station traffic reporter who would broadcast the traffic reports from our parking lot. He would then read the message on our sign over the air. We got a ton of free advertising off of that.”

It’s a clever gimmick — and one that has worked for Wagner.

Sidebar: Albuquerque: 'A beautiful thing to behold'

If Mike Salmon of Anderson Air Conditioning could write a travelogue for Albuquerque and New Mexico, it would probably go something like this:

“New Mexico is a land that is different from any other land. It is high desert. We don’t have the urban, cultural centers like those available in metropolitan areas.

“We have a good blend of three cultures — Native Americans, Hispanics, and Whites. All three are equally represented and blend well. It is a beautiful thing to behold.”

Salmon, an urban transplant from Long Beach, CA, said it took him a little while to adapt but once he did, he fell in love with the area.

“I’ve been here for 20 years and when I first came here, it took me about six months to wind down from the urban freeways, traffic, doing things every week, etc.,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of wide open spaces. It’s not unusual to be in the middle of Albuquerque and there is a big vacant lot. It just hasn’t been developed yet.”

Salmon likes the proximity to the local natural wonders.

“In 15 minutes I can go from my house to a mountain wilderness setting. There is a lot of natural beauty versus the urban, man-made beauty.”

Salmon added one more plus about Albuquerque — the area has attracted a lot of “clean air” companies, high-tech companies that don’t spill a lot of pollution into the environment. “Albuquerque does not understand what a smog alert is.”

Sidebar: 'How I spent my Albuquerque vacation'

OK, so the headline is a bit deceiving. After all, I wasn’t on vacation when I paid Albuquerque a visit last December. It was all business, with a few pauses to take in the local cuisine.

In case you’re out and about and looking for a place to visit or dine, here’s my review of a few places around town.

No trip to Albuquerque would be complete without a visit to the famous 66 Diner, located at 1405 Central NE. You can’t miss it if you drive the famous Route 66 trail through town. I dined on a burger and fries which although unspectacular, tasted a little better because of the ambience. My server managed to get me in and out in a reasonable amount of time.

If you are on a limited expense account yet want a great dinner, try Landry’s Seafood House on 5001 Jefferson Street NE. They’ve got several dinner items on their special $10-and-under menu. I had blackened catfish on rice and it was out of this world. Throw in a draft of Killian’s Red and you’ve got a great meal, with tip, for under $20.

If you’re looking for a “typical” sports bar with all the atmosphere of a locker room (minus the fragrance), try Sneakerz on 4100 San Mateo NE. I happened to catch a Monday Night Football Game while munching on a Nacho Grande. What impressed me was the unusual amount of Michigan State University apparel. (I am an alumni after all.) I also liked being able to hear myself think without a blast from the tweeters and woofers.

Looking to ascend to the heights? Try the Sandia Peak Tramway at 10 Tramway Loop NE. The tram ride up the mountainside travels 2.7 miles to the 10,378-ft Sandia Peak. Looking out over the valley below, one can see all of Albuquerque and many miles beyond. There is also a restaurant at the peak if you wish to eat amongst the clouds.

I see that breakfast didn’t get a mention here. That’s because I always woke up to a breakfast buffet at my favorite hotel, the Courtyard by Marriot.

I could plug the casino that I visited but I don’t endorse places that take my money without a thank you. Besides, there are a lot of casinos in the area and the San Felipe Casino Hollywood is just one of them. (Oops, I said it.)

Enjoy your visit and if you have any tales of your travel adventures around Albuquerque, let me know.