When it comes to sharing ideas, hvac contractors are seldom at a loss for words. Take a look at the many small groups that gather around during large meetings, such as the Air Conditioning Conference of America (ACCA) Annual Contractors 2000 in Albuquerque, NM.

A lot of the conversation centers on missed putts, vacations, and who will play in the next Super Bowl. (How many of you had the Rams vs. the Titans?) But you’ll also hear a lot of talk about utility competition, worker shortages, and complaints about vendors.

Whatever they talk about, it usually leads to a good sharing of ideas and ways to improve their businesses. That same logic is the foundation of “MIX groups” — small contingents of contractors who share the same types of markets and have plenty of experiences to share with others.

“It’s a chance for peers to discuss their problems together rather than sharing them with a business consultant,” said ACCA’s Karen Thierjung. “Some business consultants may not know anything about the hvac trade.

“A MIX group is a place where nine to twelve contractors can talk about issues in the industry, such as consolidation, technology, or purchasing.”

One MIX group, which includes Jim Hussey of Marina Heating & A/C, Hayward, CA, has had the same seven core members for seven years.

“It took us about a year to become comfortable and intimate,” said Hussey. “Now it’s like having a second board of directors.”

Ins and outs of MIX groups

Thierjung said MIX groups are open to any contractors. Each group is usually made up of contractors from similar markets. For example, one business doing a majority of commercial service work will be paired up with another doing the same, rather than with a residential new construction contractor.

The process of joining a MIX group begins with a visit to ACCA’s website (www.acca.org), or a phone call to Thierjung at 202-483-9370.

Prospective members will then be asked to send in a company profile, which includes questions like: “What do you expect to gain from belonging to a MIX group,” and “How would you like to see your business change in the next five years?”

Based on the information in the profile, the association will match a contractor up with other contractors who are similar in size, business mix, etc.

Several “mentor” contractors act as spokespeople for the groups who can answer questions for prospective members. The list is included on ACCA’s website. Each group usually has a chairperson who organizes the meetings and keeps everyone informed about what is going on within the group.

Different size contractors meet

Contractors in the same competitive markets are not put together. Some members may be from as far away as Hawaii or north of the border to Canada. All members of the group do not, however, have to have to same sales volume.

“We used to match people up based on their sales volume,” said Thierjung. “Now contractors want to blend together.”

“The guys in our group range from $2 million to $12 million,” said Ray Isaac of Isaac Heating & A/C, Inc., Rochester, NY. “We are near the top end, but we get as much from the smaller guys as they get from us.”

ACCA has established guidelines for the groups based on the requirements of federal and state laws. An antitrust compliance program informs all members of antitrust restrictions on association activities.

“As long as members are kept far enough apart [geographically], anti-competitiveness issues are not a problem,” said Lou Binder of Climate Engineering, Denver, CO.

MIX groups are encouraged to meet two or three times a year at one of the members’ location. The association recommends that some topics should not be discussed at meetings, such as price fixing, customer allocation, and bid rigging.

Other subjects to be discussed “with care” include relations with manufacturers and standards and certification programs.

More mixes

Thierjung estimates there are 80 MIX groups under the ACCA umbrella, with new ones forming all of the time. She said that belonging to a MIX group has been so popular that other smaller groups have branched off from the originals.

“Some MIX groups broke off into other groups that are made up of each company’s service managers,” she said. “I’ve even had a suggestion that wives of group members form their own MIX group, too.”

Hussey added that it is important to keep the groups fresh. That means adding members with new ideas.

“Our group would like to add another member,” he said. (Hussey’s group includes contractors from the East Coast, Midwest, and Southwest.) “But it is also good for new groups to start up, provided they have a mentor from an established group to help them out.”

Being a member of a MIX group does not, however, ensure that other company employees can join in too. “Membership is for the individuals, not the company,” said Binder. “Membership is not necessarily passed down to another member of the company if an individual leaves.”

MIXserver, an added bonus

Another benefit is membership in the ACCA “MIXserver,” where contractors can talk to each other about specific topics via e-mail, similar to chat rooms or company Intranet bulletin boards.

If a contractor submits a company profile and intends to join a MIX group, s/he may also join MIXserver.

The association describes MIXserver as “the first place you go for information. You can send and receive business advice, management techniques, financial questions, etc. It is your first stop in finding out what you want to know from other professionals in the hvacr industry. And you will have the opportunity to help other members with their needs as well.”

The overall benefits of MIX group membership include friendships, lasting business relationships — and a little fun.

“You form close personal friendships,” said Binder. “I can’t say enough about how the membership has helped myself and my son, Eric. The whole focus and purpose is business; having fun is incidental.”

Isaac agreed. “I can’t put the value of my MIX group into words. It’s the best thing I have ever done [with my company]. These are groups of people, friends, colleagues, and mentors — great people.

“We see where members can succeed and where they can fail. These guys are living the same stuff we are living every day. We make each other better.”

Sidebar: 'The News' to honor contractors at ACCA's issues luncheon

Mark your calendars, attendees of the ACCA Annual Conference 2000. The News will be making a big splash to honor the winners of our first-ever “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.

On Friday, Feb. 18, The News will sponsor the ACCA Federal Issues Luncheon at the Albuquerque (NM) Convention Center from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

During the luncheon, which also features a well-known speaker from the world of politics, we will present awards to the six winners and two runners-up of our recent “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.

This will be an opportunity to meet the residential and commercial contractors who were judged to be the “best of the best” to work for by the editors of The News.

So join us for this important awards event — one that we plan on growing every year, and one that we hope will become a standard for hvacr contractors to aspire to achieve.

Sidebar: ACCA Conference 2000 is bigger and better than ever

The “big splash” in Albuquerque, NM, is the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Annual Conference 2000, and it looks to be chock full of informative seminars, conferences, and supplier showcases.

This year’s program, in the shadows of the New Mexico portion of the great Rocky Mountains, features more than 75 workshops, a supplier showcase with extended hours, a designated area for ACCA chapter leaders to collaborate, a design-build conference, special speakers, a golf tournament, and other popular social events.

The workshops include:

  • Leadership strategies;
  • Training technicians;
  • Business management;
  • Field estimation;
  • Design-build;
  • Residential mechanical ventilation;
  • Profitability and pricing;
  • Codes; and
  • Clean air.

The supplier showcase will feature approximately 100 vendors and will be open on Thursday, Feb. 17 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday, Feb. 18 from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The 13th annual design-build “conference within a conference” includes areas for private discussions with suppliers, 31 specifically targeted workshops, a general session, two lunches, and a golf tournament.

The program will focus on the new construction process, including selling and positioning, design-build “impostors,” performance contracting, integration, building trends, changing markets, deregulation, and restructuring.