RUNNEMEDE, NJ — About a dozen miles east of Philadelphia lies the small, “laid back” community of Runnemede, NJ. Call it quaint and friendly. Unfortunately, it is the kind of place where more people pass through on their way to somewhere else, rather than stopping in to visit.

That’s somewhat of a shame for smack dab on the main street is the local hvacr contractor, Runnemede Heating Co. Inc. George Stanch and sons Jeff and Jim run the business started by grandfather Martin Stanch in 1946. They operate out of two buildings in downtown Runnemede and recently purchased a service company in nearby Barrington. Besides depending on residential service for the bulk of their business, the company also offers plumbing service and sells fuel oil.

Let’s just say the ownership embodies the same friendly qualities of this tiny village.

Workers at this third-generation business will tell you straightforward what a great place it is. It’s one of the many reasons why The News selected Runnemede as one of the winners in its first-ever “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.

“The Stanchs are helpful and understanding. They are always sending us to school to learn about products and services,” says service technician Eric Melchiorre. “My last job paid good but they didn’t treat us good. It’s not all about money, it’s about not being miserable. Here you want to work harder and be more productive.”

“There is a sense of security here,” says Greg Schughart, customer service representative. “You don’t feel like your head is on a chopping block. We all pull together to get the job done. I sense a good future here — the customer base has doubled in the seven months since I’ve been here.”

Dispatcher John Liverman had plenty of praise, too.

“I enjoy having the freedom to make decisions, like answering questions about pricing a job without having to ask someone else. This is not like a ‘boss atmosphere,’” says Liverman. “It’s almost like we are all fellow employees. They are super, pleasant people to work for and no one could offer me enough money to leave here.”

Keeping the hired home

George Stanch employs 24 workers, including 12 service techs, and he credits two important events in the past five years that have really boosted his business.

“We joined Contractors 2000 in ’95 and they helped us tremendously,” he says. “They steered us away from [dependency on] the fuel oil business and into the service business.”

To compete against the “bigger guys,” Runnemede offers a signing bonus in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. The bonuses are spread out over time. For example, a new hire receiving a $1,000 bonus would get $100 upon hiring, $200 after a training period, $200 at a three-month review, and $500 at a 12-month review.

“We created flyers letting people know we are hiring and distributed them at military reserve posts, community colleges, and supply houses,” says Jeff Stanch. “We’ve even stuck them on the windshields of our competitors’ trucks!”

Even though Schughart has only been with Runnemede for seven months, he sees why the contractor has a good reputation around town.

“We all work together,” he says. “The Stanchs all get along and that is one reason why it is a unique place to work.”

The Stanchs cite three main reasons why they believe employees remain with the company: 1) employee discounts (merchandise can be purchased at cost plus 10%), 2) educational assistance, and 3) career development.

The Stanchs provide educational assistance to any employee interested in furthering his/her education on his/her own time. They will pay up to $500 per year toward tuition as long as the employee completes the training with a grade of 80% or better.

“We will pay the tuition and fees related to courses whose completion are required or requested for the professional development of employees,” says Jim Stanch. “In addition, we will pay wages for the time spent in a required course during normal business hours.”

In the last 12 months, employees have spent an average of 21 hours in training.

Meeting 'peaks and valleys'

The Stanchs believe they do a good job of leveling the “peaks and valleys” during the year but they definitely “feel the heat” during extreme weather.

Runnemede has a daily “on call” rotation. Rather than having a technician on call for a week at a time, they rotate the on-call technician daily. In addition, the on-call technician performs service calls only.

“When an after-hours call comes in, it is routed to a manager who talks to the customer, checks credit, and determines their service plan status,” says Jim Stanch. “The technician does not field calls from the customers. He is only contacted once a service call is scheduled.”

Stanch adds that the company permits vacations year round, not just during the off-season. Of course, that suits tech-employee Eric Melchiorre.

“If you need a day off, you let them know in advance and it’s OK,” he says. “They are very flexible. I have kids and there have been times when they have gotten sick and I needed to be with them.”

Runnemede depends on its good base of service agreement customers to schedule routine maintenance during the slow times. The contractor also publishes a quarterly newsletter, which is sent out to customers with news and special offers.

“Another idea [for keeping a good base of customers] is what we call ‘cloverleafing,’” says Jim Stanch. “We have doorknob bags filled with brochures, coupons, stickers, magnets, etc. Our technicians go to new neighborhoods in the area and hang the bags.

“It gives them something to do that is helpful to them and the company, plus the people in our area see our trucks around the neighborhood. You’d be surprised what a good response we get from this technique.”

He adds that there are always chores to be done around the shop during slow times.

“The only way we will send a technician home for a short week is if he asks for it,” says Jim Stanch.

Rich Dover, senior plumbing technician, believes the Stanchs care just as much about their employees as they do their customers.

“Jim and Jeff call customers back when they have a question we can’t answer,” he says. “The support system here is great.”

Pay increases, benefits

Runnemede packs a lot of incentives into its pay structure. The Stanchs pay particular attention to employees who show a willingness to learn and to “go the extra mile” for the company and their customers. They conduct annual reviews, and one way of showing how they reward their employees is by participation in certification training.

“Technician certification is very important to us,” says Jim Stanch. “We want to see all of our technicians certified by June 1st.”

To boost the morale, Runnemede set up the following incentives:

  • First technician to pass all modules — $500 bonus;
  • Highest overall passing grade — $500 bonus;
  • Pass all modules on first taking — $500 bonus; and
  • All technicians certified — $300 bonus for each one.

“This means an individual technician has the potential to earn at least $300, but as much as $1,800.”

Speaking of money, the company offers 100% paid health insurance for employees and their families, long-term disability insurance, a 401K program with a 50% match up to 4% of annual pay, profit sharing, 100% paid uniforms, tool assistance, up to three weeks of paid vacation per year, 26 hours per year of paid personal time, company vehicles, and recreational activities.

Dispatcher Liverman likes the fact that he can spend quality time at home, thanks to the Stanchs.

“It’s all day work,” he says. “I have weekends and holidays off.”

For data-entry clerk Caroline Wildermuth, it’s a matter of “getting up in the morning and actually looking forward to going to work.

“The Stanchs’ are very pleasant, decent, and honest,” she says. “They care about their employees and treat us with respect. They gave me time off to take my mom, who was visiting from Scotland, to Florida and I’ve only been here for six months.”

In an era of consolidation and utility competition, Runnemede is one of the last true family hvac businesses left. This fact brings a smile to Jim Stanch. “We are a third-generation business whose family focus is unmatched. We try to make all of our employees feel like family. At our annual Christmas party we give gift certificates to the employees and toys to their children.

“Our competitors probably think we’re nuts but in all we do we have one goal in mind: to keep employees by being as loyal to them as we expect them to be loyal to us. Nothing makes us happier than to see a former employee walk through our shop glassy-eyed, wondering why he ever left.”

Sidebar: Just the facts - Runnemede

Winning contractor: Runnemede Heating Co., Inc.

Owner: George Stanch

Location: Runnemede, NJ

Years in business: 53

Bulk of market: Residential

Total revenue for 1999: $1.6 million

Total employees: 24

Total service technicians and installers: 12

Average hours spent in training: 21 hours per employee

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: 100% paid company uniforms; 100% paid health insurance for spouse and children; 401K plan with 50% match up to 4% of annual pay; profit sharing; long-term disability insurance; tool assistance; paid vacation (up to 3 weeks per year); paid personal time (26 hours per year); company vehicles; recreational activities.

The News selected this contractor because: There’s something to say about a successful small contractor, especially this one. Among other qualities, this company offers impressive signing bonuses and it has the desire to have all techs certified this year.