Vernon Watts handles alot of walk-in business at his establishment.
COLUMBIA, MS — His daddy was an electrician who taught him a lot about the trade. He took that knowledge and started his own business 24 years ago. “This was just a small-town operation that I started by myself,” Vernon Watts said of his company, Watts Electrical and Air Conditioning, Inc.

“Now I’m up to 11 employees.” The list includes his brother-in-law, Eugene Champagne, who came to work with Watts a year after he started the business and has been with him ever since.

The 11-person staff of this business in rural south Mississippi is comprised of four electricians and five hvacr technicians. They are jacks-of-all-trades in this business community.

“We do a little of everything,” Watts said. “We do service and new construction for the light commercial and residential markets. We do whatever we have to do to get the job done.”

Watts said that knowing the air conditioning business means knowing a little bit about electricity, too. He got up to speed on hvac work by taking courses at Pearl River Junior College, the local vo-tech school.

“We currently have two college students working part-time and taking classes at Pearl,” Watts said. “I’ve got several people who went to Pearl.

“I’m real fortunate to have good employees,” he continued. “Most of my people have been here a while and have helped me develop a good reputation. The guys are reliable and take pride in what they do.”

Watts said that he gives his employees good benefits as an incentive to stay with the company.

The company is an integral part of the Columbia business community. Columbia is the county seat of Marion county, yet it has retained its small-town atmosphere. “This is a rural place and everybody knows everybody,” Watts said. “They either like you or don’t like you.”

Because the town is small (approx. 10,000 population), Watts spreads his service out among the small towns that are within 30 to 45 miles of his business.

Poised for Growth

Despite his company’s good reputation, Watts is not resting on his laurels. He knows that the key to success is growth, both in his customer base and his industry knowledge.

“We are trying to get more people on the same playing field,” he added. “You have to be educated. That’s one of the reasons we started the ACCA chapter. We want to get people involved in the ACCA, especially the young guys who can take the ball and run with it.”

Watts has high praise for chapter president Jimmy Lesher, who works closely with area contractors in his role as president and as an employee of local utility Mississippi Power.

“We’ve been one of the utility’s Good Cents dealers for years,” Watts said. “Jimmy has helped contractors in learning load calculations for residential and commercial, sizing duct on cfm, and zoning.”

Watts said he is happy with the direction his business is going. “Overall business has been very good. The electrical end has been a little slow, but it has grown very well over the past four years,” he said. “Ten years ago, 75% of our business was electrical but now the split is 50-50 between electrical and hvac.

“And business isn’t anything like it was 10 years ago,” he continued. “Today new construction is built to a Good Cents specification. To keep with technology today, computers are needed for load calculations. Our homes are built to be energy efficient.”

Watts said he hopes that contractors will put more emphasis on up-to-date training and keeping young people interested in the trade. “Hopefully, the younger people will be here to work the business when our other employees with 20 to 30 years’ experience decide to leave.”

He would like to see more new construction because he doesn’t think service alone will be enough to sustain his employees. But in the meantime, he plans to keep up with current business trends, including extra hours.

“The town used to shut down on Wednesday afternoons, but not anymore,” he said. “Wal-Mart opened up nearby and business is 90 miles per hour now.”

This report provides information for contractors living in the South/Southwest region of the United States. This includes Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. If you have information from this region, please contact John Hall at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); or (e-mail).

Publication date: 06/18/2001