NEW ORLEANS, LA — Ronnie Robert is a lifer. He started working for his dad's refrigeration business when he was 12 years old. Back then, Robert Refrigeration Service Inc., which he now owns jointly with his brother Kenny, was owned by his father, Johnny.

A lot has changed since then but one thing — no, make that two things — have stayed constant. The business still services residential and business customers in New Orlean's famous French Quarter, and Robert still carries on his father's philosophy.

"You fix the customer first, and then while you're there, you fix the air conditioner," said Robert. "You do whatever it takes to get the job done."

Asked how he got into the business, Robert replied, "It was decided that my brother Kenny and I wouldn't be allowed to run around the streets in the summertime, so it was off to work we went, accidentally learning a trade."

The business was located in the French Quarter, where Robert now lives. Many of the bars and restaurants were serviced by the company, which was conveniently located amongst them.

"Daddy built this company on service," added Robert. "If you were close, you could get there fast; and customers appreciated that."

Robert developed a fondness for the French Quarter community and the old architecture. He is proud to be an active preservationist, and that philosophy carries over into his own work.

"General contractors and architects who work with historical buildings seek us out," he added. "Most of our work is design-build, and we often get a job without going through a bidding process. Restoration and renovation is quite a big part of our business."

Now located about eight blocks from the French Quarter, Robert Refrigeration also does a "good deal of service work" in the residential and commercial markets. The company is divided up into three divisions — maintenance, service, and construction — with revenues totaling nearly $2 million.

Robert said that he has a plan for the company, starting at the top, where the next generation is being groomed. His son and daughter, Ron and Brandi, are already working for the company and Kenny's son, Ken Jr., will soon join them, too.

"The third generation is in place and poised for the evolution of the company," he said. Robert knows the issues that face the company in the years ahead, and he believes his company is doing its best to attack one problem head-on: a lack of qualified technicians. He feels that company growth is only hindered by the number of people it can hire. Robert currently employs 26-30 workers.

"We have continuous ongoing training every Tuesday for our technicians," he added. “Periodically we have special training programs such as duct design or proper system charging, for example.

"We also offer continuing education through our local technical college [Jefferson Parish Vocational/Technical School] where we pay for an entire course based on grade scores. If our worker gets an A, we pay for the whole course; if the worker gets a B, we pay for three-quarters."

Robert proudly said that most of his technicians score very high, which helps them advance to higher positions in the company, thus opening up more entry-level positions. He noted that this system means he has to find more qualified people to start at the bottom, but "qualified doesn't necessarily mean well-trained, it has as much to do with attitude and work ethic."

Robert continues to be a crusader for technician training. He said that Louisiana Governor Mike Foster appointed him the first chairman of the Louisiana Workforce Commission. He thinks he got the position by "lobbying" the legislature, trying to get increased training and better licensing laws.

The bottom line for success is service, and Robert said it all begins with the strong company name. Although his company does almost no commercial refrigeration service, Robert feels that the strength of the name within the neighborhood is very important, and he wants his people to carry on the tradition.

"Our strongest suit is our name," he added. "All of our men wear uniforms, drive clean trucks, etc. We keep a very detailed database on customers allowing us to be very personable when we call. We are doing service work for a third generation of customers. Building relationships is the focus of our company."

One of the other big challenges for Robert is to preserve the architectural structure and systems in the historical French Quarter buildings. He said it "is a sin to lower a ceiling and put ductwork in. We'd prefer to go under the structure and install ductwork."

He mentioned that his company had just finished roughing in a Unico system of small ductwork into an 1840s French Quarter home, and he sees that type of work as more important than a building boom that is taking place north of New Orleans across spacious Lake Pontchartrain.

"A lot of companies won't do this sort of work," he said. "We go to great lengths to design the systems that preserve the architectural integrity of these beautiful old buildings."

Publication date: 02/25/2002