Mark Ramirez stands in front of the awards he has earned from Trane's contractor program.

AZUSA, CA — If you want a successful hvac contracting company, sell fireplaces. That’s the advice of Mark and Connie Ramirez, owners of Comfort Climate Control.

Not your old-fashioned, wood-guzzling, air-polluting, heat-going-up-the-chimney fireplaces, but new gas and electric fireplaces that are up to 73% energy efficient.

“That’s pretty good for a fireplace,” says Mark Ramirez, who is responsible for sales and field personnel.

Initially, the Ramirezes were reluctant to get into fireplace sales, something recommended by their Trane and Heat-N-Glo distributor, Western Air Systems & Controls, Anaheim, CA. After visiting the Heat-N-Glo manufacturing plant in Minnesota, however, the Ramirezes were sold on the idea. They spent approximately $10,000 on a showroom above their office that displays a half dozen working fireplaces.

Service technician Larry Dabbs credits teamwork for Comfort Climate Control's success. "If I need help, I don't have to ask," he says.

A Built-in Sales Pitch

“When someone buys a furnace, it goes into the attic. You feel the comfort, but you don’t see it,” says Ramirez. “With a fireplace, you want it to be seen. Friends and family gather around the fireplace. It’s something you stare at, and people ask where you got it and who installed it. They start thinking, ‘Maybe that would be nice to have in our house.’”

With today’s technology, a fireplace can be installed just about anywhere — even above the bathtub, or mounted on a wall,” he says.

Existing Heat-N-Glo fireplaces generate interest in more fireplaces — and in hvac work as well. Ramirez tells of a couple that stopped by the office because of the big, red-lettered “fireplace showroom” banner across the front of the building.

“They were building a 10,000-sq-ft home,” says Ramirez. “They came in to look at fireplaces, but then I had the opportunity to talk to them about hvac. Had I not had fireplaces, they wouldn’t have even stopped.”

“No one is interested in seeing a furnace or an air conditioning unit, but they like to look at fireplaces,” says Connie Ramirez, who is in charge of office management, accounting, and marketing.

Until about two years ago, Comfort Climate Control was considered a mechanical contractor — period.

“Now we’re a retail company,” says Ramirez. “You have to get away from the contractor mentality — and offer financing on everything you sell. That gets away from the sticker shock. Focus instead on comfort and energy efficiency.”

Mark and Connie Ramirez, owners of Comfort Climate Control, sit in front of one of their customer-attracting fireplaces in their large showroom.

Keeping Field Personnel Busy

Fireplaces are not just good for the bottom line, but for the income and morale of coworkers, too. (“We don’t call them employees,” explains Ramirez.)

“As the summer’s ending, fireplace season is coming in,” he says. “The guys like it because it breaks the routine and keeps them busy.

“In the summer, I could have doubled my workforce, but the quality wouldn’t have been there. Customer complaints would have gone up. The customers I did get to are happy and will refer me to others. In the long run, the business from those referrals is going to surpass what I could have made this summer.

“Plus, I don’t want to hire if I know I can’t keep them. I was once an installer. Sometimes I’d only work 12 hours a week. I don’t want to do that to my coworkers.”

Increasing Labor Efficiency

In the works is the hiring of a full-time quality control and production manager.

“More than a foreman,” Ramirez points out, “someone who knows the installation end of the business and goes to the job- site before the crew arrives to see that all the materials are ready.”

As Ramirez explained, often what happens with a small company is that a small mishap — like a vendor being out of materials that are needed for a job — can cost a contractor profits in overruns.

“Guys are sitting around, waiting for materials, not doing anything, but they still have to be paid,” says Ramirez. “Delays throw your whole schedule off and make customers very unhappy.”

Ramirez also wants to add a tune-up specialist to his six field personnel.

“Now our service tech does tune-ups and repairs. When we get emergency calls, we have to re-schedule maintenance. This doesn’t set well with customers, especially if they’ve taken off time from work. And a service tech doesn’t want to change filters. It’s better to hire someone who wants to get into service but isn’t quite there yet.”

An Eye on the Future

The Ramirezes are confident that fireplaces will only increase in popularity, especially if the EPA makes California a no-burn state or minimizes the days that wood can be burned. Furthermore, Mark Ramirez foresees “an energy crunch in the next several years,” something that has already started in California with rolling blackouts.

“Consumers are going to look for contractors who can help them with energy efficiency through insulation or fixing air leaks in ducts. Contractors who want to put in a system and leave are not going to be successful.

“You have to build a relationship with the customer. We want them to know we’ll be their heating, air conditioning, and fireplace provider for as long as they live in their house — and even longer, if they move within our service area.”

Since Comfort Climate Control has experienced 30% annual growth in gross sales over the last seven years, and its net profit is in the 7% to 9% range (the national average is 3% to 4%), other hvac contractors could profit from heeding Ramirez’s words.

Sidebar: Ten Secrets for Hvacr Success

Connie and Mark Ramirez offer the following advice on how to grow and run a successful business:

1. Determine your company’s break-even point.

2. Develop a business plan.

3. Focus on customer satisfaction.

4. Change your company’s focus from mechanical contracting to retail sales. Offer financing with every sale.

5. Associate your company with a recognized equipment manufacturer.

6. Take advantage of the training provided by your suppliers and vendors.

7. Track your marketing efforts and develop a marketing calendar.

8. Provide uniforms and name badges for field personnel.

9. Involve your coworkers in the achievement of goals.

10. Be willing to make changes in your company.

Keeping, Getting Coworkers Important

Mark and Connie Ramirez can point to many reasons why their business, a company that was in the red seven years ago when they bought it, is a $750,000-a-year business today.

“I soon learned that if I worked on the business and not in the business, I could turn things around quicker,” says Mark Ramirez. “I do just enough field work to make sure I know how to do the job right. Then I let my coworkers do it.”

Yes, they are coworkers in the eyes of Ramirez and his wife.

“We don’t call them employees,” he says. “We tend to hire those with no experience, so they don’t bring bad habits with them. It’s best to start someone from the beginning and teach them our way of doing quality installation.

“Our coworkers are often so proud that they go back to the jobsite to take pictures.”

Lead installer Mark Avalos has no regrets working for Comfort Climate Control.

“Comfort Climate does everything to code; no shortcuts,” he says. “We make sure everything is done right the first time, so we don’t have to go back and finish the job.”

Avalos appreciates “the opportunity to learn more, to take a lot of classes” — something the Ramirezes encourage.

“I like to keep up with the latest equipment and codes. Some companies fall behind on education. They think they know everything they have to know, but things are always changing. You have to keep up.”

Service technician Larry Dabbs credits teamwork for the company’s success.

“If I need help, I don’t have to ask,” says Dabbs. “Everyone goes the extra mile to make sure it’s sealed the way it should be. It doesn’t just work. It performs.”

Dabbs, who owned an hvac company and later worked for other contractors before joining Comfort Climate, says an employer once offered him a $2-an-hour raise if he’d stay on.

“I wouldn’t go back there if he offered me $20. If a boss doesn’t treat his employees well, you better go somewhere else. I’ve got buddies out there who are always looking for another company. I don’t need to do that. I’ve found the right one.”

Manufacturer Provides Assistance

Sometimes you think you’re the best, but the customer is the final judge, according to Connie Ramirez, who handles business administration for Comfort Climate Control.

“We’ve utilized the training and advertising resources The Trane Company provides,” she says, “so when they came up with a program to set us apart from our competitors, we got involved.”

The manufacturer’s program, Connie says, “emphasizes customer satisfaction to achieve your business goals. After every installation, we forward the name of the owner to Trane. They send out a thank-you letter and a survey. Trane considers a score of 80 or above a sign of customer satisfaction. If you get less than 80, you immediately contact the customer and take corrective action.”

The only time Comfort Climate has received a score below 80 was when a building inspector showed up at a house at an inconvenient time for the owner. Since Trane asks the customer to rate the job from the initial sales call through completion, an outside contractor or an inspector can influence the customer’s overall feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

The company’s average score for last year was 95.4% customer satisfaction, thereby beating out the national average of 93.8% and the 92.6% average for Trane’s top dealers in the western region.

“By ID-ing top dealers, we help them do a better job,” says Jim Allen, vice president and general manager for Western Air Systems & Controls, Inc., Anaheim, CA., the Trane distributor for California and Nevada. “Customers usually disappear before they complain. If an installer leaves a box in the backyard or doesn’t explain thermostat operation, those little things drop customer satisfaction and can cost the dealer referrals.”

Simply put, says Allen, an hvac contractor “can’t take anything for granted.

“You can’t assume your company did a good job and the customer is satisfied. You have to take precise steps to guarantee satisfaction. Trane provides those steps.”

Publication date: 01/29/2001