Event organizer Dan Holohan hoists a section of piping to illustrate his point.
MARLBOROUGH, Mass. — “Picture a big room with 20 roundtables set around the perimeter. In the middle of the room we’ll have good food going all day long and cash bars at 3 p.m. Some of the roundtables will be dedicated to topics such as these: steam heating, commercial steam, radiant controls, radiant and wood floors, boiler concerns …

“There will be other Dealer’s Choice roundtables where you’ll be able to pick the subject and start your own discussions.

“There’s no corporate sponsorship here, so feel free to speak your mind. There’s also no trade show or long-term membership fees. No one will ring a bell to tell you that you have to switch tables. There’s no time limit on any of the discussions. There are no formal speakers, no glitz, no politics. No worries. It’s just a critical mass of Wetheads getting together for a long, very casual day to talk, share ideas, laugh, and make connections. Jump in. Walk around and pick a roundtable that sounds interesting. Grab a seat and chat, or just listen in. Get up for coffee, a sandwich, or a cold beer whenever you’d like. Move around wherever you’d like. Have fun. You’re among friends — 200 of them!

“Anything can happen. Probably will!”

That’s how Dan Holohan, noted hydronic heating expert, speaker, author, and proprietor of the Web site www.heatinghelp.com, envisioned what he called “A Gathering of Wetheads,” a.k.a. Wetstock, in suburban Boston. The inaugural event was limited to a total of 200 participants, who paid to spend a Saturday exchanging ideas, networking, and strengthening or starting friendships.

It was impossible to stop at every discussion, but The News took notes at two different tables. Below are some of the highlights.

Home Centers

Most of the conversation about giant do-it-yourself retail chains centered around the availability of parts rather than the selling of HVACR equipment through the likes of Home Depot.

A representative from Slant Fin talked about his company and stressed to people at the table that the company’s baseboard unit is sold to Home Depot only by wholesalers, not Slant Fin. He reiterated that Slant Fin sells no products directly to Home Depot.

One participant said that smaller contractors in rural areas use Home Depot because their supply houses usually do not carry special parts. Another said that a lot of contractors complain about Home Depot but then wind up buying parts from them.

One participant asked if Weil-McLain boilers could be purchased at Home Depot. (Representatives from Weil-McLain informed The News that the company had explored the possibility of a selling arrangement with Home Depot, but had decided not to pursue the idea. For more on Weil-McLain’s decision, visit The News’ Extra Edition page and click on our Web Exclusive, “Weil McLain Speaks Out Regarding Home Depot.”)

Someone asked, “Are you putting your reputation in the hands of a Home Depot employee?” One response was, “If you want to market/advertise a certain product line, you’d better train your employees on how to sell it.”

Marketing Hydronics

The table dedicated to selling techniques saw a lot of action throughout the day, eventually blossoming into the largest discussion.

One contractor noted that homeowners and consumers, who are often well educated on the topic, are often getting talked out of radiant heat by builders. He reasoned that builders are talking people out of radiant “because adding radiant changes the pattern of how builders build homes. It takes them out of their comfort zone.”

Another contractor added that one way of getting builders to embrace radiant heat is by showing them that installing radiant heat is not as complicated as it might seem.

Another participant noted that contractors are often to blame for misunderstandings because they don’t know how to educate homeowners. He offered the following suggestions to increase business:

  • Get information about radiant heating out to trade magazines beyond HVAC and plumbing titles (e.g., flooring or cement industries).

  • Suggest radiant heating to the “slab guys” and give them a referral fee if they sign up the customer. Radiant and cement contractors can cross-market their services.

    The consensus was that the heating contractor is the one tradesman who always comes back after construction — not the bricklayers, finishers, etc. Since the heating contractor is likely to have an ongoing service relationship with the homeowner, it behooves the builder not to cut out the radiant guys, participants concluded.

    Another “Gathering of Wetheads” is in the preliminary planning stages for spring of 2003.

    For more information, visit www.heatinghelp.com.

    Sidebar: Battling Market Forces In A Declining Economy

    Paul Pollets, the owner of Advanced Radiant Technology, Seattle, Wash. (and one of The News’ “Best Contractors to Work For” for 2001), is a familiar face among Wetheads. Along with John Barba from Wirsbo and Robert Bean from Danfoss, Pollets monitored the busiest of all discussions, which he named “Enhanced Selling Techniques.”

    The following are some of the points that Pollets recorded at the session.

  • There are many negative forces at work in the marketplace that are not just common to hydronics contractors. The attitude that “cheaper may be better” seems to prevail throughout the construction industry.

  • Selling at prices higher than your competitor requires developing professional sales practices, as well as a total professional outlook.

  • Many qualified and experienced contractors have not put together a “brag book” with pictures of their installations, projects, and testimonials. Prospective clients often have no idea why they would choose them. Customers need to see their work, realize why the more expensive contractor is different, and understand that the system proposed is a better value than the competition’s offering.

  • In negotiating the final bid price, it was recommended to hold firm, or reduce the price by taking out certain bid items, or suggesting a lower cost system with different components. If the price is lowered unconditionally, the client may presume the bid was overpriced to begin with and not trust the contractor.

  • One participant suggested bringing a hair dryer and a heating pad to the prospect’s home and using them to demonstrate the difference between forced air and radiant for the client.

    — John R. Hall

    Publication date: 01/20/2003