MILWAUKEE — There is a lot of talk in the industry about “raising the bar.” But how does the industry do it?

A group of contractors in the Milwaukee area may have cracked the code. And it’s a lot simpler than everyone thinks. The Rheem Team is a network of contractors working together to better their individual businesses. The team also serves as an example of what can be accomplished when dealers, distributors, and manufacturers come together.

Mark Gatton of Magnum Services is one of seven members of the Milwaukee Rheem Team, the first such team to have each member's principal technician earn NATE certification.

A Dealer First

Mark Gatton, owner of Magnum Services, has been a Rheem Team dealer in the Milwaukee area for four years. Not everyone can be a Rheem Team dealer. Only contractors committed to high business standards and customer service can be a part of the group.

According to Gatton, the Rheem Team lives up to its name. This group of contractors is truly a team. Gatton said that when he was part of other contractor organizations, this team element was missing.

“For many years in our industry, there has been an attitude that we are all competitors,” he said. “So when [contractors] get together there is a certain amount of keeping your cards close to your chest.”

Gatton is just one of seven dealers in the Milwaukee Rheem Team network. These other dealers include Comfort Systems of Racine Inc., Custom Aire Inc., Dykeman Family Corp., Hartlaub Plumbing Inc., Al Misurelli & Sons Inc., and Tom’s Dependable Heating & Cooling Inc.

These dealers, along with local Rheem distributors, work together to ensure that they are providing customers with the highest standard of service. This means getting together for regular training sessions and quarterly meetings called “huddles.” During a huddle, the seven dealers get to talk about problems in the industry and share advice on business practices.

“Never in my 25 years have I seen anything like this,” said Gatton. “In the past, manufacturers were remote. They just wanted you to sell their product. But I feel that Rheem cares about my success as a contractor.”

During one of these huddles last summer, Pat Mills of Design Air and Rheem Team Coordinator for southern Wisconsin, brought up the idea of each dealer getting certification through North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

“This level of certification is right in line with what we want for the Rheem Team,” said Pat Mills. “The mantra of the Rheem Team is ‘We will impress you.’”

Members realized that if each of the seven dealers in the network were to earn the NATE certification, they would be the first Rheem Team in the country to have each principal member certified. The dealers agreed it was a goal worth pursuing.

Preparing Together

Pat Mills said that adopting NATE certification as a Rheem Team goal would only further the group’s objective of helping its dealers stand out from the crowd. He explained that only 68 percent of those taking the NATE certification test will pass, and of the 400,000 HVAC technicians in the United States, only 15,000 are NATE certified.

“It’s not easy,” said Pat Mills. “Only the best dealers and technicians pass the test.”

Mike Mills, training director for Design Air, was responsible for preparing the dealers in the Milwaukee Rheem Team for the NATE exam. To do this, he decided to take the NATE exam when he attended the 2003 International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo) in Chicago.

After taking the exam, Mike Mills was able to prepare a training and refresher course for the Rheem Team. He sent each contractor a packet of information to study and information about the NATE Web site, where practice exams are available.

But Mike Mills said that one of the most important things they needed to focus on was the actual test-taking process.

“For these contractors, their job is not taking tests,” Mike Mills said. “So we had to review. And the training course was set up to establish a comfort zone.”

The Rheem Team met twice to review and update their knowledge before taking the NATE exam. In June of 2003, 10 individuals representing the seven companies in the Milwaukee Rheem Team took the core NATE exam and a NATE specialty exam. Each participant passed the exam on the first try.

A Strong Future

Although the Milwaukee Rheem Team has earned NATE certification, its members are not done striving for excellence in their industry. Several of the dealers are preparing their service technicians for the NATE exam. And all of them are quickly marketing the accomplishment to consumers.

Tom Weiss, owner of Tom’s Dependable, passed the core exam and the gas service exam. He said that his reason for taking the NATE exam was the same reason for joining the Rheem Team.

“My company is a very service-oriented company, and that is what the Rheem Team preaches,” he said.

Weiss said that his company advertises the fact that they are part of the Rheem Team, and future advertising will boast NATE certification.

“I feel bad when I see customers getting ripped off,” said Weiss. “There are a lot of bad service contractors out there, and we are not one of them.”

The Milwaukee Rheem Team is going to continue to make sure that contractors in the dealer network are on top of their game. Besides making sure that more technicians in the network take and pass the NATE exam, those who are NATE certified will take part in continuing education.

Mike Mills explained that those with NATE certification must recertify every five years. They can either take the NATE test again or participate in over 60 hours of NATE approved training. Recently, the Milwaukee Rheem Team training program was recognized by NATE. This means NATE certified technicians can earn continuing education hours toward recertification by taking part in the Rheem Team training.

But after all is said and done, Mike Mills said that the whole experience comes down to one thing. “The buzzword is pride,” he said. “This has created a team commitment. These are contractors from different towns and businesses that now have something in common to work towards.”

Publication date: 09/29/2003