Comfort advisor Ken Finch goes over some inventory information with warehouse manager Evaristo Caballero.
VENTURA, Calif. - Creating a great place to work is one of the top priorities for Mark and Cynthia Schneider. As owners of Pacific Aire Inc., the Schneiders run their $2.5 million-plus company like a family.

The cheerful and friendly Schneiders make sure all employees have the necessary tools to do their jobs correctly. This includes providing extensive training opportunities, clean trucks, up-to-date tools, top-notch equipment, and a support system that encompasses employees' professional, as well as personal, lives.

In return, Pacific Aire employees work very hard to meet all the goals that are clearly laid out for them by the Schneiders (and posted in the lunchroom).

The result of this win-win situation is a profitable company that has caring owners, a loyal staff, and happy customers. With this of kind arrangement, Pacific Aire is the West/Pacific Region winner in The News' 2003 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest.

Pacific Aire employees pose outside of the company’s headquarters.

From Adversity Comes Growth

Pacific Aire, which focuses almost solely on the residential add-on/replacement market, has officially been in business for 13 years. But Mark Schneider said the company was completely reborn two years ago when he bought out his business partner.

The split was less than amicable, but Mark had a definite vision for the company that his business partner did not share. As Cynthia noted, "The company was a great flower that was wilting on the vine. We had to change."

At the time of the split, the company wasn't computerized, so a great deal of time, energy, and resources were initially devoted to putting all the data into new software. The Schneiders also needed to restructure the team, send people to training, and upgrade virtually everything. That first year, they concede, was difficult. It involved laying a new foundation and changing just about everything in the company.

While a majority of the employees stayed with the company after the split, most have since left due to the shift in company culture.

"We started promoting strong communication, which some people just aren't comfortable with," said Mark. "The first year we had a lot of turnover, and we're actually happy about that. People knew they weren't right for the company, and they left on their own."

He added that since that time, they haven't lost a single employee the company didn't want to let go. The Schneiders have also learned the value of hiring people based on personality, not skill.

"I'm definitely looking for personality, because the customer has to like these people," said Mark. "And while potential employees don't necessarily have to have the technical skills, they do have to be trainable."

The Schneiders don't rely on fancy tests to learn more about a potential employee's personality. They prefer the more old-fashioned method of sitting down and talking to a candidate. Cynthia said that when interviewing potential employees, she asks them about their interests.

"I really want to know about them," she said. "What their hobbies are, what they like to do, what's important to them."

Ryan Smith, a service and maintenance technician who has been with Pacific Aire since February 2003, said he was a little surprised by the interview process.

"I went through three interviews," he said. "First, they wanted to know about my technical skills. Then they brought me back to talk about what the company offers. On the last interview, they wanted to know about me personally. I thought that was great."

At the monthly meetings, the Schneiders share the corporate financial statements and discuss the company’s strengths and weaknesses. (Photos by Ashley Smuts.)

Training Benefits Everyone

Training is a huge part of Pacific Aire, and employees are encouraged to take part in all sorts of classes. The first step of the training process involves a set of self-study courses. After completing those courses, employees can attend remote training sessions, usually put on by International Service Leadership (ISL).

Training takes place in other forms as well. Weekly one-hour group training sessions are held on site for technicians and installers, and once a month everyone sits down for a two-hour all-company meeting.

At the monthly meetings, the Schneiders share the corporate financial statements and discuss the company's strengths and weaknesses. A free exchange of ideas follows concerning how the company can improve, and the whole group votes on suggestions and discusses how to implement them.

"I'm a big believer in education," said Mark. "I'm always pushing people to do it, and I pay for all training."

He estimates he pays for about eight hours of HVAC training classes each month. Not everyone is excited about attending training classes, so gentle nudging sometimes helps encourage people to want to learn more. That can include verbally acknowledging employees who have gone to training classes or posting the information in the lunchroom.

In addition to being associated with ISL, Pacific Aire belongs to the Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries Inc. (IHACI). Mark is also a proponent of NATE certification. While none of his service technicians is currently NATE-certified, he's encouraging them to pursue it.

Smith, who is working toward his NATE certification, said, "They've offered me any training I've wanted. I want to be the best service technician, and Pacific Aire has given me the tools to do that."

Mark also benefits from attending training sessions. "ISL has phenomenal tech training," he said. "I also like the networking because I get a ton of great ideas from the other members."

One of those "other members" he relies on is Leland Smith, president of Service Champions Heating and Air Conditioning, Yorba Linda, Calif., and last year's West-Pacific Region winner in The News' "Best Contractor to Work For" contest. Mark credits Leland with helping him make Pacific Aire such a great (and profitable) company.

"I visited Leland's company, and I knew that I wanted to have a company like his," said Mark. "I liked that his people were happy, so I basically copied his atmosphere. He's an incredibly generous guy, and he shares all his information with me. I give him 100-percent credit for helping us revamp our service department."

In turn, Mark provides his expertise to others within ISL.

Pacific Aire employees, including customer service rep Donna Andino and accountant Maria George, work very hard to meet all the goals that are clearly laid out for them by the Schneiders (and posted in the lunchroom).

Providing Motivation

In addition to offering extensive training, Pacific Aire amply rewards its people for good work. Benefits run the gamut from excellent compensation to contests to 401(k) plans to company cars. As the parents of three children, Mark and Cynthia also understand the need to make time for family.

Ed Baublitz, service department manager, has been with the company for two years and he appreciates the family-friendly environment.

"It's very flexible here," said Baublitz. "I can bring my daughter in if I have to."

Indeed, the office is well stocked with toys, a TV/VCR with headphones, and coloring supplies. Smith, who is the father of five children, said the whole company operates like a family.

"We feed off each other here, and we honestly like each other," he said. "We spend time together outside work as well. Mark and Cynthia have taken all of us out to play laser tag or go bowling. We all look out for each other."

Pacific Aire also offers performance pay, as well as other types of compensation, to en-courage team members to do their best. For example, one of the numerous spreadsheets in the lunchroom shows how much each job costs in terms of time. If an installer finishes a job earlier than the time that was budgeted, the extra money is put into a kitty. At the end of the designated time period, the installer gets any "leftover" money.

Mark has also worked out a system for those who might be tempted to rush an install just to put more money in the kitty. Installers must complete an audit on each job, which involves checking to make sure everything was installed correctly. Completed audits are eligible for cash compensation, provided there are no callbacks within the first three months.

"These techniques have really helped us out," said Mark. "We've gone from a standard two-day install time to a one-day install time. And we have fewer callbacks. This kind of compensation helps the team get motivated."

Ken Finch, a comfort advisor who's been with the company for six months, said the compensation is just one of the reasons why he likes working here.

"We get a lot of positive reinforcement from Mark and everyone else. For example, Donna Andino, the sales and installation coordinator, sends out text message rhymes to everyone in the company when someone makes a sale."

Mark noted that it's extremely important to acknowledge each success. "Acknowledgement is huge," he said. "It doesn't happen often in this industry, and we're always looking for new ways to recognize employees. From text messaging to contests, we think it's very important."

Everyone in the company is excited about the latest contest at Pacific Aire. The prize is a cruise to Mexico. As with every contest, the goals were decided as a team, and sales numbers are posted in the lunchroom for the duration of the contest. (When The News visited, the company was at 93 percent of its goal.) If the company hits the magic number, then everyone in the company who has been there for the duration of the contest will get to go on the four-day cruise.

Cynthia and Mark Schneider run their company like a family, making sure all employees have the necessary tools to do their jobs correctly.

Clearly Stated Goals And Empowerment

Cynthia stated that one of the reasons why the company is successful is the fact that people are in control of their own destinies.

Mark stated, "We empower our employees. We keep the environment friendly, and we have an open-door philosophy. We share the books with the people here, and they know what's required of them."

He stresses that it's necessary to give the team all the information, so they know what to expect, and then reward them. "You have to give them the tools. Help them," he said. "They're good people, and they're in control here."

Goals are clearly stated. Mark has daily, weekly, and monthly goals for all employees, and they are posted everywhere in the lunchroom. In fact, by taking a quick walk around the lunchroom, it's possible for even the most casual visitor to see how the company is doing.

Empowering the employees has definitely had a positive effect on the business. Many employees interviewed said that being able to work with customers and solve their problems was one of the main reasons why they liked working for Pacific Aire.

Smith noted that the number one reason he likes his job is working with customers.

"I like people, and I like the interaction with customers," he said. "I used to do a lot of tract work, and nobody really cared about the customer. With Pacific Aire, it's all about the customer."

Baublitz added, "Service is a lost art elsewhere but not here. In my job I can do whatever the customer needs. Service is what is making our company the premiere company in the area. Not everyone can focus on service, and if they can't, then they don't belong here. Here we're a team and we help each other. That comes from Mark and Cynthia, and they've definitely got my commitment."

The loyalty goes both ways at Pacific Aire. Mark and Cynthia have made a commitment to keep their employees working all year round, even during slow times. To that end, they've sometimes put install crews to work on their own house to keep them busy.

They've remodeled their home to include supply and return air ducts in each room in the house, and they've had UV lights installed. Cynthia joked that their children are never absent from school because the indoor air quality in their house is so incredible.

Pacific Aire has also been aggressively marketing its service agreements, so that crews will have work to do during slow periods. This new focus on preventive maintenance has meant that technicians in the field have averaged about 42 hours a week for the last 12 months.

Pacific Aire's sales have been accelerating rapidly, and the next three to five years could bring a lot of change. For example, Mark would like to see the service department triple in size. But both he and Cynthia feel a need to keep a balanced life.

"It would be nice to be in the $3 to $4 million range, and I expect by the end of 2004, we'll be there. But I want to maintain our culture, and I want to be able to spend time with my family," said Mark.

For the time being, though, things are really good for the Schneiders and their employees. As Finch noted, "This job is fun. Everything here is first class. Everyone is very well trained; I work with people who want to make the team better. What you see here is not a front. It's real. It's truly a unique situation."

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Winning contractor:Pacific Aire Inc.

Owner: Mark and Cynthia Schneider

Location: Ventura, Calif.

Years in business: 13

Bulk of market: 99 percent residential, 1 percent commercial

Total revenue for 2003: $2.5 million

Total employees: 18

Total service technicians and installers: 9

Average hours employees spend in training: Up to 212 hours a year.

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Paid vacations and holidays; 401(k) plan with matching contributions up to 3 percent of salary; pretax tool allowance program; free uniform service; profit sharing; free breakfast every Friday (doughnuts and bagels); section 125 plan for dependent care coverage and AFLAC deductions; free cell phones; monthly team building activities when goals are achieved; and contests with prizes. Also, comfort advisors have corporate vehicles, and service technicians can take company vehicles home each night.

Industry association and contractor group members: International Service Leadership (ISL) and Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries Inc. (IHACI).

The News selected this contractor because: Owners Mark and Cynthia Schneider definitely care about their employees. It is obvious when you pay Pacific Aire a visit. Said Cynthia, "We acknowledge that every employee in our company is equally important to the team and has the power to make decisions to improve our product and services. It is important to recognize the successes of individuals and celebrate them often as a team. Decreasing employee turnover is a proven way to keep costs down, provide quality products, and maintain good customer satisfaction."

Publication date: 01/26/2004