Bob Gersden (left) and his service manager, Randy Farmer, keep an eye out for products to help their company expand its radiant business. (Photos by Dave Wilks.)
CHICAGO — Bob Gersden didn’t have to go a long way to visit the Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo) in Chicago this year.

That was one reason why the Cincinnati HVACR contractor braved the winter temps and put his business life on hold for a couple of days in late January to visit the largest HVACR trade show in the United States.

There were other reasons why Gersden, owner of Switzerland Air – Air Conditioning & Heating, and his service manager, Randy Farmer, opted to take a break from no-heat calls and join thousands of other AHR Expo attendees. The two wanted to come away with some up-to-date information on a number of different products, and they had a number of other objectives as well.

In order to explore the expo experience from the contractor’s point of view, The News asked Gersden ahead of time if we could tag along with him to learn about his reasons for coming to the show and see if the event met his expectations.

Gersden gets information on radiant panel heating from Roth Industries Inc.'s Jeff Halter.

First Things First

Switzerland Air has a staff of eight workers, three in the office and five in the field. The company handles both commercial and residential service and replacement. Just before the AHR Expo, Gersden got word that his installation manager was called to active duty in the face of a possible war between the United States and Iraq. That left a big hole in his operation, made even bigger when Gersden and Farmer made the trip to Chicago.

But Gersden felt that attending the show was important. He said he needed to learn more about new products for the residential side of his business, since he had only been back in the market for the last two years after several years doing commercial work only.

“We joined the AirTime 500 group a few years ago because we wanted to get into the residential side of the business,” Gersden said. “Our family has been in the business going back to 1931. I started in 1960 and worked as part of the Trane Comfort Corps in the 70s. I started my own business in 1989.

“AirTime 500 started a residential service company called Switzerland Air, and I decided to take my wife Rhonda to one of their meetings. She said if she did not like the presentation we would have to leave. We didn’t leave.”

Gersden has known AirTime 500 founder Jim Abrams from their days with Trane and felt secure that he was making the right decision to start a residential service company. His main product lines are York on the residential side and Carrier on the commercial side.

Farmer has been with Gersden for 14 years, starting out as a “gopher.” He had previously been in the construction trades but got bored with it. “I like being able to work on a 20-ton unit and then turn around and replace a thermocouple,” he said.

“Randy is a good communicator,” noted Gersden. “He can talk to the owner of a chain of restaurants as easily as a homeowner.”

Farmer asserted that he believes it is important to “fix the customer” besides fixing the problem right the first time. That is the motto of Switzerland Air: “Fix it right or it’s free.”

Gersden looks over some of the latest dispatch software with Sean Hoyt of Service Dispatch Software.

Getting Motivated

Gersden had some definite goals in mind when he mapped out his route on the show floor. He was interested in obtaining some information on dispatch software and seeing what was on display at the York booth. He also planned on visiting with people at Arzel Zoning, so he could put a face on a company he had been dealing with over the phone. After that, he was going to collect information on whatever caught his eye. He wasn’t in the buying mode — just the “information gathering” mode, he said.

“There’s not a lot of change from one year to the next, but we still like to get to the show every other year if we can — especially since it is so close,” said Gersden.

Farmer likes to attend the show because he doesn’t want to get his product knowledge secondhand from the local distributor.

“A guy behind the parts counter doesn’t know much about a new product other than the literature on the counter,” he said. “You rely so much on your distributors, and many of them aren’t even here. I can go to the show, get a directory, see what products are ones that I carry, and go visit the booth.”

“Something has to catch my eye and I’ll look at other products if I have the time,” said Gersden. “I think about the guy in the suit and tie who was demonstrating a pair of tin snips. That caught Randy’s eye!”

Ridge Tool Co.'s Todd Westley and Rich Bowles show Gersden the company's new tools for field technicians.
Gersden feels that shows like the AHR Expo are not as well attended as in the past for three specific reasons:

1. Geographical locations can be difficult and expensive to reach;

2. The emergence of the Internet for information gathering; and

3. People are just too busy to get away from their businesses.

But he ventured that changing relationships may help bring attendees back.

“It used to be that reps knew a lot about you and your family,” he said. “Shows used to have a party atmosphere where someone would invite you to a booth and there would be a lot of things to do outside of the show. But turnovers are so high now that it is hard to develop a relationship. Nowadays, you get a parts and equipment disk but no one shows up to explain what is on it.

“If you are a residential guy, you should be able to see what you need to see in one day.”

Gersden gets some advice from Service Automation Systems Inc.'s father-and-son team of Charles Haycraft (center) and David Haycraft.

It’s Showtime

On the dayThe Newsaccompanied them, Gersden and Farmer first split up for a while. Gersden headed out in search of the software section of the show floor. He was looking for information on dispatch software. The first stop was H2technologies (Stone Mountain, Ga.).

“Their software pretty well answered my needs because I didn’t have to buy a lot of different modules to interface with my software,” Gersden said. H2technologies’ Pat Hodgeman said he would send Gersden some more information.

Gersden also met with Sean Hoyt of Service Dispatch Software (Southfield, Mich.). The company represents different product lines including QuickBooks, which captured Gersden’s attention.

“His brochure directed me to how to download a product demo from their Web site,” Gersden said.

Having gotten a feel for dispatch software, he strolled to another aisle to examine a booth touting ultraviolet (UV) lights. Gersden said he stopped to visit Atlantic Ultraviolet Corp. (Hauppauge, N.Y.) because he was interested in UV lighting.

“The rep [Gregory Boehme] talked about me sending him specs for what I want and how his company could design a bulb for my application,” said Gersden.

He then joined up with Farmer to make some stops a few aisles away.

Farmer was interested in a booth featuring radiant paneling. The booth was operated by Roth Industries Inc. (North Kingstown, R.I.). Sales rep Jeff Halter described the radiant panels on display.

“The Styrofoam display with the radiant tubing caught my eye,” said Farmer. “Right now we do a little bit of radiant work.”

Gersden quickly jumped in, adding, “But we want to do more!”

The next stop was at Runtal Radiators (Ward Hill, Mass.). Gersden said that he had done work at a country club using the Runtal products. “These are great products for the high-end customer,” he said. Runtal Canadian sales manager Dominic Debellis was happy to explain the fit and functionality of the product lines.

Weil-McLain president Bob Grussing shares a laugh with Gersden as the two discuss some of the company's new commercial and residential boilers.

In The Zone

Gersden wanted to make a quick stop to visit with Dennis Laughlin at the booth of Arzel Zoning Technology Inc. (Cleveland). Gersden currently works with the company, and he has high praise for the concept of zoning.

“So many people have the ‘selling the box’ blinders on,” stated Gersden. “They don’t look beyond the boxes and into things like selling zoning.”

Between booth visits, Gersden ran into a regional distributor he had done some business with in the past — the first familiar face he had seen. Farmer ducked in to the Baltimore Aircoil Co. (Baltimore) booth for some free bottled water.

Gersden said he used to go to shows and pick up a lot of “freebies,” but said that the giveaways don’t attract his attention much anymore. “I’d pick something up for a grandchild and then ask myself, ‘What do I need this for?’”

Gersden and Farmer visited with Bob Grussing, president of Weil-McLain (Michigan City, Ind.) to learn more about the Ultra, the company’s new addition to its line of boilers. “We are looking for a high-efficiency boiler,” said Farmer. “Twenty-five percent of our customers have boiler heat, and this is just what we are looking for.”

Runtal Radiators' Dominic Debellis gives Gersden the details on his company's selection of designer radiators.
Gersden also stopped by the ASHRAE Bookstore to glance at a few possible future purchases, then followed Farmer to the Ridge Tool Co. (Elyria, Ohio) booth. Gersden said he was looking to furnish his service truck with some lightweight equipment to use in the field. Farmer was getting a demonstration of one such item — the Ridgid 1210 “oilless” pipe threader — from Ridge Tool’s Jeff Jacobson.

“The threader is lightweight (60 pounds) and would work well in residential applications,” said Gersden.

Gersden and Farmer had almost finished their rounds in the spacious South Hall of the giant McCormick Place Convention Center. The pair had not yet ventured into the many aisles of the North Hall — and probably wouldn’t on this day. But Gersden was satisfied with his experience at the AHR Expo. He was pleased with the exhibitor turnout for the event as well. “This show is a little bit back to where it was,” he said. “It has come back more to the residential side. A guy in a pickup truck can really appreciate it.”

Publication date: 02/17/2003