Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." HVAC and plumbing contractors seek his advice regularly. Al has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe Newssome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Al your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.

Dear Al,

I read your articles and saw pictures of your training center. I found it all encouraging. You have really done a nice job. It has made me want to grow my company again, but I am gun shy.

I am a 25-year veteran service contractor, 46 years old. I have had four trucks in the past, but I am running solo now.

Having had four techs to manage, I found the tech issue to be daunting for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the management side of things. These guys were stubborn, disobedient, skeptical, and I felt like they postured themselves against me. It became so difficult to deal with that I eliminated it all to keep my sanity.

I now question whether management is even possible for me or was there just a particular set of problems I was not able to overcome?

On My Own And Looking To Change

Dear On My Own And Looking To Change,

If I've sparked an interest in your desire to grow again, I'm very pleased. I can understand your being gun shy, since you had tried running a larger shop and it was an unsatisfactory experience.

Management of staff and techs, in particular, is tough. You saw them as stubborn, disobedient, and skeptical. And, working in an "us vs. them" atmosphere is very draining.

My old company was unionized. And our relationship with the union could get very confrontational in my early days at work. But two major things changed all that.

The first was the creation of our Apprentice to Technician program of which the training center was a big part. I found it easier to hire attitude and train skills. The best techs in my shop helped and the worst guys finally went away because they quickly got the message as we raised the bar.

The second was the creation of our operations manual that was assembled with the input of the staff. It detailed all our policies and procedures. Once we defined things, it got a whole lot easier to be a manager.

If you decide to grow again, focus on the systems and not the people.

Learn to love teaching and training. It will give you the chance to grow your company the right way. Make sure to balance technical training with sales training, and practice sales and technical together in all your role playing and teaching.

I suggest you begin your decision about how to grow by doing a bunch of "what if" financial plans that varies with how many techs you add. This financial exercise is critical since making money is the goal.

Al Levi

Dear Al,

Every December I look back on what's happened the past year and I feel not much has changed. We talk about some great ideas, but we're so busy we never get them done. We always seem to be running around dealing with the events of the day. And there always seems to be a new crisis to deal with.

How do I stop this vicious cycle?

Vicious Cycle

Dear Vicious Cycle,

We as owners and managers become so good at being the fireman who arrives in the nick of time to put out yet another fire that we spend very little time, energy, and money in order to prevent fires from ever starting in the first place.

If you want next year to be different, I suggest two major changes. First, create a yearly budget and financial plan. Have the discipline to check how you're really doing in comparison to the budget and financial plan at least once a month. Create a sales goal for the company that is a realistic improvement from what you did last year so that it's attainable. Financial discipline will force you to confront the hidden costs of callbacks and wasted trips to the supply house for items that should have been in stock.

The second change is to create a list of all the company projects you have to do to stop fires from ever getting started. An example might be spending more time focusing on the best procedure for performing the work you do. Or, you may investigate what repairs you should eliminate that have a high percentage of callbacks. Put all the company's projects on a Priority Project Planner so that you and the staff are working on the right priority at the right time. It keeps everyone focused on accomplishing these tasks. Meet at least once a week to discuss what progress has or hasn't been made in completing the project that we all agree is red hot. As you perfect this process, you'll find yourself fighting fewer fires, and you'll have time to put new projects on your list that will represent your greatest opportunities to grow.

December is a great time to set the stage for your company's success in the coming year.

Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes, as his Web site says, in "Making Contractors' Lives Less Stressful and More Successful." Through interactive workshops, on-site assessments, or long-term consulting, Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. Learn more by visiting You may also contact Levi by e-mail at or by fax at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 07/12/2004