MOUNT JOY, Pa. - When asked the secret of his company's success, Dave McIlwaine responds in one word: training.

McIlwaine founded HVAC Distributors in 1987 to service the needs of mechanical and HVAC contractors in the central part of Pennsylvania.

"I had been working for a very large wholesaler of plumbing and heating supplies for seven years and realized there was no future for me there," he said.

"I took my MBA and some investment capital and purchased an 80,000-square-foot warehouse. Because I couldn't possibly use it all, in the beginning I subleased most of the space. After all, I was going into a market that already had other HVAC distributors and I had to start small. Because of that, I knew that, no matter how good a distributorship I ran, I needed something to make me stand apart from the others - a differentiator."

Quality Training Equals Growth

McIlwaine found that what set his business apart from the competition was the training program he built over the years. And it worked so well that in a very short time he was using all 80,000 feet of floor space.

"I had been in business for two years and the one constant complaint I heard from all of my customers was the lack of qualified help they could find," said McIlwaine. "Most were hiring kids right out of high school and trying to train them on the job with mixed success and reduced efficiency."

Sam Lesher, a partner in L & G Mechanical in Adamstown, Pa., agrees with McIlwaine. "I have two guys who came over from the garment industry, one from a shoe factory, and two others from the prepared food industry," he said. "You have to find training somewhere because you can't learn everything on the job."

The only other options for contractors were to send their technicians to a manufacturer's factory for training on specific systems or have them attend the out-of-town classes held mostly in hotel meeting rooms. Both options were expensive, not only in cash outlay, but also in lost work time. So McIlwaine set about to develop a program that would offer his customers inexpensive training that wouldn't interfere with their work schedules.

"It wasn't easy coming up with something that would work for everybody," said McIlwaine. "The most difficult part was scheduling classes so the trainees could handle both their jobs and the training. We ended up offering training in 16-hour blocks over two weeks - four hours, two days a week with a day or two break between. We've found the schedule works best for everyone concerned."

His customers seem to agree.

"They don't draw anything out," said Chuck Emmerich, director of maintenance at Cornwall Manor, a retirement community.

"Other schools go on for months and teach less for more money. It's amazing how much they can teach in a short period of time. I've got two guys going for EPA certification and have no doubt that they will pass easily, thanks to what they learned at HVAC Distributors. They even supplied my men with a video and practice tests. We pay for the classes and it's voluntary, but because of the scheduling and the quality of the education, everybody volunteers."

HVAC Distributors provides hands-on training for contractors in a two-story space that includes a classroom upstairs and a training facility downstairs that features 15 operating systems (above and below).

Getting Your Money's Worth

To make it even more attractive for the trainees, HVAC Distributors provides dinner.

McIlwaine explained that an employee's wife was hired to provide dinner for the trainees.

"The classes start at 5:00 p.m., but we ask everybody to be there by 4:30 p.m. so they can eat before class," he said. "The meals are excellent and not many miss them."

If the meals help bring students in, top instructors keep them coming back.

"When we started out, our own people did all of the teaching," said McIlwaine. "But as we grew, we had to go outside of the company to handle the increased volume. Today, we use an instructor from the local tech college, our in-house technical service manager, and product specialists from suppliers such as Amana, Honeywell, Luxaire, and Sanyo."

"The instructors are great," said Kevin Waterson of Waterson Service. "I tell all of my guys to ask them questions about problems they had at work. And they come back with all the right answers."

"I've sent 20 of my techs to them," said Lesher. "I send them to all of the classes they offer. I give them a week off between classes. But I never have trouble getting them to go. My partner, who has 30 years of experience, signed him-self up for electrical diagram reading and schematics."

Steve Depuy from County Line Mechanical in Reinholds, Pa., echoes those sentiments. "It's the hands-on part of the program," he said. "Anyone can read books. These guys tear all the wires out of a system and give the students a schematic and tell them to rewire it. Two of my techs came back grinning because they only got two wires wrong and swore that would never happen again."

Fitting The Clients' Budgets

The training program accepts workers from anywhere.

"Of course, we give priority to our dealers," said McIlwaine. "But we also accept applicants from contractors who don't do business with us or don't buy their equipment from us. We've even trained individuals who were out of work and looking for a better career and were able to pay for the program out of their own pockets."

The cost? A 16-hour class is $185.

"I sent my technicians to a heat exchanger course that was eight hours long and cost $350," said Waterson. "Ridiculous. And they didn't learn that much. With HVAC Distributors' training, they learn a lot more for a lot less money and no time off the job. I even send myself to some of the classes. You can't afford to stop learning."

"We don't think we make money at it," said McIlwaine. "It would be hard to track, but we probably only break even on it over the course of the year. We look at it as an investment in our future, as well as those of the contractors and trainees. For each well-trained grad we put out there, we have a potential customer or a contractor who will be working more efficiently and, therefore, doing more business. With a nationwide technician shortage, the more competent people we put out there, the better it is for us and the industry."

Testing Is Key

To measure technician competency, the company tests the trainees coming in and going out.

"The average test score of an incoming technician is between 40 and 60 percent on our tests. And the average score of one of our graduates ranges between 88 and 96 percent. We think that's pretty good," said McIlwaine.

Classes offered include certificate courses in air conditioning, cooling towers, electricity, gas heating, oil heating, heat pumps, hydronics, IAQ, water heating, and several others, including EPA certification. And McIlwaine is preparing to institute a North American Technician Excellence (NATE) program.

"When a student leaves, he receives a bound manual that is a compilation of all of the training documents, including his tests and reference materials," said McIlwaine. "And, of course, his certificate of completion."

Since HVAC Distributors started its training program, more than 3,000 HVAC technicians have taken courses at its training center. The space that now houses the training center was once the facility's boiler room. Converted into two stories, the 2,500-square-foot space contains a classroom upstairs and a hands-on training facility downstairs that features 15 operating systems.

A mobile training facility is also available. When distance or scheduling makes it impossible for a dealer's technicians to come to the classes, the equipment is loaded into the training trailer and sent to the dealer's site.

"We're planning to expand our operations to other locations within the state and have already committed to include a training facility and a trailer as part of each site," said McIlwaine.

Publication date: 05/17/2004