Don and Jennifer Bowen share the company showroom with their dog, Buddy.
MUSKEGON, Mich. - Don Bowen likes fast cars. He drag races his own Dodge Dart at the local drag strip whenever he gets the chance. Does this HVAC contractor, a guy who likes speed, also like fast business growth? Nope.

Bowen and his company, Bowen Heating & Cooling, have accomplished slow and successful business growth during the company's first nine years. The growth took a slight acceleration in 2001 when he won The NEWS' "Do You Want to Grow Your Business?" contest.

Back then, HVAC business consultant Ruth King advised Bowen to grow his business through planned maintenance agreements, to ensure future work and to grow his customer base.

Bowen took the advice and has expanded his maintenance agreement customers to almost 1,000, up from 200 in 2001. He also has a good base of extended warranty customers, also totaling almost 1,000.

He has added two more people to his service and installation crews and has taken over the job as company salesperson, eliminating the salaries of two former salespeople while increasing the sales volume of the company (up almost 8 percent in 2005 over 2004).

The reasons for the success of his company don't end with more maintenance agreements and sales, it also can be tied directly to Bowen's long-term relationship with the only brand of equipment he sells - Rheem.

"The name of Bowen and Rheem in Muskegon go hand-in-hand," Bowen said. "There is an automatic connection."

Bowen is the No. 2 Rheem dealer in Michigan and has exclusive rights to the territory in his county and two surrounding counties, covering approximately a 90-mile radius. Rheem has put a lot of faith in Bowen and, in return, the Muskegon contractor has established Rheem as a household name in the community.

But make no mistake about it - above anything else, Bowen sells his company first. "I sell the company," he said. "I am the owner and the salesperson. And I am always there if a customer has a question."

That is the same philosophy shared by Bowen's Rheem distributor, Robertson Heating Supply in nearby Grand Rapids. Robertson's territory manager, Dale Hoekwater, is on Bowen's speed dial menu on his cell phone, because there are times when Bowen needs an answer fast.

"Dale is upfront and persistent, like me," Bowen said. "If he can't answer my question, he'll find someone who can, right away."

Bowen Heating & Cooling is located on one of Muskegon’s busiest streets.

Being Two-Branded

While many HVAC contractors across the United States insist their company name is the most important and customers will buy any equipment they sell, regardless of brand name, Bowen has been able to uniquely blend both to make a successful team, i.e., the Rheem Team.

"They [Rheem] know that I always sell my company first," he said. "My sales presentation folders only have Bowen imprinted on the cover. I have Rheem brochures inside.

"Rheem has done a very good job of brand recognition and it certainly hasn't hurt us at all."

Bowen said that his trucks used to prominently feature the Rheem logo but he has eventually changed them to reflect the familiar Bowen logo over a crown.

"Rheem is very cool with that because they know I sell quality and I only sell Rheem," he said.

Rheem has a lot of confidence in Bowen.

"Professional contractors like Don Bowen understand that building a trusted reputation is accomplished with every action of every employee every day," said Gary Wehunt, Rheem marketing programs manager.

"And, by working closely with Rheem and Rheem Distributors, he can continue developing his business by using the menu of Rheem training, marketing, and lead generation tools designed to promote contractor expertise and their brand. Rheem is listening to contractors and working to earn becoming the brand of choice for professional contractors like Don Bowen."

Don Bowen checks out the progress during the installation of a Rheem two-stage furnace at a local residence. Included in the picture are installers Lester Miller (left) and Josh Barnes.

Taking A Risk

Part of Bowen's success in 2005 comes from a promotion the company ran in late summer/early fall. Bowen and his wife, co-owner Jennifer, took a chance and ran a winter tune-up special on a sticky note, attached to the front page of the local newspaper, which ran on 48,000 copies. The advertisement was much more expensive than a standard display ad and the Bowens weren't sure if the promotion would pay for itself and create a lot of new business.

Rheem liked the idea and gave its blessing to spending co-op money on the ad. The gamble paid off - and will continue to pay off in the years to come. Jennifer said the phones were ringing "like crazy" and their crew has been busy keeping up with demand. In fact, the newspaper wants Jennifer to give a testimonial for the success of the ad program.

And not only are new customers being given top-notch service during the 22-point inspection, they are also being given the opportunity to sign up for future planned maintenance, something of which Don Bowen is very proud.

"We want to get in as many doors as possible and get our Bowen sticker on the furnaces," he said. "We have talked to all of our guys about the importance of stickers and how they ensure future business.

"Our guys understand that maintenance agreements keep them busy during the slow seasons. And I have no problem with the guys doing whatever they can to help out and keep busy."

Bowen said he prefers to concentrate more on the residential market because "that is where it is at." The Muskegon community has suffered some job losses recently due to business closings and layoffs, and the commercial market isn't as hot as residential. But jobs are returning to the area and Bowen is optimistic.

He believes in a strong work ethic. He is often out late at night on sales calls. Bowen then arrives first thing in the morning to ensure that equipment is ordered and installation crews have their jobs all laid out and are ready to load their trucks when they arrive.

He buys a lot of equipment in bulk and tries to minimize the time his installers or techs need to spend at supply houses, stating "I don't want them in the supply houses."

Bowen knows that this is extra work for him. "There is nothing easy about doing it this way, but this is the only way I'd want to do it," he said.

"The high level of customer loyalty and business growth he has achieved speaks for themselves," Wehunt said.

During the latest visit from The NEWS, a Bowen customer commented on yet another key to the company's success. The customer's son had referred him to Bowen, and despite getting a slightly lower bid on a new furnace from another firm; he opted to buy from Bowen.

The customer said, "People buy from people." That sums up the slow, successful makeover that Don and Jennifer Bowen have been giving their business so far.

Publication date: 10/31/2005