ATLANTA, Ga. - It didn't take Jeff Wilmink long to start the creative juices flowing again after stepping down in late 2002 from Excellence Alliance Inc. (EAI), which he had founded five years earlier. Within a few months, Wilmink was already planning his new venture - Excellence Co-opetition Inc. (Exco-op).

The new entity was born out a desire to have his residential and commercial contractor partners within driving distance of his home office in Cincinnati. Wilmink liked the idea of working with a smaller group of contractors and devoting more time and personal attention to helping each partner grow his or her business.

The first meeting of the Exco-op residential strategic and contractor partners was hosted by Atlanta-based Estes Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., one of the 15 contractor partners in the group to date. Owner Tommy Estes gave partners a tour of his facility during the meeting and explained some of the systems his company has in place.

Jeff Wilmink discusses the necessity of implementing changes in today’s business world at the inaugural Exco-op meeting.

Coping With Change

Wilmink said he is basing his partnership on the "culture of change" in today's HVAC business world. He outlined the definition of this change.

"Culture change is never easy and takes time," he said. "Culture is defined in many ways, such as ‘commonly held beliefs, attitudes and values.' I like the simple but effective definition - ‘the way we do things around here.'

"There is no one place to start, but most interventions are based on a simple layered model that portrays how people's observable actions and behaviors are influenced by reportable attitudes and values based on more deeply rooted beliefs."

He added that changing "underlying layers" can be achieved individually or in small groups. He listed some activities designed to induce change, including:

  • Conduct an audit to find out what is articulated and what is actually done.

  • Challenge improper behavior to identify people "hoarding knowledge unnecessarily."

  • Demonstrate involvement, showing that knowledge is a respected value and that it is used to make informed decisions.

  • Use role models to exemplify behavior.

  • Conduct team building and/or organization development sessions to help everyone understand and improve internal processes.

  • Align awards and recognition programs to support appropriate behaviors.

    Tommy Estes, owner of Atlanta-based Estes Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., gave Exco-op partners a tour of his facility during the meeting.

    Best Practices

    Wilmink said he enjoys the camaraderie of the partnership and the fact that he can make his own schedule, allowing him to visit each partner at least bi-monthly and spend more time at home with his family.

    He said that his goal is to establish the best business systems based on the best practices of all partners, and not to force-feed any system to contractors who already have good, working models in place.

    Some of the topics the group discussed included proposal presentation folders and other marketing materials; customized extended warranty programs; distributor delivery of materials to the jobsite; and whether or not installers should drive company trucks home.

    Wilmink asked partners if they saw a value in face-to-face integration sessions and if the format should be continued in the future. "To me, this is a defining moment if we are going to be a co-op or not," he said. "We need to ask ourselves where we go from here. I can continue working for all of you as a consultant. I'm not going anywhere. But I see the real value is our continued partnership."

    At the meeting, the partners agreed to hold two annual forums at a selected partner's location, scheduling one spring forum with a residential focus and one fall forum with a commercial focus.

    But Wilmink pulled no punches when it came to what he wants to do for partners and the improvements they need to integrate.

    "Every one of you is successful because you are doing at least 80 percent of what you do right," he said. "Our goal in this partnership is to get the other 20 percent working just as well." He noted that he already had to "fire" one partner who wasn't really willing to make the necessary changes.

    Will Excellence Co-opetition Inc. grow? If it does, Wilmink plans to add other staff partners. For now, he extols the virtues of working with a smaller group. "I am going to continue to work with my hand-picked partners," he said. "It's not how many - it's how well."

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    Publication date: 05/10/2004