Field representative Chris Vacchetto (right) discusses business with residential installers Tim Palmgreen and Paul Corrigan. (Photos by Jim Laragy.)
ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Many companies use the word "family" to describe their business. Employees are no longer co-workers but "family members," and the work environment is not just another nine-to-five grind. Instead, it feels more like home.

But not many HVACR companies can live up to the term "family business" like Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning Inc.

Isaac Heating is a family business literally and figuratively, upside down and inside out.

The business was started back in 1945 by George T. Isaac, and was taken over by sons Jim and Bill Isaac in the late 1960s. Today, Jim and Bill are still the owners, and they still play a role in guiding the company.

Currently, Jim's son, Ray Isaac, is the president of the company, while Bill's son, Chris Isaac, is vice president of Marketing and IT.

Basically, Isaac Heating is overflowing with Isaacs. But the Isaacs are not the only family to play a role in the future of the company. Of the 145 total employees, several are related. In fact, Ray Isaac said that about 20 different families are working for the company.

Generations of workers keep coming to Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning because of the benefits it has provided for their family members. Just a few of those benefits, for example, include earning while you learn, an immense opportunity to move ahead in the company, and a business culture that dictates that a happy employee will create happy customers.

All of this and more has made Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning the North Mid-Atlantic Region winner in The News' 2003 "Best Contractor to Work For" contest.

Installers Mike Hughes (left) and Scott Davison (right) do some work in the lab at Isaac University as field supervisor Dom DeLeo looks on.

Everyone Succeeds

The phrase "family owned and operated" may engender cynicism on the part of some people. It might be assumed there is no way to get ahead if your last name doesn't match the one on the building. But at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, nothing could be further from the truth.

"We like to say that we are family owned and professionally operated," stressed Ray Isaac. "The last name has and always will be a responsibility, not a privilege."

Every Isaac employed with the company has come up through the ranks. Both Ray and his cousin Chris started in the field and worked to get to where they are. In fact, some employees at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning say the company has a policy of "reverse nepotism." In other words, if your last name is Isaac, chances are you'll have to work a lot harder to get ahead in the company. Of the four current vice presidents, only one has the last name of Isaac.

One of the newest vice presidents is Erik Knaak, vice president of service. Knaak is a perfect example of an employee who started at the bottom and worked his way up.

Over 15 years ago, Knaak's father, currently the commercial installation supervisor at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, encouraged his son to apply for a job there. Knaak came on board and started in the field as a service tech. Over the next several years he took on the role of residential service manager, commercial service manager, customer service manager, and now his current position.

"This says to me that this company is very fair," said Knaak. "They run this company like a business."

He further explained that the goal at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning is to create a company culture that employs the best individuals possible. The proof is in the company's hiring philosophy. "We don't look for technicians," said Ray Isaac. "We look for professionals."

Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning rarely hires star technicians, or what Ray Isaac refers to as the "prima donnas." Mechanical aptitude is necessary, but the Isaacs are more interested in finding those who can work with a team and put customers as their top priority.

According to Ray Isaac, you can always teach a technician to be a better troubleshooter or installer, but it is much harder to get a veteran technician to unlearn bad habits. With this in mind, Isaac Heating has decided to hire based on attitude and dependability. The company is so serious about finding trustworthy people that they have decided to offer technical training for the professionals they find. All of this comes together at what the company likes to call Isaac University.

Technicians at Isaac Heating and Air Conditioning take part in their morning training class at Isaac University before starting their regular rounds. All technicians at Isaac Heating are required to go through the four-year program. For two hours each week, technicians attend in-house training early in the morning before leaving each day to tackle their regular service calls.

Earning While You Learn

The concept is not new. Unions and other companies train apprentices and pay them as they learn. But no other independent contractor has perfected the "earn while you learn" concept the way Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning has.

There are approximately 84 technicians currently enrolled in Isaac University, a mandatory four-year program. For two hours each week, technicians attend in-house training early in the morning before leaving each day to tackle their regular service calls.

Greg Goater, director of training and safety, is one of the instructors that has the task of educating the technicians.

"We were disillusioned and dissatisfied with the training available in the local community," said Goater. "We felt we needed to do it ourselves."

Each newly hired employee is placed in the program by level of experience. Technicians with little experience are placed in level one, or the first year of training.

During the first six weeks of training, these new technicians attend weekly training and are partnered with a seasoned tech to ride along and get real-world experience in the field. Technicians also get hands-on training in-house. Besides a large classroom to discuss theory and troubleshooting, the basement of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning is equipped with a full lab. The lab has been used to further enhance training and let technicians see mechanical problems in-house before they encounter them in the field.

Upon completion of the first year, technicians move along to the next level in training. When they complete the fourth year, technicians are required to complete certification through North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

"We feel as though NATE is the one that carries across all boundaries. NATE has risen to the top," said Goater.

Recently, 30 employees earned their NATE certification.

According to Goater, Isaac University is like any other classroom. Technicians are given tests and are expected to pass.

With this in mind, Isaac University is aiming to align itself with the standards of traditional training program. Goater is looking at adopting the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) into the program and is also researching the possibility of accrediting the program through the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation.

If Isaac University were to earn PAHRA accreditation, it would be the first HVAC company to do so.

At the end of the day, Isaac University is about taking qualified professionals and making them into qualified technicians.

Satisfied Employees

Jeremy Noll worked as a technician in the field for about six months. Noll was happy as an employee at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning, but started to feel that working in the field may not be his calling. After voicing concern to his supervisors, Noll was placed in the customer service department. "I was pretty amazed," he said. "If I ever have a problem, I just have to go to Ray."

Noll is not the only employee allowed to explore other responsibilities in order to find out where their strengths lie.

"It's like we have these great pieces of furniture in the house. It's just about getting them in the right position," Ray Isaac explained.

In fact, Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning is willing to do what it takes to make employees comfortable. The company believes that customers can only be satisfied when the employees are satisfied.

Besides getting paid to learn, employees share in a wealth of benefits and opportunities. For example, the company wants to make sure that employees are busy, but they don't want them to burn out. "We do a lot to keep our field forces busy," said Chris Isaac. "We try to keep peeks and valleys to a low."

This is achieved through maintenance agreements. The large agreement base created by Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning allows the service department to fill in during slower times of the year. The company also runs specials and advertises more frequently during traditional slower times, such as in the spring and fall.

For times when business is booming, the company makes sure that technicians are not spreading themselves too thin.

Knaak explained that multiple service teams have been created, as well as a year-round second shift. During busier months, a technician is scheduled at night from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., as well as an additional tech that begins at 5 a.m.

The office is also staffed until 11 p.m. during the week in order to assist technicians with incoming calls, dispatching, and scheduling.

"This allows the technician to concentrate on service work, not clerical work," said Knaak.

Dispatchers are also on hand Sundays, which Knaak says can sometimes bring in over 30 calls. The on-call schedule is based around six teams of technicians. One team is on call each week. With the current schedule one technician is on call only 14 to 17 nights per year.

Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning has combined realistic working hours with generous compensation. Employees take part in 401(k), life insurance, and medical and dental benefits.

Technicians are also reviewed annually and are rewarded based on performance and growth, such as receiving certification and passing training programs. "We pay our employees fairly and treat them fairly," said Ray Isaac.

But he believes that money and other financial benefits are not the reason why the company is successful. "It's a recipe," he explained. The ingredients includes the opportunity for employees to continue learning and continue to better themselves.

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Name:Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning Inc.

Owners: Bill and Jim Isaac

Location: Rochester, N.Y.

Years in business: 58

Bulk of market: 60 percent residential, 40 percent commercial

Total revenue for 2003: $15.2 million

Total employees: 145

Total service technicians and installers: 93

Average hours employees spend in training: 96 hours each year

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Flexible spending plan, life insurance plans, free training, uniforms, use of company vans.

Industry association: ACCA

The News selected this contractor because: Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning's hiring guidelines are based on dependability and professionalism. All technicians must attend Isaac University, a free four-year training program that ends with the completion of NATE certification. All employees are encouraged to advance as far as they are willing to go. Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning understands that when employees are taken care of, they will take care of the customers.

Publication date: 01/26/2004