There is something to be said about growing up in a family business and then taking the reins of the company as it is passed on from one generation to the next. A wealth of business knowledge can be passed along from parents to children and from sibling to sibling. While the HVACR contracting world is often thought of as a male-dominated field, women are not the rarity they once were.

Often, a woman enters the field by joining the ranks of a family-owned business, and, in some cases, go on to run the company.

The News spoke with three women with prominent roles in family HVACR businesses - Kris Guzik, secretary/treasurer of Energy Management Specialists (Cleveland); Christy Bennett, customer service/marketing representative for The Service Co. (Meridian, Miss.); and Debbie Risher, owner of Belair Engineering & Service Co. (Mitchellville, Md.) - to get their perspectives on issues faced by women in the world of HVACR contracting.

Entering The Field

The women interviewed for this article made their decisions to join the family business at different points in their lives, but there was one element common to each story: the business needed them.

"I was working for a large steel company that liquidated and closed their doors," said Guzik.

"I was also at a point in my life where I was looking for a change in career. My father was looking to cut back on his work time and prepare for the future. My brothers were not interested in becoming involved with the business side of the company. Joining the family business at that point was the right time for me and them."

Company growth brought Bennett into her family's business. "My father [Kelly Vaughn] called and said that the company was growing at such a rapid pace that he needed a full-time accountant in-house," noted Bennett.

Her husband, Ronnie, an accountant, went to work for the company, and Christy eventually was recruited to join them. "I love working back in the family business," she said.

Debbie Risher had a very good reason to join the family business - her dad asked her to help out.

"When I graduated from college and came home for the summer, my father asked me to help out in bookkeeping for the summer because his service contract bookkeeper was leaving," she said. "I've been there ever since."

Debbie Risher

Still Learning

Each of these women stressed the need for continued education. "I have a B.A. degree in accounting and master's degrees in accounting and human resources," said Guzik.

"Since I joined the company, I have received training in sales and insurance law. I am also attempting to become more involved in our local [Air Conditioning Contractors of America] ACCA chapter in order to become more familiar with the HVACR industry."

"I take every available class out there," noted Bennett. "I participate in not only marketing classes that actually deal directly with the job, but I also participate in other classes like design, service department profitability, service tech marketing, etc."

Risher said, "I have a B.A. degree. I also attend ACCA classes and [ACCA's] annual conference and trade show, as well as serving as second vice president for the ACCA-NCC board. I am a member of the Quality One group and Service Roundtable.

"I read lots of educational journals and manuals, but I also have 25 years of HVACR service manager/owner experience."

Facing Challenges

Working in the HVACR field can be a daunting task for anyone. Do these women feel the burden is tougher because of their gender?

"I worked for many years in another male-dominated industry, so I am used to being in the minority," said Guzik.

"In addition, my father and brothers go out of their way to include me and explain things to me without being condescending. The people at several ACCA events I have attended have also gone out of their way to make me feel welcome and that I belong.

"I feel like I am treated as an equal. Wherever I go, I am treated like I belong and included in their discussions. I think sometimes they appreciate getting the opinion of someone who has a different viewpoint than they do."

Bennett said it took a while to break the ice with company employees. "In the beginning, everything was somewhat awkward," she said. "Not only was I the boss's daughter, but I was a female. At first, the employees who had been here a while did show some resentment.

"I have had to work twice as hard and twice as long to gain respect, but I am finally feeling wanted, needed, and very comfortable in my job. It is extremely hard to gain respect from fellow male co-workers. But I believe it may be more difficult being the boss's daughter than just being female."

"Times have changed with every industry, and I feel it's a much better situation than it was 10 years ago or more when I started on the various industry boards," said Risher.

"I've worked for my dad since I was 12, so I know what hard work and perseverance is all about," she said. "I took over the business in 1991, and I'm 43 now, so I was young, and it really didn't bother me because I'm headstrong.

"I love this industry and the friends I've made now. I cannot say that I loved it when I started, but it's grown on me and with knowledge and friendship comes a desire to achieve to your highest goals. Let's put it this way: My daughter is interested now at 9-1/2 because she sees that I love my job and my employees are like family."

Future Plans?

"I am attempting right now to shore up some of the weak areas we have in the business while building upon our strengths," noted Guzik.

"One area we are weak in is marketing, and I have been looking for the right person to help us in this area. As for our strengths, we currently have a strong core of employees and our customer relationships are also a key part of our success.

"By continuing to keep the employees happy and productive, I believe that will also keep our customers happy. This hopefully will lead to long-term, healthy relationships."

Bennett said, "Every day at The Service Company is a new day. I am trying daily to become familiar with the technical side of the business, but my heart really lies in marketing the business and helping it to grow.

"My passion is to keep our name worthy of the reputation that my father started 23 years ago. I feel that our future depends on the satisfaction of our customers."

Said Risher, "I plan to continue to educate our techs, installers, and, most of all, our management and myself to be able to provide excellent customer service and installation. But I also want to streamline all processes in the business and use all aspects of our computer system to its fullest extent.

"We had a goal session with each employee at the beginning of the year, so this is a breeze!"

Publication date: 12/20/2004