Air Systems Engineering Inc. owner Curt Anderson believes you have to have a good place to work for your employees. (Feature photography by Scott Turner Photography.)
TACOMA, Wash. - Curt Anderson is at work. There's no denying it. When you drive a red Jaguar X-Type with the license plate "Cool It," you really cannot hide. Not that the owner of Air Systems Engineering Inc. (ASEI) tries to sneak in. If that were the case, he would not park his very noticeable sports car smack dab in front of the entrance door. Every day. Every morning.

And we're not talking about a 10 a.m. grand entrance, either. Anderson is inside the building at 6 a.m. this particular Friday morning. He's there before the scheduled 6:30 a.m. monthly construction crew meeting, greeting installers, techs, and managers as they come through the door.

"That's just Curt," said David Price, a sheet metal installer who has been under Anderson's wings for 18 years now. "He has an open-door policy. If you want to speak to him, you just go to him. He takes the time for you."

Sit down with any ASEI employee and the conversation will eventually drift to the man who has guided this 85 percent commercial, 15 percent industrial HVACR company for 32 years - from its inception to its current status of 75 employees, with a fleet of nearly 50 trucks. What says plenty about ASEI is that many have been with the company for 15 years or more. General manager Kandi Crawford, for instance, has been at ASEI for 26 years. Her husband, Doug, who is now a senior project manager, has been a part of ASEI since 1978. Now Doug's son, David, is a part of the engineering team.

Junior Setefano creates some ductwork inside the sheet metal area at Air Systems Engineering in Tacoma, Wash.
Project manager Larry Hiegel: since eternity. Project manager Dan Hamilton: 20 years. Construction manager John Hodges: 11 years. Field supervisor Tim Farrell: 17 years. Office manager Sandy Colyer: 19 years. Bookkeeper Jane Nettleton: 27 years. Sheet metal installer Tom Hamilton: 18 years. ...

If it all begins with leadership, then ASEI certainly has a solid foundation in Anderson, who is a big reason why ASEI is the winner of The NEWS' 2005 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest for the West region.

"It really is a family here," said Farrell. "No one is a number here."


Admittedly, Anderson was uncertain of where he was headed when he partnered with Lee Malstrom to form ASEI in 1973.

"Early on, I did not have a vision of what size this company would be," said the soft-spoken Anderson, sitting in his spacious office. Behind him on the wall is his collection of rare and old slide rules, an engineering tool from the past. "I was just looking to have a good growth pattern, grow somewhere between 10 to 15 percent a year."

The goal was accomplished by paying close attention to both inside and outside customers.

"The same ethics apply when talking about the external or internal customers," he said. "It's a two-way street in both cases."

Leaning back in his chair, he added, "You have to have a good place to work for your employees. If they like what they do, they'll go that extra step to help customers."

Phil Davis makes sure that he has all that he needs for the day inside the back of his truck.
Sheet metal installer Tracy Goins kicks himself for not becoming a part of the ASEI family sooner. Goins, who has been in the field since high school in 1986, heard about the company's professionalism, but not until eight months ago did he see it live, in color. In his estimation, there is no turning back.

"This place is a well-oiled machine," he said. "I knew they did quality work, but this has been far beyond my expectations."

In previous travels, Goins was never asked to participate in a free monthly breakfast with all employees. Yet, that is offered to all who work at ASEI. And not many turn it down.

"It's hard to be the first one there," said Dan Hamilton, noting that the breakfast may start at 6:30 a.m., but the camaraderie begins far earlier than the arrival of bacon and eggs. "I don't know of anyone else who does this."

ASEI even has a company-wide bowling session before one workday each year, plus it hosts a summer picnic for one and all, a charity golf event, and a gala Christmas party. "You need to build relationships in any business," said Anderson. "You need to have that relationship with the employees and the employees with the owner."

That's one reason why ASEI is always looking for good people. Anderson considers this one of ASEI's major challenges. For this reason, a recruitment incentive is frequently offered. If an employee refers a person and they are hired, the employee receives $250 after the new hire has worked for 30 days, and another $250 after the new employee has been employed six months.

In addition to its normal recruiting strategy, ASEI also supports its local vocational and technical schools. Currently, it has a tech sitting on the advisory board of one local school. ASEI supports him in this effort by donating materials used for training, as well as donating material to upgrade the facility.

"We keep in contact with the instructors of HVAC and pursue the best and the brightest graduates for possible employment," said Kandi Crawford.

Air Systems Engineering owner Curt Anderson (center) goes over a few items with Buck Jones (left) and David Sweet (right).


At ASEI, training is considered critical to attracting and keeping good people. It's why ASEI partners with the Construction Industry Training Council (CITC), located in nearby Bellevue. CITC is a nonprofit, open-enrollment program sponsored by Associated Builders and Contractors, Associated General Contractors, and other associations. It offers a four-year apprenticeship program in several areas. CITC conducts two of its classes in ASEI's facility and it employs Price and Buck Jones as paid instructors. ASEI pays the majority of the costs associated with these four-year programs.

"At the end of this year, 11 of our employees will graduate there with a four-year certificate," said Kandi Crawford.

At the recent assembly of the construction crew team, Farrell noted that classes offered by Excellence Alliance were available to all present. "And, it's all free," says Price. "The training offered here is just phenomenal."

Electrician Roberto Ros is thankful for all of the opportunities he's had in learning all he can about controls since he came aboard just over six years ago.

Field supervisor Tim Farrell (left) goes over some project details with installer Earl Peyton.
"They sent me to Phoenix for a week of training," he said. "They are willing to take risks. But they trust in you that you will do what is right and good. They're willing to help you all the way."

According to Kandi Crawford, ASEI employees have spent over 4,000 hours in various training sessions over the last 12 months. The 69-year-old Anderson would not have it any other way.

"There is so many things changing in this industry, that the only way to stay atop of things is to keep educating, keep training," he said. "It's important to have knowledgeable employees. They reflect back on you and you want to stay ahead of the competition."

Generally, an increase in compensation follows the completion of major training courses and certification.

Air Systems Engineering Inc. owner Curt Anderson (standing) addresses his installers at an early morning crew meeting.


Keeping employees happy is important at ASEI. For instance, to avoid burnout during the busy months of July, August, and September, the contractor will increase the number of technicians on call to minimize the impact on any single technician.

To ensure a steady workload for employees, ASEI has weekly and monthly production-related meetings to forecast manpower needs.

"It is our philosophy to add additional personnel only when we are able to justify the need for full-time employment," said Kandi Crawford. "We do not hire part-time or temporary field employees for the busy season or for a specific project. The expectation is that if we hire an individual, they will be a full-time, long-term employee."

Occasionally, of course, a customer's schedule will require additional labor over a short duration. This does not mean ASEI looks for part-time help.

"In this case, we generally will ask our current employees to work overtime instead of hiring someone that we may not be able to provide full-time work for," said Crawford. "Our employees are willing to step up and work overtime with the knowledge that this will help keep them working full time."

There is this appreciation on both sides of the fence. ASEI management takes care of employees, and employees take care of ASEI.

"The company is integrity driven," said Janet Preston, sales support person, who has been with the company for a year. "Everyone is treated like family, so everyone is willing to go that extra yard for either a customer or a fellow employee. Everyone steps up to the plate."

As Kandi Crawford put it, she came to work "as an entry-level employee who was trained, encouraged, mentored, and recognized for my contributions and allowed to grow into a member of the senior management team.

Sidebar: He Simply Cares

TACOMA, Wash. - "Curt is the backbone." While that may be Janet Preston's description of Curt Anderson, every employee at Air Systems Engineering Inc. (ASEI) has positive verbs and adjectives for the man. The 1987 former national ACCA chairman contributes in times of need, and such help does not go unnoticed.

For instance, the wife of field supervisor Tim Farrell has been in and out of the hospital over the past few years, and Anderson has been there to provide financial, as well as, emotional support. "It is really a family here," Farrell said. "Family comes before everything."

If anyone has a sick family member, office manager Sandy Colyer said Anderson is immediately there to offer his prayers.

"He takes a personal interest in families as well as employees, whether it's a wedding or the birth of a child," she said. "As an ASEI family member, we celebrate both joys and sorrows."

Even when long-time senior controls engineer Allen Hayward left abruptly not too long ago to go to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Anderson did not get upset. He knew that Hayward wanted to fulfill a dream he had of working where his father had worked. "Instead of being negative, Curt was all for him," said service manager David Gardner, voted Employee of the Year (for 2005) by his fellow employees.

Heck, everyone gets a personalized birthday card from the man.

If an employee leaves, he or she may return to ASEI's doorstep. For instance, Jeff Brewer thought he'd like Las Vegas, but he was back in Tacoma after a two-year hiatus.

"It's totally different," said Brewer, who has now been a sheet metal installer for eight years. "It is much more professional here. He lets the company know how we are doing overall. That's really different."

Even though he may be the first to arrive at work, Anderson may also be the last person to leave. Wife Loraine is used to her husband's routine. Meanwhile, only son Barry, age 46, works in the company's design department while only daughter Keneta lives nearby.

"Curt is an excellent boss," summarized Brenda Baderdeen, who works in shipping and receiving and has been employed for 18 years. "Curt is just amazing. He cares so deeply."

"I guess he's just a caring type of person," added Doug Crawford. "He cares about us. And, he cares about customers. ... You always know where you stand with Curt."

- Mark Skaer

Sidebar: Fun With License Plates

TACOMA, Wash. - Curt Anderson can now get new call letters for his Jaguar X-Type. Since Air Systems Engineering Inc. (ASEI) has earned the "Best Contractor To Work For" title for the West region, his new Washington state license plates can simply state: "WON IT."

Well, it is an option.

Not only is ASEI known for its professional work and people, it is known for its nearly 50 clean, bright red service trucks, along with their personalized license plates that end in "IT." The company owner, for instance, drives "COOL IT," but others in the work force sport just-as-creative verbiage. A sample listing:

  • STM8 IT



  • NTGR8 IT











    "I think we should have one that says, ‘JUST DO IT,' " suggests Anderson, quickly adding, "We are running out of names."

    The ASEI owner cannot pinpoint how this license plate competition started, but it is definitely noted by employees, as well as customers.

    "Driving a vehicle that looks good and customers recognize helps in retaining employees," said general manager Kandi Crawford.

    With such a trademark fleet, service manager David Gardner believes the company does not have to advertise much. The trucks with their noticeable plates are moving billboards.

    "The dominance we have in this market is unbelievable," said Gardner. "It is a word-of-mouth thing."

    - Mark Skaer

    Sidebar: Just The Facts

    CONTRACTOR: Air Systems Engineering Inc.

    OWNER: Curt Anderson

    LOCATION: Tacoma, Wash.


    BULK OF MARKET: 85 percent commercial, 15 percent industrial

    TOTAL SALES FOR 2005: $11 million



    AVERAGE HOURS EMPLOYEES SPEND IN TRAINING: Employees have spent over 4,000 hours in various training over the last 12 months

    BENEFITS OFFERED BEYOND MEDICAL/DENTAL INSURANCE: In addition to paying for 95 percent of the medical, dental, vision, and life insurance for employees, ASEI pays 80 percent medical/dental benefits for dependents. ASEI offers a self-funded medical package to allow the company to tailor the coverage to best fit the needs of employees and families. Other benefits include paid vacation, holidays, 401K (with matching up to $2,000 per year), profit sharing, training opportunities, uniform allowance, drug-free workplace, safety-conscious workplace, and company functions (monthly company-wide breakfast, one morning company-wide bowling session, charity golf tournament, summer picnic, and Christmas party). Also, three employees of the month are recognized, monthly company and department meetings, $600 tool allowance for service technicians, financial incentive for construction department to "beat the estimate," credit union membership, monthly company newsletter, and involvement in construction-related trade associations.

    INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION & CONTRACTOR GROUP MEMBERS: Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Excellence Alliance (EAI), Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Associated General Contractors (AGC), Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), and Chamber of Commerce

    THE NEWS SELECTED THIS CONTRACTOR BECAUSE: Owner Curt Anderson believes internal customers are just as important as external. In the end, every employee is valued as a person. Many of the company's key employees have been with the company for over 20 years and now some of their children have started to work for the company. As Kandi Crawford put it, "Doing the right thing for our employees, customers, and vendors guides our decisions. When this is done successfully the financial bottom line will take care of itself. The HVAC services we provide our customers allow them to do business with us from cradle to grave. We can design it, fabricate it, install it, service and maintain it until it needs to be replaced again. Our reputation in the community speaks to our commitment to quality, value, honesty, and integrity."

    Publication date: 01/23/2006