Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." HVAC and plumbing contractors seek his advice regularly. Al has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe Newssome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Al your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.

Hiring The Right Managers

Dear Al,

I have grown my company from two trucks to 15 trucks with my partner in just three years. We thought if we grew big enough that we could hire some managers and things wouldn't be so hard. I don't mean to complain, but we're still working 60 to 80 hours a week and the staff still comes to us for every little thing.

Did we hire the wrong managers?

Right Managers

Dear Right Managers,

Congratulations to you and your partner for the rapid growth!

The bad news is, as fellow consultant Ellen Rohr says, "The skills that got you to this point aren't necessarily the skills that take you to the next level." You're undermining your managers every time you answer questions or direct your staff.

Typically, the people who started with you when you were small will be resistant to going through the manager instead of coming directly to you. But this is essential. And another essential is the creation of manager manuals. These manuals should contain the following:

1. Who they are to manage;

2. What activities they are to manage;

3. Who they directly report to;

4. How they will be judged objectively; and

5. What the rewards and consequences are.

A thorough organizational chart is a must. And once the organizational chart is done, a flow of communication chart is required to detail who each position on the organizational chart speaks to about what. This avoids a technician coming to the service manager to talk about health benefits when they should be speaking to the accounts payable/human resource person.

Do this and you won't need to find the right manager ... you'll be creating them!

Al Levi

Eliminating Bad Habits

Dear Al,

We used to have chaos at our shop. Then, we hired a consultant and came together as a team and solved a lot of the problematic issues. Things calmed down and it was actually fun to come to work ... for a while.

I don't know what happened, but it seems like everyone is back to doing what we did before we brought in the consultant and made all those changes.

What happened?

Chaos Again

Dear Chaos Again,

The danger in changing things for the better is that we begin to believe the myth that they're changed for good. The fact is that unless we practice the key business fundamentals constantly the bad habits re-emerge.

If you're a parent, you've seen the same thing happen with your own kids. Not that employees are kids, but would you agree we're all "kids at heart" and it's natural to resort to our old habits unless we're held accountable?

You need to sit down with staff members and review what was going right and what is going wrong now. Be armed with as much objective evidence as you can gather. Then, let them know that returning to key disciplines is non-negotiable.

Be truthful with yourself and ask yourself where you're falling back on your old bad habits. It happens all too often.

There's a reason a 35-year-old pitcher needs to go to spring training to practice covering first base when a ball is hit to the right side of the infield. Don't you think he's been doing this since he was 8 years old in Little League? He does it so he maintains and ingrains the right habits.

Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes, as his Web site says, in "Making Contractors' Lives Less Stressful and More Successful." Through private workshops, on-site assessments, customized operating manuals, and staff training programs, Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. Learn more by visiting You may also contact Levi by e-mail at or by fax at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 10/03/2005