Dan Peterson, owner of Comfort Tech Service Now!, reviews the day’s schedule with client care advisors Diego Esquivel and Elizabeth Peterson.(Photos by Ben Garcia.)
DEL RIO, Texas - Wolfman Jack had great success in the city of Del Rio. The disc jockey saw an opportunity to broadcast his show around the world from nearby radio station XER, in Mexico.

The city of Del Rio has another showman in Dan Peterson, the owner of Comfort Tech Service Now! A talented singer, he performs several Elvis impersonator shows locally each year.

"Our focus has always been about keeping my guys ready to go out there every day and put on a show and making the customer happy," Peterson said.

However, it wasn't always bright lights. In 1974, Peterson grudgingly took over his father's one-man HVAC business. He missed most of his sophomore year of high school due to his father's illness; this eventually prevented his graduation. However, the customer calls had to be answered and the family had to be fed. Peterson didn't have a very good taste in his mouth for the HVAC business or self-employment.

Peterson found later that working for someone else wasn't as satisfying as he had hoped. "The first thing I noticed was that people got laid off, and benefits weren't very good. Eventually, I set a goal to operate my own business and to make sure my employees never had to deal with those things," said Peterson.

According to Peterson, there were times in the last 25 years when he had wanted to throw in the towel, but kept going because of people like operations manager Kenneth Sievers.

"Kenneth had put in 10 years of his life with me to that point. Part of my initial motivation had been to build a company that took care of its employees, so I couldn't quit."

That attitude helped Comfort Tech Service Now! be selected as winner of The News' 2004 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest for the Southwest region.

Peterson discovered that every company starts out wanting to take care of its employees. The only problem is it's easier said than done. "The big turnaround came in 1995 when I joined Contractor Success Group (CSG), now AirTime 500 - I wasn't charging enough. When I learned how to run the business properly, I could not only take care of customers, but employees, as well," said Peterson.

Domiro Sanchez (left) reviews Club Membership progress under the watchful eyes of installers/technicians Jason Aguilar, Gildardo Servin, and Donny Guajardo.

The Philosophy

Every employee agrees that what makes the company such a great place to work is Peterson. Jason Aguilar, the 2003 Rookie of the Year at the company, said, "I'm motivated because there is so much to learn. Dan's different than anyone I've ever worked for; he is constantly motivating everyone."

Domiro Ponce, quality control and training leader, stated, "I've stayed with Dan for a long time because he's just Dan. I can't recall one time when he's ever scolded an employee. He teaches employees in such a way that they never realize they had made a mistake."

The company hires people for their personality, not their technical skills. Peterson believes that when you take care of employees, they will take care of customers. "The attitude our employees bring to work gets played out on our customers every day. The staff knows that if they ask me for a favor, I'll grant it. If they ask me to do something to make a customer happy, I'll do it."

At Comfort Tech Service Now!, doing whatever it takes to take care of a customer isn't a decision that only "el jefe" can implement. Everyone in the company has authorization to make decisions in the field. Their key to success is solving any customer problem within 48 hours.

Arturo "Turi" Cardenas, technician/sales, said, "I started working for another local company. Two weeks later I was laid off. I knew Ivan Muniz was working for a good company and asked if they were hiring. That was five years ago. If you ever mess up, Dan's not going to raise his voice, dock your pay, or fire you - he just says learn from it. That lifts a lot of pressure off of the individual employee."

The 19 employees of Comfort Tech Service Now! are proud of their company and its Best Contractor honor.

An Interesting History

In 1995, Peterson decided to work exclusively in residential replacement. Revenue went from $450,000 to $1 million that year. In 1996, revenues increased to $1.5 million, and hit $1.8 million in 1998.

A 22-year company veteran and operations manager Sievers stated, "What really holds us together is Dan's unique way of working with people. The involvement we've had with AirTime 500 has been critical to our development. We gained from the experiences of being part of the public company Service Experts."

In 2001, Peterson bought the company back from Service Experts and created Comfort Tech Service Now! The company generated $2.5 million in revenue in 2004. Peterson credits the recent steady growth to two things. Club Memberships (trademark of AirTime 500), otherwise known as service agreements, account for 45 percent of total company revenue. The second is the company's focus on indoor air quality (IAQ), which will bring in $1 million this year.

Sharing The Wealth

Dan Peterson believes that you become prosperous by not taking away from your employees.

"If you don't get greedy, and take care of your people, they will stay with you and go the extra mile for your customers."

Pay at other local HVAC companies is about $10 per hour. At Comfort Tech Service Now!, assistants can make up to $15 to $30 per hour. Lead installers typically earn from $45,000 to $55,000 per year. Assistant installers earn from $30,000 to $40,000.

Last year, technician/salesman Gilbert Sanchez earned $131,000. He explained, "You can write your own paycheck here." Sanchez currently has 600 Clubs to his credit and earned an extra $6,000 when renewal bonuses were awarded at the annual Christmas party.

The company paid out $40,000 in spiffs and bonuses in 2004. Peterson said, "At the time of year that I typically got laid off, my people were busy and had money in the bank."

At the recent Christmas party, after 31 awards were handed out, each employee's spouse was given a gift of $100 to recognize their patience and understanding for the long hours and missed dinners.

Top sales performers Gilbert Sanchez (left) and Robert Dela Garza (right) show Donny Guajardo how to set up “The Inspector,” a diagnostic tool from AirTime 500.

Training In A Family Setting

Every Monday the technicians and installers have a meeting from 8 a.m. to noon, at which time Peterson reviews all issues and customer complaints. The very individualized and personal training has proven invaluable for the staff. Much of the training is focused on communication and other personal skills.

"Most of my training is hands-on, as I float between jobs to supervise and help our guys with any problems. I attend the Monday morning meetings and bring up issues that we've encountered in the field to make sure we don't have the same errors happening again," Domiro Ponce, the quality control leader said.

When seven-year lead installer Arturo Huerta talks about the company, he refers to it as a family. Last year Huerta was recognized for having the most production for an installer.

"Customers know the quality of our personnel is fantastic. We take a lot of pride in that fact. We are drug-tested, licensed, refrigerant certified, and trained on various indoor air quality issues such as mold, dust mites, and spores. Most of the training is in-house; sometimes we travel for special programs. At least five days out of the month someone is in training."

The Company Trip

Each year the employees go on an all-expense paid weekend trip that provides various activities such as boating, fishing, jet-skiing, and almost anything else that you can imagine would take place aboard a 65-foot houseboat on beautiful Lake Amistad. There is even a hot tub on the roof of the vessel.

In 2004, the crew opted for a long bus trip from Del Rio to Dallas for a Cowboys-Redskins football game the day after Christmas. The company picked up the entire cost for transportation, food and beverages, and hotel on the night of the game.

Benefits And Administration

Shiralee Suiter is a seven-year employee and the current accounting director. "It's a great place to work because Dan cares about his employees; whether it's a small or large task, he always acknowledges our work."

Suiter watches over several programs and the benefits administration. "The uniform program is a 50/50 cost-shared benefit for our installers and technicians," she said.

The company supplies service technicians with major equipment such as vacuum pumps and refrigerant recovery units. Six-year employee Robert Dela Garza carries about $3,000 worth of tools in his service van.

"Through the company tool account program, I was able to purchase needed tools on the company account and then pay them back through a minimal payroll deduction."

Another employee benefit is time away from work. All employees earn seven days for vacation, sick, or personal leave after one year, 10 days after three years, 12 days after five years, and 15 days after 10 years. In addition, each employee gets seven paid holidays after 90 days, including one's birthday.

Operations manager Kenneth Sievers and warehouse manager Jaime Rodriguez describe Comfort Tech Service Now! as a family. Both stayed at Dan Peterson’s house when their homes were devastated by floods.

Going The Extra Mile For People

In 1998, the San Felipe Creek flooded its banks after a record 21 inches of rain in an overnight storm. Warehouse manager Jaime Rodriguez tells the story:

"Kenneth Sievers and I have been neighbors for years. Dan showed up at Kenneth's house the day after the flood. He took both our families into his house. He had just met me! They fixed dinner for us each night as we were repairing the damages. We became friends, and two months later, Dan asked me to work for him.

"Dan grooms everyone to be self-motivated. That's what makes this company fun to work for, because we all know what to do. We're like a team, if one person succeeds, we all gain from it.

"For instance, I can get a 3 percent commission when I turn over a lead to a salesman. We all work together so well; the other companies in town are wondering what we're doing," laughed Rodriguez.

A Job Well Done

"What's really neat about being honored as a ‘Best Contractor' byThe Newsis that my dream of taking care of my people is now being highlighted. It's our 25th anniversary in business, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate," stated Peterson.

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Winning contractor:Comfort Tech Service Now!

Owner: Dan Peterson

Location: Del Rio, Texas

Years in business: 25

Bulk of market: 100 percent residential; 45 percent replacement, 35 percent IAQ sales, 20 percent service/maintenance

Total sales for 2004: $2.5 million

Total employees: 20

Total service technicians and installers: 11

Average hours employees spend in training: 208

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Vacation plan; paid holidays; uniform program; bonuses and incentives; tool program; company vehicles; employee outings; holiday party; training reimbursements.

Industry associations and contractor group members: AirTime 500

The News selected this contractor because: All employees feel as though they are part of a larger family when they come to work each day. The company shows its commitment to its employees in ways that far exceed the benefits and pay, which are the best offered by any HVAC company in the city, and better than many other potential employers.

Publication date: 02/07/2005