The owner's primary purpose is to keep everybody working and give the employees opportunities to make more money, believes David Anekstein, general manager of Atmostemp.
His job is also to convince employees that such changes are beneficial, and he uses a soft touch to persuade them.
"Improving the market mix is what keeps me up at night," said Anekstein. The company is making a transition from being primarily a residential new construction contractor, to a service and replacement contracting company that also performs high-end new construction work.
Having a well-compensated staff of service and installation technicians, a low number of callbacks, plus paid training, certification, and tools, will help this company reach its goals.
It also helped Atmostemp to be selected as winner of The News' 2004 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest for the New England region.
Mixing It UpWhen Anekstein's father, Bill, started the company in 1976, it was all residential new construction. "Most of our people here now have been with the business forever," said the son.
"They can tell you that when new construction is good, it's good. When it's bad, it's horrible. You can set up a backlog of work, but in winter you can't fend off ice and snow."
When David Anekstein took over the business, "We were 90 percent new construction," he said. He didn't want it to stay that way. "A healthy business needs a healthy mix of residential service. It's been a good new construction market the last five or six years, but at the end of the day, we know that won't last."
Atmostemp currently installs HVAC systems in 1,200 to 1,500 new homes per year. "We've got a really great opportunity," Anekstein said, because of this customer base. "Expanding into service is just a natural for our business." It also gives more ambitious employees the chance to learn new skills and advance within the company, instead of going to work for a competitor.
These employee transitions depend a lot on personalities. "In residential new construction, a lot of those guys are happy with regular hours and not having customers looking over their shoulders," Anekstein explained. "Other guys want to advance and have other opportunities."
As an owner, he prefers the safety and profitability of residential service and replacement work. "Margins in residential new construction aren't anywhere near as good as they are in service," he said.
"New construction is very fragile; there are a lot of receivables. It's a big animal, and you've got to keep feeding it. Once that workload pulls back, it can be hard to keep people employed. Service work gives our guys opportunities."
He still believes in the profitability of the residential new construction market. "It's good work, but it gets better when you can be pickier. When you have to go for more of that work, you can't be as picky as you'd like."
Anekstein's goal is to be at roughly 60 percent service, 40 percent residential new construction. "In a perfect world, I would like to see 60/40. The difficult part is growing that. We'll be able to feed off our residential new construction guys for that."
Steady Work, Steady TrainingAt this time, 78 percent of Atmostemp's business is in residential new construction. "Because most of our techs have that background, we can shift some of them over for residential accessory installations and air conditioner startups," Anekstein said.
"We can also adjust our residential replacement schedule and build an additional replacement crew utilizing some of our technicians.
"During this past year, we have also started to balance out our maintenance schedule and retrain our customer base to accept maintenance in our slower months," he said. "We also take advantage of ISL [International Service Leadership] technical training during slower months. Most of our techs are so versatile, we can shift them among the different departments.
"We also feel that the IAQ [indoor air quality] training and recommendations will create additional work for our techs during the slower months."
Anekstein has great empathy for all the changes his company's installers and techs have been going through. Training and regular communication help provide the information they need to feel confident and secure. The company pays for its technicians' service tools, NATE (North American Technician Excellence) training, and NATE testing.
"When we put out our NATE initiative, we also brought ISL into our business," Anekstein said. "Most of our techs will go to the ISL training center for technical training, but we have so many people here, it would be tough to send 65 guys.
"We went ahead and trained everybody through NATE," he said, "whether they were in new construction or service. They all had the opportunity to get certified."
The company has 51 techs and installers, 25 of whom received NATE certification after taking the test for the first time. The company has analyzed where those employees who didn't earn certification had trouble, to determine where more training was needed.
"We also bring the manufacturers in, particularly in the first quarter," Anekstein said. "Lennox training from the local branch comes to us. We use the Fraternal Order of Police hall for the night."
Spiffs And BenefitsThe company's market strategy is creating additional compensation opportunities for technicians. "They can earn spiffs for selling maintenance agreements, for being on call, for IAQ sales, and for generating replacement leads," Anekstein said.
One new program for the company was designed to train technicians on how to diagnose IAQ problems and provide solutions.
"IAQ is a natural extension of what our technicians do every day," he said, "and an excellent opportunity for enhancing their careers, as well as provide additional spiff and sales opportunities. Service Experts rolled out a Home Health Report Card and took the training out to our service technicians. They go through a checklist and diagnose IAQ problems in the home."
Among the items they check are system balancing, duct sealing, duct cleaning, filtration, and humidity. "Service techs get spiffed on all those sales."
The company is going beyond Service Experts' tool recommendations and is supplying Bacharach combustion analyzers to its service techs.
"There's not much of a need for this in all parts of the country," he said, "but here in the Northeast, it does make a difference. We're getting all fitted up with them."
Technician EmpathyDave Cournoyer is a service technician who worked 14 years for Atmostemp, then left to work elsewhere. He worked for two other contractors in a one-year period, but returned to David Anekstein's company when he couldn't adapt to those companies' ways of doing things. (Returning employees are a common phenomenon for Best Contractor winners.)
"This company does things the right way," Cournoyer said. "They don't take shortcuts; they do it the right way."
Warehouse supplies, truck loading, truck maintenance, and follow-ups are all done to reduce stress on installers and techs.
For instance, the company's sheet metal fabricator has a shop on Atmostemp's premises. New construction supplies are loaded onto special trucks at headquarters and driven out to the jobsite by two employees whose job is just that.
Because of these deliveries, installers can go straight from their homes to the jobsite. The warehouse staff also makes sure service vehicles are restocked when the techs take them out.
Henry Spiegel is the warehouse manager. He controls the stocking of all parts, pieces, and supplies, and makes sure the company's trucks are clean, well stocked, and properly maintained. He has a flashing digital sign above his office door that states, "The cautious seldom err."
"We have learned that less is more in terms of the number of calls our techs run on a given day," said Anekstein. "Running fewer calls and spending more time on the quality of the call and building a relationship with our customers pays off in the long run."
"You've got the tech with the really great work ethic; he doesn't see that spending more time is of value. He feels like he is accomplishing more when he gets to more customers. But in the long run, it's more value to spend 10 more minutes per customer."
Even management has to come to terms with taking fewer calls during the busy season in the name of total quality. "We're guilty of it too. It's a learning process for all of us." But he especially appreciates the cooperation the company has received from its installers and techs. "They have been through a lot, and I have great respect for them."
One of his methods for helping them accept the changes, he said, is to let them know he understands how hard change can be.
According to Cournoyer, the techs really appreciate it. "It's just very considerate. It's great."
In the long run, "We gain customer loyalty and improved closing ratios for comfort advisers on accessory and replacement sales," Anekstein said.
"We are also training some of our new construction installers in service to handle warranty calls, to take some pressure off our techs during our peak months. We had techs running leads in the past."
One technician, Anthony Gaetano, showed a real interest in selling. He is now an ISL-trained comfort adviser. However, that doesn't mean he is Mr. Hard Sell - no way - that wouldn't sit well with him.
"I provide information that I feel the customer can use," he said. In this particular geographic area, a hard sell would be an immediate turn off. The practical approach is best, and it has allowed him to put the ISL sales script into his own words.
"Sometimes there is some natural resistance from technicians, and I feel for these guys," Anekstein said. "Our technicians have been asked to do a lot. But they will see that it really is an important part of what we are doing: Spend more time with the customer..
"At first a lot of technicians are overwhelmed by it - test, diagnose, communicate. Once they learn to do it in their own way and put it in their own words, they'll become a lot more comfortable with it.
"With the technology spurt in industry," he said, "hooking the condensing unit or furnace up to a bad system is just not the right thing. It's like anything; it's a no-brainer.
"At the end of the day," he concluded, "our employees know that our business is built on the trust of our customers. We can be proud of who we are and the services we provide. There is no shame in doing the right thing. Our credibility is the foundation of a great workplace."
Sidebar: Just The FactsWinning contractor:Atmostemp LLC Service Experts
General manager: David Anekstein
Location: East Berlin, N.J.
Years in business: 29
Bulk of market: Residential new construction
Total employees: 78
Total service technicians and installers: 51
Average hours employees spend in training: 20 per employee, per year
Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Vision, 401(k) with 33-cent match for every $1 invested, life and disability insurance, all tools, paid holidays and vacations, holiday bonus, sales and lead spiffs, paid certification training and testing.
Industry association and contractor group members: Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) and International Service Leadership (ISL)
The News selected this contractor because: David Anekstein seems truly considerate of his installers' and technicians' feelings, but he doesn't let that stop him from doing what is right for the company. His philosophy in action is to do things the right way for the customer, so that everyone in the company can be proud of where they work and what they do. He focuses intensely on keeping a profitable market mix and streamlining internal processes so that installers and techs work more efficiently, but will not chase profits at the expense of ethics.
Publication date: 02/07/2005