BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — How can companies prepare for the spring air conditioning market without knowing the plans Mother Nature has for the season? Furthermore, how can companies survive through a cool summer or warm winter?

For H.A. Sun Heating and Cooling, Inc., it is a game of prediction, planning, and a little bit of chance.

Founded in 1982 by Henry Adams and Fred LaBelle, the company began in the new construction business, grew a market base, and during the process has expanded from two employees to more than 80.

Entering the company’s building, it is easily apparent that business is booming for this company west of Detroit. Pages are often sent out over the sound system, while the ringing of employees’ cellular phones is non-stop.

All of this hustle and bustle on a day when the sun shining and the snow melting gives an indication of the company’s preparation for the spring season.

Warm winter thoughts

How is it that on a warm winter day, the employees here are all busy and all in a hurry? Planning, preparing, and maintaining all play a role.

Lee Weinstein, general manager, said that the company prepares for the cooling season during winter months. Employees make sure that every piece of equipment that will be used during the summer months is fully operational.

Even the vacuum cleaners used to clean up after technicians service customers’ hvac systems are tested.

Winter is also a time for stocking supplies. There is a lot of pricing and buying in the winter, said co-owner Henry Abrams. During the off-season, parts and supplies can be obtained for more reasonable prices than during peak demand.

“We’re concentrating on spring in the heating season,” said Abrams. “We’re always planning three to four months ahead.”

Weather plays a major factor in the company’s preparations. Abrams said the best judge of the coming spring season is how the last season ended.

“A strong ending usually means a strong beginning. However, if it’s not hot by the 4th [of July], you can kiss the season goodbye.”

When the weather doesn't cooperate

Imagine it’s July 7th and the summer still has not heated up. How can an hvac contracting company be successful when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate?

It boils down to one word: planning.

H.A. Sun has implemented several innovative ways to fill the mild times and keep employees busy. A Preventive Maintenance Program (PMP) helps with this.

The company sells two- and four-time PMP contracts. The contracts guarantee constant “in-touch” contact with customers, said Weinstein.

For the two-time contract, a company technician services the customer’s equipment twice a year, usually in the spring and fall. For the four-time contract, service is performed every season.

During these visits, the technicians clean filters and do fine-tuning on the equipment. For commercial accounts, monthly filter changes are included in the contract, if necessary.

“This is one of the ways to spread out our employees and keep our labor together [during the slow times],” said Weinstein. It is also a way to bring in some extra replacement sales when problems are found within a system.

The company also increased its referrals for add-on and replacement (AOR) business by forming a relationship with a local home inspection association. Abrams worked with one home inspector from the association and later received a call from the association, asking H.A. Sun to provide training sessions for its members.

The contractor coordinated a training program with Carrier Great Lakes, its distributor. A person from Carrier Great Lakes came to the 2- to 2 1/2-hr training sessions, gave high criteria for what contractors look for, and provided beneficial information to the home inspectors.

The results for H.A. Sun have been additional AOR referrals from home inspectors, and being hired by local home inspectors to make hvac inspections. The result for the home inspectors is the ability to do their jobs better through understanding what to look for.

The company also planned to cure its Year 2000 (Y2K) problems back in 1997. It took a look at the problems it would face when Y2K rolled around, and set a goal to be ready 1 1/2 years ahead of time.

The company met its goal and is now fully compliant and prepared for the turn of the century.

Emphasis on customers

Another way H.A. Sun maintains its business through the lean seasons is by following through and providing outstanding customer service all year long.

“We always follow up with the customer,” said Abrams. The customer receives at least three calls for each visit:

The first call is to schedule the service appointment.

The second comes from the service technician or dispatcher when en route to the customer’s home, letting them know he or she is coming.

The third comes the day after the service is completed. This call serves to make certain that the customer is happy with the work performed, and to address any questions or concerns.

“We concentrate on customer service,” said Weinstein, because “We are dealing with more well-educated people.”

Realizing the increased knowledge on the part of the customer, H.A. Sun works to keep them informed. The company includes “stuffers” in its monthly statements that include specials it is having, updates of new products on the market, and information of any changes in policies and procedures.

Successful combination

H.A. Sun’s efforts at excellence were recently rewarded when the company was selected as a Carrier Distinguished Dealer (CDD).

In 1998, Weinstein received the information packet about the CDD program and decided the company should give it a try. Abrams and LaBelle were skeptical and concerned about the amount of time that going through the application process might take.

Eventually, however, they jumped on the band wagon and moved full-speed ahead to complete the process.

“The major plus of getting the award was getting the award,” said Abrams. The company benefited internally by the process of filling in the application and putting everything down on paper. Abrams and Weinstein both believe that they got much more mileage and benefit from the process and preparation than from winning the award.

It opened up communication between the owners and employees, and also served to highlight areas that needed a bit of improvement.

To put things in perspective, 8,000 companies applied for the CDD award. Those 8,000 companies were then trimmed down to a mere 20 that would undergo site visits from Carrier representatives. H.A. Sun made the cut and prepared for the site visit.

After the 8-hr visit, the contractor had nothing left to do but wait for the manufacturer to make its decision. Carrier and its distributors met to go over the information gathered at the site visits and then chose eight of the 20 companies to become distinguished dealers.

Vision of the future

The hvac industry has changed greatly over the years. Weinstein said one of the major changes has been in the equipment and standards. “Service techs now need more skill, and it takes more to do a job.”

Abrams adds that the government has added lots of expense to doing business by putting regulations on the industry. Also, technological advances in electronics have made things more high-tech, and caused a greater need for technical experience among workers.

Along the same lines, the need to phase out all R-22 by the year 2010 is affecting the industry. With the recent trend to switch over to using R-410A, companies must retool and contractors must update their way of doing things, said Weinstein. He sees the phaseout of R-22 as having several benefits for the industry, customers, and especially the environment.

A current problem that could become huge in the future is a shortage of labor. Abrams said the industry needs to do more training, start hvac schools, and that companies must offer more benefits to retain their employees.

“No one is willing to enter the industry,” said Weinstein. He feels there is a need for cooperation from the larger corporations to lend support and supplement employee wages to make the work more attractive.

Consolidation will also play a major role in the industry’s future. “I think it will be a positive effect,” said Abrams. It will sophisticate the companies and probably eliminate some of the smaller ones, but overall, it will be a good thing, he said.

To compete, companies will have to become better and this will work to benefit the consumer. Abrams doesn’t know if H.A. Sun will eventually consolidate, but he said that they are exploring all of their options.

Whether this contractor stays independent or not, the future seems bright for this company that started with only two employees.