Al Levi

Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps HVAC and plumbing contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." He 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 Levi 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.


Dear Al,

My partner and I started out in business together 25 years ago. We both worked for the old owner of the company we own today. It was difficult but together we scraped together every dime we had and took out second mortgages on our homes to be able to buy the old owner out.

We struggled at first like I'm sure most first-time owners do but over time we started to grow. We hired people to replace ourselves in the field and a manager to oversee things and help us. Through the early struggles my partner and I became very good friends. It's only natural I guess since we spent more time back then together than we did with our own families. Truth be told, there was always a very strong difference of opinion on what we envisioned the company should become.

Frankly, my partner is too hands on. He breaks all the rules we create and tries to operate our big business just like we did 25 years ago. I've spent a lot of time and effort to put good people and training in place, but every time there's a mistake my partner comes in out of the blue and viciously attacks the people who work for us. I believe in empowering people and backing off and he believes in micromanaging everyone and everything. It's caused some very heated outbursts that I'm afraid the staff is becoming nervous about. The rumors are flying about that the top people have their resumes out because they've had enough of being whipsawed between the two of us.

What can I do?

Partners in Purgatory

Dear Partners in Purgatory,

Partnerships in business are no different then partnerships with spouses. They demand mutual respect, a common vision, and good communication.

Like dating, partners tend to start out young, full of energy, and with mutual hopes and desires. The trouble often comes when those original goals are reached and now the partners in the relationship have differing goals or no defined goals at all for the next stage. Some partners are unwilling to change and some change like the direction of the wind. Either way, it's bad.

My advice to you and your partner is work hard to save your marriage, but prepare for a divorce. The truth is a good divorce is better than a bad marriage for all concerned. The fighting that's bound to escalate will eventually prove to be poison for the both of you, your employees, and even your customers who will experience a decline in the service they receive.

Be proactive and create a buy-sell agreement that addresses at least the three "D's":

1. Death: Someone dies. Do you want to be partners with the spouse?

2. Disability: Someone becomes disabled. Bad for them and bad for you

3. Divorce: You can't go on together

If things can become good again, keep this agreement locked away from prying eyes. If things go bad, have an open and honest conversation about objective things that are causing friction. Objective things are not your opinion but items that can be measured like tracking statistics, digital photos, and more. Accusations are just like adding fuel to a fire.

Ultimately, partners must have their business and personal goals in synch. If they're not, a third party advisor can be very helpful. If negotiation fails, it's time to trigger your options on how to exit the relationship and execute the buy-sell.

With a good plan and quick action you and your partner will soon be out of purgatory and living in a more heavenly environment.

Al Levi


Dear Al,

My service manager always promises to get things done but he rarely does. I've had enough of broken promises because when things don't get done by him they get dumped on my desk and I have to stop what I'm doing and jump in. I get very upset and lash out at him. He apologizes and promises to do better next time but nothing seems to change.

What should I do?

Broken Promises

Dear Broken Promises,

I understand your frustrations. But I need to ask, "Are you causing this to happen?"

For example, do you unrealistically overload your service manager with a ton of projects with no realistic deadlines and no clear set of priorities? This sets him up to fail you. You get some satisfaction by riding in to the rescue and by hollering at him then because it makes you feel indispensable when he lets you down. Could that be why he's learned to apologize rather than argue with you?

Are you a perfectionist? Demanding perfect instead of pursuing perfection is a recipe for disaster. It causes disappointment for you because it trains your staff that there's no real benefit in getting a project done because there's no pleasing you. They prefer to sit back since they know you'll step in and take over what they've done and do it your way since the only ideas you like are the ones that come from you. The bad news is this behavior drains their enthusiasm to do the work.

Are you an enabler? Sometimes it's easier to see how we do this with our kids than with our employees. They make a mistake and we complain about it but we secretly delight in our own ability to rush to the rescue. It keeps us feeling important and indispensable. It also trains them it's expected they're going to fail.

Take this pragmatic advice and the action steps needed to break this bad pattern. Sit down with your service manager and agree on using a better way to delegate projects that gives him a greater chance for success and allows you to hand off projects in a better way.

Here's a short excerpt from my Leadership Power! Plan that deals with how to delegate more effectively:

"When delegating a task or project, follow the process:

1. Decide what you want to change.

2. Devise a plan and gather the resources.

3. Pick a measurement that would indicate you were successful.

4. Coaching session on a continual process to allow mid-course correction.

5. Reward if the goal is reached.

Or, another way to look at it:

Master the delegation of projects based on the following written process and then have them sign off on it:

  • Here's what needs to get done.

  • Here's why it needs to get done.

  • Here's what you have available to get it done.

  • The priority assigned to it.

  • When it needs to be done by.

  • The meeting schedule for checking on the progress being made.

  • What rewards and consequences there are."

    Begin with these changes and I know you'll find a lot less headaches and a whole lot more unbroken promises

    Al Levi

    Publication date: 09/04/2006