Strive For Quality, Not Low Price

[Editor’s note:The following letter is in response to the Feb. 4 letter titled “Uneven Playing Field.”]

Ted Thompson brings out some good points.

Wages are still too low in this trade, from entry level on up to super-tech. If wages were up where they should be, I would never have considered starting my own company. Now, I’m yet another “one-man shop” diluting the hvac business in my area. I work a lot more hours to make a little bit more money. It’s hardly worth it.

One problem with this trade is that there are no standards that all companies have to adhere to.

As John Hall recently pointed out in one of his articles [“Do You Need A License To Be An Hvacr Contractor?” Jan. 24], there is no license required to practice this trade in most states!

I was stunned to find that out when I got my contractor’s license two-and-a-half years ago. I don’t want to invite government intervention, but is that what we need to standardize our industry and give the public a perception of an hvac professional?

The biggest problem within our industry is the low bidder. And this is roughly half or more of all companies in our industry, both large and small! In fact, it is more a large-company problem because the large companies have much greater influence on the general public and the building contractors. The lowballers drop their prices way down in order to attract the multitudes that want only low price and then send out a crew of flunkies to butcher the system in.

Last week a fellow “high-end” contractor told me he was talking to one of the “bottom feeders” in our area. The subject was installing high-quality duct systems. The bottom feeder blurted out, “The builders don’t pay us enough to put in good systems!”

You see the mentality now, don’t you? Instead of raising rates and doing only high-quality work, they are lowering the standard to meet the price.

I know this was a Feedback topic from a year or two ago, but it needs to be revisited. And something needs to be done about it. This is the root cause of all our industry’s problems. We can’t attract or retain people because wages are low. Wages are low because the hourly rates are low. Wages are low because construction bids are low, and when guys like me come along and submit a fair bid for a very high-quality job, people grab their hearts and do the Redd Foxx “Sanford & Son” routine: “I’m coming to see you, ‘Lizabeth!”

The low bidders operate on high volume, low profit, low quality. They employ people with no skills and then send them out to work with no training! The “lead man” on the job might have 2 to 3 years of experience as a flex jockey, but he was never trained, so the circle of poor workman-ship never gets broken. In time, the “lead man” (if he has any brains) becomes disgruntled at making less than $10 an hour and leaves the trainee to “train” the new guy.

I saw an hvac truck the other day with a sign on the back: “Installers & service techs wanted.” That’s lumping us in with the fast food industry! Their signs are shouting to the hundreds of motorists that see them every day: “Hey! We work in a lousy trade and we can’t keep anyone around very long!” Another local lowballer company has an ad for installers in the Sunday paper classifieds almost perpetually!

The developers and builders only want low price; quality is not an issue with most of them. As long as we have lowballers, the hvac image will be kept down. As long as we have the lowballers who are willing and eager to work for almost nothing (literally!), then we will not be able to raise rates and justify it.

The final paragraph in Ted’s letter was very poignant. I also think about what else I could do — outside of this trade — to make a living. I have a couple of hobbies that, with some hard work, could be turned into moneymakers. Anyone need your baskets unwoven?

Doug Fergus, CEO, Sunshine & Lollipops HVAC, A Division of Doug Fergus Heating and Air Conditioning, Ashland, OR

Publication date: 03/18/2002