You've all heard the story: most HVAC business owners have made their way up from the trenches, and are comfortable as technicians, but lack on the management and marketing side. There are days when I believe this is more of a cliché than a truism. Usually, it's on a day when I visit someone for an interview that I realize how utterly inept I would be as a small business owner. Some people are better off not owning a business. I'm one of them.

Recently, I spent half a day at perhaps the most intense gathering of HVAC entrepreneurs that I've ever had the occasion to witness - a MIX Group® meeting. MIX Group meetings are the domain of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) membership. If you belong to other organizations, you may have heard these gatherings referred to as peer or share groups.

Regardless of the moniker, the purpose is the same: to create a specialized "board of directors" environment in which companies of similar characteristics can assist each other in the enhancement of their respective businesses.

As an invited guest, I signed a confidentiality agreement, promising my firstborn should I spill the beans about any discussions from that particular meeting. Little did the MIX Group members realize that I'm actually willing to make that sacrifice at this point in my parental relationship, now that my firstborn recently entered her teenage years.

Here's some of what I learned at the meeting. HVAC business owners are like the people who live in Seattle and tell everyone who lives back East that it rains in Seattle all the time. Their hope is to discourage outsiders from infiltrating their lovely Northwest habitat. I've been there on numerous occasions, and I've never seen a drop of rain. Not once. (You want to see rain? Move to Cleveland.)

Similarly, I think that HVAC owners want everyone to believe that they are poor excuses for business managers, in order to keep people out of the trade. (It must be working, because there is a huge shortage of new talent coming into the biz. Maybe you folks better quit it, because we could use some new blood.)

I keep looking for the proverbial bad business people in our industry, but I can't find any. I know they're out there because I hear about them all the time. Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places. I didn't find any at the MIX Group meeting I attended in Cleveland.

A harder-working group of people you may never meet. I walked in at about 7:45 a.m. and found that the group had been at it since 7 a.m. A few of the hungrier ones met earlier for breakfast discussions. Their official day wouldn't end until 7 p.m. when the dinner bell rang. Of course, much of the dinner table discussions would be business-related - make that a day that ended about 10 p.m. The tightly scheduled three and one-half day agenda was jammed with reviews for the host company, and reports on various topics for the benefit of all present.

The insights that were being shared and the level of business acumen in the room were astounding. So, where are all the HVAC technicians turned owners that supposedly struggle with managing a business?

Some of them, no doubt, were in that same room.

The trials and tribulations of ownership don't change, nor do they go away. The struggle continues for all. The difference between the contractors participating in such a meeting and others you might see driving down the street is perhaps in the fact that they have put in to practice an age-old axiom - there is strength in numbers. Over a period of years, as this ACCA MIX Group has evolved and matured, it has enabled its members to become more successful business people.

If you aren't yet the business manager you someday hope to be, you may want to create a network of your peers to serve as your board of directors. In my estimation, it's a powerful force toward developing a successful company.

Mike Murphy is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 248-244-6446, 248-244-2905 (fax), or

Publication date: 10/24/2005