Customers can be a fickle lot. You do your best for them, but they move on in spite of your fair pricing and Johnny-on-the-spot response times. When I first ventured out on my own, I offered plumbing, heating and repairs. Although I had installed air conditioning equipment, I had no practical experience trouble-shooting or repairing AC systems.

I also wanted to expand my business and take on employees. Coming up through the mechanical trades, employers traditionally did not want employees who knew more than they did and were reluctant to reimburse you for advanced training. Rather than have a stuck-in-the-mud mindset, I deliberately set out to hire employees whose skill sets in specific areas exceeded mine. My long-term goal was to manage the business while cross-training employees so they would become versatile enough to handle all facets of PHVAC issues, with a keen emphasis on the service and repair side because that was my own background and where my passion lay. It’s no secret that is also where the highest profit margins can be found.  

Over the years, before striking out on my own, I witnessed customers come and go for a variety of reasons, but the one that really hit home was customers leaving because they wanted services my employers did not offer. They wanted the convenience of making one call to do it all. When the mechanical firm turned down the work, they sought out someone who could and then they were gone.

What are you really adept at doing mechanically? That was my jump-off starting point and customers who already knew my skills and me sought me out. As remains the case today, when you are a one-man shop, you can rely on other mechanical contractors who are also one-man shops to help when the work requires an extra set of hands. I was always eager to accept challenging projects and expand my skills by boldly upping my game. Case in point: A Sheraton Four Points Hotel remodel that included more than 120 bathrooms.

During the remodel, the owners sought bids for some rooftop units, one of which was a 1 million Btu/h direct-fire makeup air for the commercial kitchen cooking area. If you’ve never seen one, there is no heat exchanger and 100% of the heat is directly introduced into the ductwork with 100% of combustion air outdoor air. It was a bit like looking down through a jet engine. Air was balanced so that more than 100% of the makeup air was sucked out via the range hood’s exhaust, thereby eliminating danger from CO (carbon monoxide) fumes for the cooks. This eliminated the complaints, and employee turnover due to freezing while cooking. By this time, I had eight employees, but needed roughly half of them to keep up with existing customer needs. When crunch time arrived, as it always does on larger jobs, I was able to temporarily hire other firms’ employees with the understanding I was not going to attempt stealing them permanently. Mutual trust that had been established way back when I was a one-man shop.  

If you want to expand, seek out others who are strong where you are weak. Every one of our employees brought specific skills to bear, which made for a great team. One of the most gratifying aspects, for me, was watching each employee learn new skills, which earned them higher pay.

For the HVAC side, I truly lucked out when a man I had known for decades became available because his boss had missed meeting payroll once too often. Never, ever miss payroll! He taught me the heat pump, refrigeration and AC side of the trades, and I taught him the plumbing side (over many years). I knew he had the skill sets to enable me to grow the business. If you want to expand, seek out others who are strong where you are weak. Every one of our employees brought specific skills to bear, which made for a great team. One of the most gratifying aspects, for me, was watching each employee learn new skills, which earned them higher pay.

When a friend and sometime competitor one day decided he had had too much, he abruptly closed up his shop, which left several outstanding employees in limbo and we managed to cherry-pick two of the best to join our team. One constant worry when hiring more employees was ensuring there will be enough work for everyone. You’re now responsible to not just the employees, but also their families who all rely on you to ensure they get a full 40-hour paycheck. While that is a sometimes-daunting task, bear in mind, they, too, will have a loyal customer base that will follow them. You can help to ensure their loyal customers find their way to your business by publically announcing their new home via social media and the business section of your local newspaper.

I witnessed more than a few mechanical contractors who eventually failed because they only wanted to do the few things they wanted to do while turning away work that they deemed to be a pain in the butt. One was a refrigeration contractor who loudly proclaimed he was not going to keep up with the changes in refrigerants or technology. Bear in mind that was long ago when things began to slowly change, which became a frenzied pace within just a few more years, and he went bust as the changes in refrigerants and technology became too difficult for him to catch up.

Which brings me to one final point: Keep up with the rapid pace of changes in materials and technology. When it was obvious we would be transitioning to R-410a, all employees received advanced training and that also meant a heavy investment in new equipment. When the change didn’t arrive quickly enough to suit me, we began ordering R-410a equipment that was not yet being stocked by our local wholesalers. That was when we also switched mini-split brands when one manufacturer completely revised its entire line to R-410a. Better efficiencies for the same price-point as the manufacturers who decided to stick with R-22. Change with the times or become a relic of the past.  

Sometimes staying at the leading edge of technology was a painful experience that cost us money. When the first high-efficiency condensing furnaces became available, we jumped on board only to find the manufacturers were not yet ready for prime time! Premature heat exchanger failures reared their ugly heads. Manufacturers, for the most part, would not provide reimbursement for labor, but did provide improved heat exchangers. When condensing boilers arrived on the scene, I unfortunately ended up with a GlowCore boiler in my own home. Fortunately for our customers, we began experiencing problems shortly after its installation — chronic issues, which avoided me recommending their boilers to our customers. The supply house salesman who promoted the GlowCore enthusiastically promoted it as “the be all to end all” told me I was the only person he knew of that was having repeated issues. The Internet was just catching on, and it didn’t take me long to discover tons of other contractors were experiencing the same issues. Out with the GlowCore and back to a Burnham cast iron Revolution boiler!

Before too many years went by, boilers evolved into modulating/condensing models and back into the new, relatively speaking, technology, jumping in with both feet and eyes wide open with one (in a series of modcons) in my own home’s mechanical room. No regrets for having taken the leap and before too many years passed by, it was a rarity for us to install gas-fired boilers and furnaces that were in the 80% efficiency range. Then along came ECM modulating circulators and reliable low-watt zone valves, which we incorporated on every hydronic installation.

Lead, follow or get run over! The best way to keep up with emerging products and technology is attending industry trade shows.