Recently, I visited with two businessmen who, at first glance, seemed to have little in common. One is an 81–year–old dairy farmer turned fuel oil delivery magnate. The other is 42 years old, a self-employed radiant heating guru. After talking to these interesting fellows, I was struck by this thought: Both are passionate, driven, courageous and have a burning love for their families and their work. Is that what makes them successful?

I talk to hundreds of contractors. Some are successful and happy. Some are desperate and miserable. What puts you in one camp or the other? It is not education. Really, all contractors have access to incredible information. Some pick it up and use it while others never find the time. And, it’s not market area. I have too many first-hand accounts from contractors in tiny, low-median income, it-can’t-work-here towns who are making money and having fun.

What is the intangible factor that makes a person succeed in spite of all obstacles? Let me share the stories of these two contractors …:Irving Levi — Oil Services Inc.

Irving Levi is the patriarch of the Levi family — owners and operators of Oil Services Inc. OSI is an independent fuel oil delivery company on Long Island, NY. You’ve met his sons Alan Ace Troubleshooter and Richie-the-man-who-can-fix-anything in Dan Holohan’s columns. But the shining star of the Levi family is Irving.

Irving’s story is fascinating! He was born on a farm in New York. He always imagined he would retire as a dairy farmer. Started a fuel oil delivery company with his brother-in-law Morton Clement to support his growing family. Before World War II they were delivering to over 700 customers in Long Island.

Both Morty and Irving served in World War II. As they left to enter the service, they worried about their customers. Who would help them stay warm while they were protecting our U.S. shores? (Wow!) They turned to a large fuel oil company and asked them to service their customers while they were gone.

After winning the war, Irving and Morty returned to Long Island to find that only 36 of their customers remained. They had gone from a 1.5 million gallon company to a 50,000 gallon company. Unfazed, they set out to win their customers back — working for a dairy by day, delivering oil all night. Converting messy coal-fired systems to oil-burning systems. Irving won his customers back by his burning love for them.

Once, in a nasty storm in 1947, the trucks got buried under feet of snow. Irving hand-delivered oil in 5–gallon cans. Anything to keep his customers warm. “That experience taught me to invest in the best trucks, the best equipment,” Irving told me.

Irving learned a tough lesson during the oil shortage of 1947–48. He had finally brought his business back to pre-war size. Then, on Jan. 11, 1948, his primary supplier cut him off from oil! Irving actually convinced his customers with full oil tanks to sell him back some of their oil — at retail — to provide oil to those who had none. “I learned to make sure I had several sources of oil at all times. Another time we had 200,000 gallons of our oil sold out from under us one night. I checked our supply in the evening before I left work and by the next morning we were 200,000 gallons low. This led to us setting up our own oil terminal. I never want to run out of oil again. It’s not fair to our customers.”

When I visited with Irving about the lessons he had learned from more than 60 years in business, he told me “Well, just yesterday, an inspector taught me a fine point about the city code that I was unaware of! I learn something every day.”

Irving told me story after story of going above and beyond the call of duty. His family was counting on him. His customers were counting on him. What else would an honorable man do? I asked Irving what he saw when he looked to the future. He replied, “Customer loyalty is not what it once was. The super-stores have taken over. Deregulation means more competition for customers. Some companies give away a free boiler to gain a fuel oil client! But, as I look to the future…,” his smile broadened and his eyes twinkled, “I see big opportunity!” Gee, it’s hard to whine about anything after I hear what Irving has overcome. His passion for what he does burns so bright, all obstacles disappear.

Jeffrey Young — Climatec Advanced Heating Technologies Ten years ago, Jeffrey Young was sent on a service call by the company he worked for. Some funny, water-in-the-floor system. When Jeffrey arrived, the floor was hot, almost too hot to walk on. After some troubleshooting, Jeffrey adjusted the temperature — and fell in love with radiant heat.

Jeffrey explained, “It was definitely a case of love at first sight. I loved the system — pumps, piping and cool controls. That was the kind of work I did best. And I loved walking on that warm floor. I knew I had found my niche.”

Jeffrey tried to get the company he worked for to explore the radiant heating market. “I had been with the company for 15 years. I was ready to explore this new market. But they were not really interested in branching out. After about a year and a half of mulling it over, and learning about radiant heat, I went out on my own.”

At first, Jeffrey did all kinds of HVAC work, just to stay busy. He didn’t realize how long it would take to develop enough radiant heat customers to keep the company going. He thought his best customers would follow him to his new company. But not many did. They felt more comfortable with an established firm.

“At that point, I figured I needed to learn radiant heat and how to run a business. I devoured information by Dan Holohan and Frank Blau,” said Jeffrey.

Holohan’s seminars helped him become the local wethead. After a few years, word got out: Climatec is the company to call for radiant heat. “I don’t do any yellow pages advertising. If someone is looking for radiant heat, they usually stop by the supply house. I have a terrific relationship with Steve Wieland of Grove Supply.” Steve and Jeffrey have worked together to nurture the growing demand for radiant floor heat. Steve stocks just what Jeffrey likes to use. It has been a win-win for both of them, and a good example of how the contractor-wholesaler relationship should work.

Frank, through his book, helped Jeffrey price his work. It was a bit frightening when Jeffrey learned what his operating costs were. “But I have learned to say ‘no’ to customers who want to haggle over the price. I can’t compromise myself or my family. After all, I never lose money on a job I don’t take! Just last week, I turned down a homeowner who was beating me up on my price. Then, I got two great jobs for the same time slot. It’s a pleasure working for customers who understand that it’s money well spent to have the job done right. Just starting out, I realized I would have to work harder to earn my customers’ trust. Now, it’s wonderful to get their referrals.”

It has not been an easy start for Jeffrey, but he is off and running. Some big decisions lie in the near future. Jeffrey said, “I love doing what I do and I am excited to grow this business. It is scary to think about taking on employees. Can I find someone to learn this trade, to my standards? It’s not going to be easy because I am such a perfectionist. I just can’t do anything less than my best work!”

Common Denominator: Irving Levi now oversees a fleet of more than 50 vehicles, a host of businesses and an upcoming third generation of Levis. But once upon a time it was just him and Morty. A fierce fire burns in him … it created the steel that built his organization and ignites those who will create its future. Jeffrey Young’s company is just beginning. But in 30 years, he will have one heck of a success story to share.

All the education and opportunity in the world is merely tinder for success. It takes a burning love. P.S. I stole the title Tales of Burning Love from a novel by Louise Erdrich. In spite of its name, the book has absolutely nothing to do with radiant heat.