Stephen and Brian Darby are closing the education gap between contractors and new technology.
The Darby Brothers, Stephen (left) and Brian. (Photo credit: Cathy Salamone/Direct Digital Photography)
Here’s a fail-safe topic when making conversation with anyone in the plumbing and heating business: Mention the fact that you’re finding it harder and harder to keep up with the latest and greatest products. That just when you think you’ve mastered one product, somebody laughs and says that’s so 1995. That it’s not just the products, it’s how they all fit together into one system. That what’s maybe even harder than all that is dealing with all these questions from end-users that never paid you any attention beforehand. Used to be you got in, you got out. What’s happened?
Wales-Darby Inc., our Rep of the Year, has been telling everybody up and down the distribution chain what’s been happening with new products and systems through a long-time commitment to extensive training.
“There’s a gap between what the manufacturers continue to bring to market, particularly in terms of solar, geothermal and high-efficiency equipment, and what the public is aware of,” says Brian Darby, president, who works out of the company’s headquarters in Islandia, N.Y. “The trade represents that gap, but the only way to close it up is with education.”
The Energy Learning Center, opened last October inside the New York facility, may be the most glamorous way we’ve seen to close this gap. While we’d seen pictures, nothing quite prepared us to walk into this expansive space that’s lighted like a theater production. Perhaps less plush but eminently practical, the Wales-Darby Learning Center inside the firm’s Warren, N.J., office gets more than 1,600 contractors each year to sit down for training.
“One of our brands is training and I think we do it second to none,” says Stephen M. Darby, chief executive officer and chief financial officer, who works out of the New Jersey office. “The customer is highly informed these days. It might not be the best information, but it’s enough to get started asking questions. We need the contractor to speak intelligently to the end-user and be able to confidently say, ‘I recommend this because … ’ and be able to list the right benefits.”
Stephen told us he believes his company is the only rep agency that employs two full-time instructors. Traditional classroom training is certainly a big part of what made us pick Wales-Darby as our Rep of the Year, but the company also offers other services designed to help the contractor and engineer. There’s also a new idea, the Energy Pro, that we got a sneak peek at during our visit in April, designed to even help out the homeowner while all along promoting the trade and knowing that the agency makes no money until they make a sale through wholesale distribution.
The Learning Center inside the firm’s Warren, N.J., office gets more than 1,600 contractors each year to sit down for training. (Photo credit: Michael Kitakis/newmedia inc.)
Much of what we’re highlighting in this issue can be traced back to the late 1980s when the Darby brothers decided to emphasize more technical, higher-end plumbing and heating lines.
“There was talk at the time that the value of a rep would no longer fit into the chain of wholesale distribution,” Brian adds. “We knew we had to specialize only in those lines of products that we could add value to and not just be driven by price. Other than that, we’d just be chasing our tails.”
While contractor training was one of the company’s “MOs,” as he puts it, all along, around this time the Darbys also found there to be an even bigger need-to-know for the trade to keep up with the pace of product technology.
The company opened its first training facility at its New York offices in 1991 and, for a time, made due with rented hotel meeting rooms for its New Jersey market. By 1999, however, Wales-Darby added some New Jersey office space of its own and opened its first officially named Wales-Darby Learning Center.
“The culture of our company is to create your own path,” Stephen adds. “If you’re heading in the right direction, then we’ll try our best to support your efforts and keep you going on the right path.” Gerry Wagner, training manager at the New Jersey location, is a prime example of that credo.
Wagner has worked at Wales-Darby for 16 years, but has been leading the educational effort full-time since 2004 when the company constructed the current 1,200-square-foot New Jersey Learning Center.
When we met Wagner during our visit, he didn’t give us an interview as much as he gave us a well-thought-out, professional Power Point presentation of what he offers contractors. More importantly, it didn’t take us long to know that this was the right guy for the job. Much of the training is done at 6 p.m. and can last a few hours. That’s a long night on top of a long day for our readers. But Wagner knows how to entertain as well as inform. We figured if we were a contractor, we might be tired during his class, but we’d never be bored.
Last year, Wagner says the company had 72 training dates with more than 1,600 contractors attending classes in a building that is itself a classroom. The two-story building is radiantly heated and a manifold for the room is displayed behind glass. The controls for the entire building are also on display.
“We’re promoting all the time,” Wagner says, with direct mail, e-mail and fax blasts, a Web site and displays at city counters, “but we are now starting to get people to contact us and wanting to know when we’re coming out with our next schedule of classes.”
Topics? Take your pick. We visited the Web site while writing this article last month and found the following NATE-certified events for May and June for the New Jersey location as part of its Spring Training curriculum:
- Hydronic Heating System Wiring - May 5
- Advanced Radiant Floor Heat Controls - May 12
- Alternative Uses for PEX Tubing - June 9
- High-Efficiency Domestic: Residential and Commercial Water Heating - June 23
In addition, Wagner held special certification training required to buy and install PEX plumbing and CSST gas piping systems with two dates for each during May and June.
He was also in the middle of his “Keepin’ It Cool” Tour ’09, with classes promoting ductless air-conditioning units and high-velocity air-conditioning systems. The tour is sponsored in conjunction with Wales-Darby’s distributor partners with, in this case, classes scheduled at various New Jersey supply houses every Thursday night from March to this month.
Finally, Wagner was also planning to put some training on DVDs, present classes on live webcasts and scheduling outside classes in the Lower Hudson Valley for this fall, an underserved market for past Wales-Darby training.
The Darbys know there's an increasing need-to-know for the trade to keep up with the pace of product technology.
The Energy Learning Center
We also met Anthony Tosi, training manager at Wales-Darby Inc.’s New York office. A quick visit back to the Web site showed that last month New Yorkers could attend a class on basic hydronics as well take part in Uponor Days, a two-day event featuring radiant and plumbing training, and Fujitsu Day, a day-long seminar on the company’s mini split air-conditioning line. Finally, Wales-Darby held an open house (a monthly event, by the way) for the Energy Learning Center.
We don’t mean to shortchange Tosi, but this is the point where we have to emphasize the “classroom,” which is like calling a cruise ship just another boat.
The 3,000-square-foot Energy Learning Center opened last October and included lectures and seminars by such well-known industry veterans as hydronics writer Dan Holohan and Taco training manager John Barba. The day also included a video presentation by Richard Trethewey of “This Old House” fame, and a taped greeting by actor and noted green advocate Ed Begley Jr. (To view what Begley said, we’ve posted the video below.)
The room is primarily meant to showcase high-end energy-efficient and environmentally friendly heating and cooling equipment in “The Boiler Room” display. Another part of the room, “The Living Module,” affectionately called “the stick house,” shows what’s normally hidden behind the walls and ceilings, and includes heating and even PEX-based fire protection.
“Much of the equipment displayed in the Energy Learning Center was not typically installed in this country 20 years ago,” Brian explains. “Some of the controls on display are practically brand-new.”
It’s a far cry from the training room that was in the same space, which had a traditional HVAC system with rooftop air-conditioning.
“It was noisy and uncomfortable,” Brian adds, “and we figured if we were going to walk the walk, we were going to have to talk the talk.”
Brian says it’s nothing short of amazing what’s happened since the grand opening. Training has always helped “pull through” sales for the rep agency with contractors and engineers, but now architects and builders are bringing in the homeowner and building owner to better understand the new ways of heating and cooling.
In fact, the company is undergoing a change in identity in no small part due to the Energy Learning Center. No less than the company’s logo has changed in just the short amount of time that room opened, incorporating a new catch phrase, “Systems That Power Energy Solutions.”
During lunch our first day, Brian called in Joe Lapiana, vice president/business development, LKGS Marketing Inc., also in Islandia, N.Y.
“Training is great, but we need to build a community out of the Energy Learning Center,” Lapiana says. “It should be a complete resource - a place to take customers to so they can see the latest heating and cooling technology.”
The new logo should be introduced this month and the company will follow through with plans for a new dedicated Web site. Certainly training will continue at the site with attendees becoming full-fledged “Energy Pros.” As a result of this new status, Brian envisions an entire business development campaign for contractors and engineers with a referral program, financing options, marketing assistance and other ways the trade can capitalize on the facility.
“We’re going to create our own energy out of the Energy Learning Center,” Brian adds. While no one thought about it at the time, the company essentially traded spaces with another company in the same office park in 2002. That new move put them nearby a well-traveled expressway, making it even more convenient for consumers to tour the room.
“It’s common now to walk into a kitchen and bath showroom,” Brian explains. “This is a chance to do the same with heating and cooling products and systems that are just as important as a great sink or bathtub. It all comes back to what we’ve been doing to add value to the products we sell through wholesale distribution.”
Gerry Wagner, training manager at the Wales-Darby Learning Center in New Jersey. (Photo credit: Steve Smith/Plumbing & Mechanical)
Other Trade Services
While we focused our main article on contractor training, Wales-Darby Inc. has dedicated other ways to reach out to other members of the trade.
Contractor Development Team: Both offices have staff to help shepherd residential and commercial projects along from initial consultation to designing systems, and from lining up distribution and delivery of product to startup and service.
Applications Engineering Department: Again, both offices include a complete in-house engineering staff, which routinely review plans and specs, make energy-saving recommendations and offer complete CAD design.
Much of the department’s work was started by John C. Knowles, vice president/application engineering. “John does what I like to call ‘setting the table,’” Brian says. “His department does all the detailed engineering from CAD to integrating our products into an engineered system. That makes us a single source for information, service, design and application.”
Although we’ve focused on contractor training, Knowles routinely offers training to engineers to help them earn their required professional development hours.
Building Development: Here’s a program more at home in New Jersey, where there’s more room for residential development. The company held its own Builder Trade Show for the first time in 2007. More than 250 builders and installers attended. The New Jersey crew has since taken part in other regional builder shows. Just last April, for example, the company exhibited at the Atlantic Builder Convention.
Richard Darby graduated college with an engineering degree in 1941, just in time to join the Navy where he served until the end of WWII. He worked for various plumbing and heating companies, and ultimately started the wholesale division of Wales & Ward Inc. with just one line, Modine Manufacturing Co., in 1964.
In 1974, Darby, by now in his 50s, started Wales-Darby with partner Victor Wales. Wales left a few years later, but the company name remains to this day.
“One of the company’s first logos,” Brian Darby remembers, “played off the ‘W’ and ‘D’ and stood for ‘Wholesale Distribution.’”
Stephen Darby joined the business practically from the start and built the New Jersey operation - again starting with just one line in New Jersey, Taco - while his father ran the New York office.
“I remember counting valves in the morning in blue jeans,” Stephen told us, “and in the afternoon, I put a suit on and sold what we had.”
In 1980, Brian joined the company and ran the New York office. Richard left his two sons in charge of the company when he turned 75. He passed away last September at the age of 88.
The company currently employs 67 people with 41 employees in New York and 26 others in New Jersey. About 60 percent of the company’s product sales is for residential use and 40 percent for commercial. Commercial is growing and expected to make up a 50/50 split eventually.
Despite the economy, the Darbys say business is good. “There’s always a constant level of sustainable business,” Stephen says. “The HVAC business is a vital business and it’s a part of people’s quality of life that no one is going to give up. You might choose not buy a suit or go out to dinner, but you’re not going to do without heat and hot water.”
The company has seen increasing interest in solar training classes and other demands to understand “greener” products.
“This business is evolutionary, not revolutionary,” Stephen adds. So much of the green products entering the market today remind him of the radiant products 10 to 15 years ago. Here you had a tested heating method in Europe and Scandinavia, but viewed as quirky at best in America.
“Gradually, however, radiant became a viable option to the point that for some contractors, they can build a business doing nothing but installing radiant systems,” he says.
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