When Jim Abrams went into business for himself as an HVAC contractor, he made many of the same mistakes he’s since spent his career helping other contractors avoid. Abrams, chief executive officer, president and chairman of Clockwork Home Services Inc., lays out his mistakes openly in many of the speeches he’s given over the years at Plumbers Success International meetings or Benjamin Franklin Plumbing conventions.
In 1981, Abrams left The Trane Co. to start Air Experts Inc., an HVAC service and replacement business in St. Louis. First off, he may not have picked the best time to go into business for himself. We might be all currently in the grip of a horrible economic downturn, but 1981 wasn’t all sunshine and roses either.
His rent was only $400 a month, but probably because it was in a badass part of St. Louis. Batteries stolen out of company trucks from the parking lot were nothing compared to the employee robbed at gunpoint or the time thieves sawed through the roof to get inside.
So, bad economy and bad location. Missing the deadline for your Yellow Pages ad? Priceless. Abrams opened the doors in June that year, but missed the deadline for Yellow Pages ads by a month. With the local book published in October that meant he’d have to wait until October of the following year to get his ad in.
Still Abrams didn’t count himself out, and by 1988 his contracting business was earning $12 million in annual business.
If he made mistakes on the way into contracting, however, he also made more mistakes on the way out. He sold Air Experts to a couple of his employees and held the note on the financing – but ultimately got left holding the bag when the employees drove the company into the ground. He eventually took over and resuscitated the business, but his biggest mark for educating contractors was still to come.
In 1990, Abrams went on to co-found Contractors Success Group, along with John Young, whom he had met when both worked at Trane. CSG was an affinity group for HVAC contractors. Eventually, both men went on to start Service Experts in 1996, what became one of a fast-growing group of companies hoping to consolidate much of the fragmented HVAC contracting industry into strong, nationally known companies.
Service Experts had the distinction of being the first such publically traded consolidator. When the company went public in 1996, Service Experts reported $60 million in sales. Just a year later, Service Experts had grown to $288 million in sales. Abrams stepped down from the company and it took a couple of years before he began his next venture.
In 1998, Abrams and Young, chief marketing officer, formed Clockwork (at the time known as VenVest). In 1999, they invited Mike Diamond, Mike Diamond Plumbing, Heating, Air Conditioning and Electrical in Los Angeles, to help them open Plumbers Success International, more or less a plumber’s version of the old CSG. Today, the company’s Success International Group includes PSI and three other groups for HVAC contractors, electricians and roofers.
Abrams told us the division may start three other groups next year for the following industries: painting; siding and windows; and garage doors. Currently, membership in the affinity groups is more than 1,100 contractors.
As the affinity groups progressed, Abrams started selling the first franchises in 2003 for plumbing and later HVAC and, finally, electrical. The company also acquired plumbing, heating and electrical businesses to run as its own franchises. Meanwhile, while all this was going on, Clockwork also started businesses to offer additional services to its affinity group members and franchisees. For example, BuyMax offers private label plumbing and heating equipment.