Minnick’s whole-house approach to providing energy solutions can surprise its customers. For example, when one of its techs arrives in a home, he’s just as likely to head upstairs as down. And, he’ll stay awhile.
“A customer will ask: ‘Why are you going in the attic? The other contractor we called went straight to the basement and was out of here in 20 minutes,’” says Rob Minnick, president and CEO of the Baltimore/Washington-area HVAC and hydronic heating firm. “Our sessions with a customer can last two to six hours. We do a walk-through of the house during our energy audits, which are longer sessions. With the shorter energy analysis, we’re not pulling out all the diagnostic equipment but we’re going through calculations on the laptop.
“We look at the house as a system. If the customer doesn’t see it that way, we walk away because the job will be nothing but service issues and callbacks down the road.”
Minnick’s first got involved in home performance in 2005 when most of its revenue was tied to new construction. The contractor has made its whole-house philosophy its focal point since 2011 as it was transitioning to its current business mix of 65% add-on/replacement, 25% residential service, 5% commercial service and 5% new construction.
“Both the market changed and we changed,” Vice President and Install Manager Randy Minnick says. “We stand for quality, and new construction didn’t want to pay for quality. We would not lower our standards to fit within the budget.
“Our change had something to do with the new construction market, too. The economy will have its effect, but you have to make money on the job and do it right in any economy.”
Change of Focus
Rob Minnick and his two brothers, Randy and Vice President and Service Manager Rusty, purchased the company in July 2012 from their father, Larry. Their grandfather, William Minnick, started the company in 1954 and ran it until 1982 when Larry took over.
Based in Laurel, Md., Minnick’s covers four counties in Maryland —Prince Georges, Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel — with four service trucks and four install vehicles. Each of the two sales reps drives a Toyota Prius.
The contractor employs 14 people in the field and five in the office. With expansion into plumbing and electrical services later this year, along with growth in its core businesses, Minnick’s plans to hire eight more people. The new services and growth will increase the contractor’s annual revenue by $2 million in 2013, Rob Minnick says.
Forced-air HVAC accounts for 60% of its sales. Hydronics comprises the other 40%, although these heating jobs frequently include a forced-air cooling component, Randy Minnick says.
Minnick’s used to work with another contractor when it started to install geothermal systems in the 1990s. Minnick’s has done geothermal on its own since 2000, and the installations have grown in popularity in recent years due to federal tax credits.
Solar thermal systems are eligible for the same tax credits, but the company has not seen solar installations increase as fast as geothermal projects. Minnick’s considers solar thermal and geothermal as parts of its hydronics business.
“The problem with solar thermal is that people don’t like the looks of the solar panels, and they usually are visible from the front of the house,” Randy Minnick says. “People also don’t realize how much maintenance solar thermal systems require. They don’t work at peak performance if customers don’t maintain and clean them.
“Another obstacle for solar thermal is that our natural gas is pretty cheap here. The combination of the low cost of natural gas consumption with high-efficiency equipment is holding back solar thermal.”
In May 2012, Minnick’s brought its insulation service in-house by creating a new division. The move made sense because insulation is one of the energy solutions the contractor offers along with air-duct leak sealing and HVAC system upgrades when it does energy audits.
Minnick’s had a truck outfitted to do the spray foam insulation and air-sealing work. Insulation accounts for about 10% of the company’s add on/replacement sales.
Issues that Minnick’s experienced in subcontracting the insulation work also played a part in creating the new division.
“Insulation contractors generally go into new homes. With the falloff in new construction, however, they are getting more work in existing homes these days,” Rob Minnick says. “But the insulation contractors are not training their staff. They’re blasting insulation in existing homes like they’re still working in new construction.”
Training and Operations
Minnick’s is serious about training its employees. Training takes place twice during the week plus every other Saturday morning.
All its techs are certified by North American Technician Excellence and the Building Performance Institute with many of the NATE and BPI classes taught in the contractor’s own training center, which opened in 2011. In other courses, apprentices receive training to become junior techs, junior techs to become senior techs and senior techs to become supervisors.
“Plus anything special that comes up, such as new equipment or any new issues we run across out in the field,” Rob Minnick says.
The training center is equipped with all the products the contractor installs: boilers, water heaters, furnaces, geothermal heat pumps, heat-recovery ventilators and energy-recovery ventilators, among other items. Manufacturers represented include Weil-McLain, Triangle Tube, Taco, Caleffi, Arzel, Buderus, Carrier, Viessmann and Grundfos.
“We don’t go to manufacturers for training anymore,” Randy Minnick says. “We ask them to bring it to our place. Manufacturers will send us what they want to train on, and we review it.
“We can teach what we want taught. The beauty is it’s in our place. We have the equipment here for hands-on training vs. just going through a bunch of slides.”
On its website, www.minnicks.com, the contractor lists its training center first in the “What Makes Us Best” area. Right behind it, Minnick’s puts its operations manual.
“It doesn’t matter which technicians we send to your building because they’ve all been trained on an industry one-of-a-kind operations manual,” the website states. “It’s the only way to ensure we don’t miss anything thanks to our thorough checklist approach.”
The contractor created its operations manual 2 1/2 years ago and updates it regularly to keep it fresh, Rob Minnick says.
“It tells everyone how to do their job 80% of the time; it’s what we default to,” he adds. “We have departmental meetings every week for installs, service, office, sales, accounting and management. We go through the manual chapter by chapter.”
Minnick’s developed its operations manual under the guidance of industry consultant and PM columnist Al Levi, who has worked with the contractor since October 2009. Levi was referred to Minnick’s by consultant and former PM columnist Ellen Rohr, whom the contractor brought on a month earlier to straighten out the company’s financial statements.
Minnick’s joined Rohr and Levi’s Power Partners program in February 2010, and it remains a member today. The consultants have helped design new office space and the training center as well as create salary ladders, training curriculum, and sales and marketing programs.
“They helped us to turn our company around,” Rob Minnick says. “We will work with them through 2013. Al has manuals for plumbing and electrical operations. We want to get all that material.”
Whole House vs. Boxes
Training and the operations manual helped the contractor get through a “rough” period as it transitioned to its whole-house philosophy, Rob Minnick says. The company had to bring in new people to replace more than half its employees.
“Some didn’t want to make the change, and they didn’t want to try the new approach,” he says. “It’s much easier with new people if they believe in our approach and are willing to learn. That’s sometimes easier than trying to train people in the trades who are just used to changing out boxes.”
Today, employees have bought into the message that the whole building is a system and HVAC is a component of the system, he says. They understand why the energy audits are so important.
“The visual check we do during an energy analysis will get 70% of what we need but won’t give us the whole picture,” Rob Minnick says. “That’s why we try to sell the energy audit on the pre-call to get the whole picture that we can share with the customer.
“What we’re doing with all the testing is to show customers how their system is working in existing conditions vs. what we can do. We are not just preaching at them.”
That being said, Minnick’s does practice what it preaches. The contractor belongs to the Green Business Bureau and follows green practices at its shop. These include installing low-flow toilets and sensor faucets; double-sided printing of office documents; recycling all paper and cardboard products; and using energy-saving lights and power strips.
The strongest way to get its whole-house message across to employees and customers, however, is through the words and actions of the company owners, says Rob Minnick, who is a LEED Green Associate.
“As owners, we really promote this concept,” he says. “Anyone who talks to one of us can hear how we believe the whole house is a system, and we live that belief.”
Perhaps the best evidence of how much the Minnick brothers are committed to the concept is their investment in Minnick U. Its website (www.minnicku.com) says: “Minnick U is a brick-and-mortar and online school that provides building performance training for HVAC professionals, weatherization technicians, contractors, homeowners and anyone else interested in learning about building science and the ‘whole-house approach’ to building performance. At our Maryland location, we provide hands-on training with an emphasis on real-world problems and solutions, and a determination to provide custom training paths for the wide variety of students we serve.”
While still in its formative stages, Minnick U does not restrict its training to Minnick’s employees or job candidates.
“We just feel there are people who want to learn a trade and can’t do it for whatever reason,” Randy Minnick explains. “We are trying to do our part to help. If these people want to come to work here after attending Minnick U that’s great, but that’s not our motivation. Our whole motivation is to get people to do the job right.”