ACCA’s Commercial Contractor of the Year Attributes Its Success To Its People
When Del-Air Mechanical Contractors CEO Dwane Lay came home from work one day in 1980 to tell his wife, Sherry, he was going to start his own business, his daughter Lori Sentell doesn’t recall the news going over that well. Sentell, who now serves as the company’s project team leader in the service division, says her dad was the family’s primary breadwinner and the father of three young children at the time.
“But my dad is an entrepreneur and likes to do things his own way,” says Sentell. “It has served him well.” Today the Knoxville, Tennessee-based HVAC contractor that started with one truck nearly 40 years ago has 150 full-time employees.
Sentell, who came to work with her family’s business in 2011, says it’s been an honor to be the second generation to help run Del-Air.
Good People Are the Secret to Success
Even though Tony Yanniello, director of operations, isn’t a member of the Lay family, he says he feels like he is. “It’s a family business,” he notes. “Lori and her brother work here. We treat everybody as if they are part of the family.”
And for Del-Air, that family atmosphere has been the secret sauce that has grown the company into a firm that grosses $30 million a year and serves a substantial commercial customer base in eastern Tennessee. Those customers range from healthcare systems and biotechnology firms to manufacturers and educational facilities. Two of Del-Air’s largest customers are the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
According to Yanniello, many of Del-Air’s employees have been with the company 20 to 35 years. “I think that’s what gives this company its stability,” he says. “We have great relationships with our employees.”
In a world where good tradespeople are not only hard to find, but harder to keep, how does Del-Air retain so many employees for so long? As Yanniello puts it, “We take care of the people who take care of us.” As an example, he points to an employee who recently suffered a stroke and had to take a year off from work. Del-Air continued to pay his salary for that year without interruption.
The company also offers a host of benefits to employees that are not exactly common in the world of HVAC contracting, including paid health insurance, paid vacation and holidays, tool and boot allowances, and company cell phones.
Why invest so much in employees? Yanniello offers a simple example: “We buy boots for our [employees], really nice boots that are comfortable and will serve them a long time.” He says if Del-Air didn’t provide that boot allowance, the average employee would buy the cheapest boots he or she could find rather than sacrifice money that could be spent on groceries or on children.
“We spend that extra money to show [employees] we’re thinking about their whole lives,” Yanniello explains.
Treating Customers as Friends
That positive work culture carries over to the relationships employees build with Del-Air’s customers. “If they have a positive attitude about the company, that’s going to be reflected when they work with our customers,” says Sentell.
Lay himself has set the standard for caring about customers. “One of the things that’s allowed the business to be as strong as it has is how Dwane has fostered the relationships with our customers,” Yanniello explains. Forty years after the company’s founding, Lay continues to take customers on lunch dates.
“We’ve had some of these customers for decades,” Yanniello adds. “They are friends, not just customers.” The University of Tennessee Medical Center, for example, has been a Del-Air customer for more than 20 years.
That kind of longevity in customer relationships isn’t unusual for Del-Air. “We put the customer first,” says Yanniello. “We’re going to make the situation right with the customer regardless of the financial impact [on us].”
Del-Air has also stood out in the commercial HVAC sector because of its interest in and commitment to complex installation and repair projects. “We’re very diverse [in the work that we do] and prefer more complicated work,” says Sentell. “We prefer challenges because it makes us stand out.”
“We have the capabilities and skill set to handle those projects,” adds Yanniello, noting that Del-Air’s industrial division handles a lot of projects for automotive plants and medical manufacturing facilities.
Training the Next Generation
Of course, Del-Air faces the same industry-wide challenge with finding a qualified labor force that other HVAC contractors do. “The workforce is dwindling in the trades,” says Yanniello. “We have to look at it differently now.”
He says these days employees interview companies more so than companies interview employees because competition for skilled tradespeople is so intense. “ You’re really pitching the company to prospects at this point,” Yanniello adds.
That’s one reason Del-Air puts so much emphasis on benefits, which are becoming even more important to employees than salaries. “”Even as recently as this month, we changed things to offer more paid time off,” says Yanniello. “We feel like it helps retain employees as well.”
However, Yanniello admits it’s not possible to fill all vacancies these days without being willing to train. “Technical ability is important, but getting people with a positive outlook on life and team players is more important,” he says, noting that Del-Air has a variety of apprenticeship programs to build qualified technicians out of employees who have aptitude but maybe don’t have the skillset yet. Del-Air recently hired and trained a prospect who had switched from a career in financial services to HVAC.
Sentell notes that Tennessee’s current governor is working on initiatives to bring training in the trades back to high school campuses, something she supports wholeheartedly. “I’m very passionate about getting kids interested in the trades,” she says, noting that Del-Air attends a couple of trade shows a year, one of them at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, and also recruits at local high schools.
Encouraging young people to enter the HVAC industry and working hard to retain existing employees is a big part of Del-Air’s strategy for long-term success. “We really do try to create a positive culture here,” says Sentell.
Yannellio agrees, noting, “Whenever we get a positive review from a customer, we make sure to share that with the team to give positive reinforcement to our people.”
Del-Air has also long been committed to sharing industry best practices with others in the field as well through its long-standing involvement with ACCA. Yannellio, for example, is a member of ACCA’s commercial advisory task force and is also a member of the organization’s longest standing MIX Group, The Big Picture.
For Sentell, who has worked in the HVAC industry her entire career, Del-Air is everything to her. “If anybody asks me what my dream job is,” she says, “I tell them I’m doing it.”
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