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Big Ideas, Innovations, and Determination Make Trademasters Service Corp. Leaders In The Commercial Market

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Trademasters Service Company, headquartered in Lorton, Virginia has a total workforce of more than 130 people. However, owner and general manager Dave Kyle considers none of them to be his employees.

“Not a single person works for me. Beth (his wife) and I never say ‘employee,’ we say ‘co-worker. ‘We get to benefit from our co-workers’ success, not just business success. I’m so fortunate to have such a wonderful team,” he said.

Kyle has been the guiding force behind the development of Trademasters into a multi-million dollar enterprise. Growth has been especially rapid within the last decade. Since 2009, the company has grown from a staff of 30 to more than 130. During the same period, Trademasters has accomplished a year on year growth of more than 20%.

Established in 1990 and located in Lorton, Virginia, Trademasters provides HVAC, plumbing, energy efficiency auditing, and quality assurance services for consumer, commercial and government customers in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The company has operated and maintained more than 7 million square feet of premium office space in its market area. To accommodate its operations and rapid growth, Trademasters moved into its present 20,000 square foot facility in 2012.

These figures, while no doubt impressive, are not the main reason that Dave Kyle was named a finalist for the ACCA Commercial Contractor of the Year. Instead, the strategies Kyle implemented to accomplish these impressive accomplishments, along with his philosophy for running the company, are what truly distinguish Trademasters from many of its competitors.

Starting Small

Kyle has been employed in the skilled trades since age 17. After finishing high school, he completed a trade school program in Fairfax, Virginia, along with a four-year apprenticeship. Once he finished his apprenticeship, he became a licensed HVAC tradesman. As it turns out, a career in the skilled trades proved to be a perfect fit.

“If someone put me in an accounting cubicle I would not do well. Finding the skilled trades was like a miracle. Having found a skilled trade that I was good at made all the difference,” Kyle said

Along the way, he met his wife Beth, a graduate of Virginia Tech. while Dave racked up several years of experience as a skilled tradesman,  the couple began saving up so that Dave could realize his dream of being his own boss. When the couple launched Trademasters in 1990, the company provided heating, air conditioning and plumbing for consumer and business customers in Arlington County, Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Prince William County and Stafford County in Virginia, along with Montgomery County and Prince Georges County in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

“I worked for a good employer, but I just wanted to be on my own,” Kyle said.

Like many new businesses, Trademasters started small, with the couple doing nearly all the heavy lifting and wearing multiple hats. Dave Kyle especially put in long hours.

“In the beginning, Beth ran the business and I ran the calls. We started out with zero customers and no money, but a lot of love,” he said.

Soon after launching Trademasters, Kyle learned that 90% of all businesses fail before their tenth year. He also realized that if his company was going to buck the odds, he needed more training – not as a skilled tradesman, but in running a business. After being in business for two years, Kyle turned to ACCA.

“The business of the business was the hard part. I sought business training to open a business and stay in business,” he said.

As Trademasters became more established, Kyle was able to modify his schedule. He’s still actively involved in the business, however. His wife Beth now serves as vice president and Chief Financial Officer for Trademasters.

“I transitioned from working in the field all day and in the office late at night to (just) working in the office,” he said.

A Paradigm Shift

Like many businesses, Trademasters faced rough times during the Great Recession. But while many companies cut staff and retracted, Kyle adopted an aggressive growth strategy, with a goal of making Trademasters a $20 million company by 2020. He also sought to even out the cyclical nature of business many HVAC companies face.

Accomplishing that goal would require Kyle and Trademasters to adopt an entirely new strategy. About that time, Kyle discovered that many government agencies have a utilization goal for small businesses of 23%. In the HVAC industry, “small” means anything below $15 million n annual revenues. Kyle recognized government contracts as a potential launch pad for growth and made the move, investing in government provided training in bidding and winning contracts for federal and local government facilities.

When Trademasters began working with the federal government, most of its contracts were for mechanical and repair work, which the company performed itself. However, many of the contractors winning larger awards were prime contractors, who frequently performed little of the actual work. Making the transition to submitting bids as a prime contractor opened the door to much larger revenues. Operating as a self-performing contractor raised Trademasters’ performance ratings and gave the company a competitive advantage in bidding.

Trademasters also redesigned its business strategy to analyze risks, develop budgets, project revenue and create a large book of commercial maintenance agreements. The result of those efforts was a new profit center for Trademasters that supplements the company during off-peak periods while providing sufficient revenues to allow the company to invest in training.

“It’s (working with the government) completely different, but it does work,” he said.

A Highly Skilled Workforce

Every Trademasters technician must acquire and maintain NATE certification.

“We were an early adopter of NATE. We thought it was the best thing ever,” Kyle said.

However, most Trademasters co-workers hold multiple certifications. In fact, field technicians hold an average of six separate certifications. Most of the installation and service technicians also hold Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. journeyman licenses in HVACR, gas fitting, plumbing and electrical. In addition, HVAC techs have CFC universal certification, while Installation techs have CPR, AED and first aid certification.

Many Trademasters co-workers also hold IGSHPA certification with the corresponding reciprocal NATE specialties for Ground Source Heat Pump Loop Installation and Source Heat Pump Loop Installation, along with other relevant certifications, such as Combustion Performance and Carbon Monoxide safety certification, Residential HVAC System Performance and Air Balancing Certification from the National Comfort Institute. Other specialized certifications qualify Trademasters’ co-workers to service large facility operation and maintenance contracts requiring specific license and certifications, including the following:

  • DC 1st and 3rd class engineering licenses
  • DC HVAC, Electrical and Plumbing journeyman and master licenses
  • IFMA facilities management certification
  • UST (underground storage tank) certification
  • Retuning Training annual certification
  • LEED certification

Finally, project managers, project administrators, lead technicians and superintendants hold certifications in Construction Quality Management required by government entities like the US Army Corps of Engineers and various naval facilities.

Trademasters’ co-workers are generally on board with obtaining and maintaining certification, although during the 1990s, some seasoned co-workers expressed anxiety about passing a test after being away from a classroom for many years. Trademasters addresses these types of fears by providing training and paid fees for up to three rounds of testing, according to Kyle.

“Most apprentices are motivated to get NATE certification. People know that these credentials matter. They benefit them and they benefit us,” Kyle said.

Investing in People

Many companies invest significant sums into marketing and promotion. This is not the case with Trademasters, which spends less than 2% of its budget on marketing, and obtains most of its non-government contracting work through word of mouth. Instead, Trademasters invests that 2% in its people. In 2016, the company spent nearly $350,000 on training.

“I don’t understand why other contractors don’t see that (investing in staff training) as a marketing opportunity. I don’t think Google needs another dollar,” Kyle said.

Trademasters has provided NATE training and certification has been in-house since the ACCA/ACE merger. The company has also provided NCI‐certified Combustion Performance and Carbon Monoxide Safety testing every two years for technicians for more than 10 years. Finally, in 2016, Trademasters added in-house NCI HVAC System Performance certification. The training provided by Trademasters allows co-workers to establish themselves in real careers, according to Kyle.

“They can transition from a nametag job in a big box store to a skilled trade,” Kyle said.

Training America’s Heroes

Trademasters places special emphasis on Hands-on and apprenticeship training, but not only for new high school graduates, but also for veterans through a VA approved program. Eligible veterans can use their VA education benefits, including the Post-911 GI Bill to pay for the training. Veteran apprentices generally enter the program for specific time with pre-arranged employment. At the end of the training period, the veteran receives certification and a VA stipend, which declines as the veteran’s pay increases

Trademasters recruits veterans through hiring events at local military bases and post listings with organizations that assist service men and women transitioning into civilian life. Trademasters has also been certified by a Virginia program called Virginia Values Veterans.

Veterans are especially good candidates for jobs in the skilled trades because of their communication and mechanical skills as well as their understanding of procedure. However, they are often targeted by sham operations, according to Kyle.

“I want to protect veterans from predatory schools,” Kyle said. 

Attracting New Talent to HVAC – Make that IE3

At a time where millions of college graduates leave school thousands of dollars in debt, skilled trades represent an opportunity to obtain a career without putting racking up debt. However, skilled trades lack the prestige of jobs like attorney or physician. As a result, many contractors have difficulty hiring the personnel they need.

Kyle has been active in attempting to increase the appeal of careers in the skilled trades, especially in HVAC. One way to accomplish this goal is to rebrand the industry, replacing the label HVAC with IE3 — Indoor Environment and Entergy Efficiency. Not only does IE3 sound “cooler” than HVAC, it’s is a more accurate description of the essential function served by HVAC systems, according to Kyle.

“You have to look at the whole building, not just HVAC. It’s not just a piece of equipment; it’s the box it’s in. It’s the building. It’s (IE3) is on my trucks and on my business cards. IE3 appeals to younger people who want to make a difference, and to veterans,” Kyle said.

Younger people are also needed to build upon advances in technology and equipment that reduce the carbon footprint of buildings – and especially HVAC systems, according to Kyle.

“We need highly skilled people to make buildings work more energy efficiently. If the developing world starts to live like us, we’re going to have a lot of issues,” Kyle said.

The Employer of Choice

With its extensive training, certification and apprenticeship programs, along with its collaborative environment, Trademasters has little difficulty recruiting and retaining its skilled workforce. Nonetheless, Kyle is intent on maintaining the company’s collaborative environment.

“I strive to make things good for my co-workers, good for my clients and good for my business. Otherwise, we don’t do it. We work hard to be the employer of choice,” Kyle said.

Audrey Henderson

Posted In: Management, Money

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