Evolution: A Look Back To The Future
One of my longtime business partners recently celebrated his retirement after 40 years in the business. Since then I have spent some time thinking about the evolution of our business and trying to imagine the next 10 to 15 years until I plan to stop going into the office.
As I look back over the past 39 years I have been working in HVAC, I see similarities and differences in many firms, small to medium residential sales and service contractors, that have tried to succeed in the sometimes unpredictable world of contracting.
We, like many others, started out very small, working out of our homes and trucks in the early 1970s doing residential service and replacement. I was working my way through college, and over those 4 years, we began doing some new construction and grew with another employee and some subcontractors for sheet metal labor. Neither my partner nor I had any business experience (we didn’t know what we didn’t know) or the training to run a contracting company, yet we survived and grew through the 1980s.
In 1988, we joined ACCA and learned from other contractors that we could expect more from our manufacturing partners for training and we greatly benefitted from the networking opportunities from our local ACCA chapter.
In the early 1990s we noted that new construction was consuming an inordinate amount of our time and capital for the returns we were getting. The suburban county, in which we were working, in between Baltimore, MD and Washington, D.C., had grown so much that we felt there was adequate service and replacement work to fuel the growth that we were comfortable with managing. So by merely tightening up our credit policies to builders we weaned ourselves off new construction and began to focus on capturing and retaining residential
customers. While our work force shrunk at first, our cash flow and profitability immediately improved. Through ideas picked up through ACCA, we implemented service contracts and fl at rate pricing and consider them both cornerstones of our business.
Networking has been another cornerstone to our survival and success. Learning from others in this industry, and outside of the industry, have helped us continue to grow and succeed.
In the late 1990s, I was asked to help on a task force for contractor certification by ACCA. I was also fortunate enough to be asked to represent our local chapter on the National Board. That began an experience that has been like joining another group, forging relationships with some of the best contractors in the nation, and gaining insights into the contracting business through meetings with manufacturers and distributors that would have never been possible had I not been willing to get involved.
As I look back at the development of our company, I have come to appreciate how interrelated my involvement outside my business has been to the evolution of the company. Evolution is a good term to describe the growth of our company for there certainly appears to be Darwinism at work. When we have been slow to adapt to changes in the market, there are some subtle, and not so subtle, forces that have steered us in a direction to ensure our survival and growth. Even though I have been doing this for 39 years, I still need to remember that these changes are still happening — and I would like to think that it’s not so much that I am getting slower, but that it is that change is happening faster.
My company started to get involved in Home Performance Contracting five years ago, and looking back, I realize that we have been too slow about implementing – those subtle forces are becoming not so subtle. While many contractors I talk with and observe are slow to see the value, I am embarrassed to say it has helped us identify a lot of the mistakes we were making in the 70s and 80s. As more of my employees are trained in the concepts we are seeing more satisfaction from our customers and our employees — comfortable with the knowledge that not only does it look good, but it works!
I think everyone should take some time to take a look back at their business, so their future is stronger. Don’t wait; start now, even if you are a new or young company. Learn from your past and get involved and network with your peers, so that together the industry grows stronger.
As for me, I look forward to the next 10 to 15 years that I hope to be working in HVAC – I still like going to work every day and there are plenty of opportunities to grow — professionally and personally.
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