Flexibility, Customer Satisfaction & Staff Appreciation – One HVAC Company’s 120-Year Success Story
There’s something to be said for a company that’s been in business for over a century.
The Welsch Furnace Company opened its doors in 1895, catering to the heating needs of the St. Louis community. One hundred and twenty years, and three generations later, Welsch Heating & Cooling is a world-class business, capable of solving all of their customers’ heating, air conditioning and ventilation needs. And they do it with an office and sales staff that can boast a combined 350 years of industry experience.
The Customer Must Always Come First
A combination of things kept the company going strong over the decades, even during the deepest, and longest-lasting economic downturn in Western history – the Great Depression of the 1930s. The ability to read market trends, the flexibility to operate to suit, and a cadre of competent team members who are passionate about the company, all combined to produce one thing – success.
But most important of all is taking care of the customer, company president George Welsch said.
“It’s my philosophy, and it was my dad’s. Do things right for the customer and success will come with it,” he said.
The Welsch Heating & Cooling mission statement – to be the very best heating and air conditioning company in the St. Louis area – was penned with this philosophy in mind, and is instilled in employees the moment they are hired.
“They are…the face of the company,” Welsch said. “From the people that answer the phones, to the service technician on the call, to the salesman that makes the presentation and then the installation crew, these are the people who are dealing with the public.”
Good Service Means Person-to-Person Relationships
Some examples of the company’s commitment to stellar service include having a live customer service rep take calls – all day, every day, no menus, no automated recordings.
Each Thanksgiving, all replacement customers receive a thank you card, signed personally by ‘Butch’, the name by which Welsch is affectionately known. That’s some 700 signatures, and 75 handwritten notes for customers he knows personally.
Employees also have the latitude to make decisions that will satisfy the customer, without having to consult management.
“We tell the employees, and mean it, that no one has ever been reprimanded, or fired…for taking care of a customer,” Welsch said. “If an individual is concerned the customer may be asking too much, he can check with his supervisor, and they will come up with some kind of a compromise…that satisfies the customer.”
Personal Skills Are As Important As Technical Skills
Developing excellent interpersonal skills, and the ability to deal effectively with customers at all levels, constitutes a vital element of Welsch training.
“Making the customer happy is just as important as being good at fixing furnaces and ac units,” said Welsch.
Rapid changes to industry equipment and technology of course mean that solid technical skills are also crucial. The Welsch team therefore works closely with manufacturers to deliver training courses for new pieces of equipment on the market.
Why The Welsch Staff Stick Around
Equally as important as what your staff will do for you, is what you will do for your staff. There is no substitute for letting people know they are appreciated, Welsch said.
“The reason it is such a great place to work is because of Butch. He makes us feel appreciated every day,” said Denise Webb, vice president and service manager. “We have 70 to 80 employees. He knows every single one by name,” she said. “And he never walks by someone without stopping to say hello and asking how they are.”
The annual Christmas staff party and company picnic are other ways the company thanks employees for their efforts, as are the personalized birthday cards ‘Butch’ prepares for staff members.
There aren’t email cards, tweeted cards, or Facebook cards, Welsch stressed. They are handwritten cards that include personal notes, outlining and thanking them for their unique contributions to the company. Similarly, the ‘Employee of the Month’ program recognizes an employee who has gone out of his or her way to do something special on behalf of a customer, or the company.
Attracting New Talent
With current generations being strongly encouraged to pursue college, attracting young people to the HVAC industry is proving to be a challenge. But the construction, service and replacement industries should be working collectively to promote the benefits to be derived from the trade, because a career where people such as technicians and sheet metal installers are capable of making over $100,000.00 per year shouldn’t be frowned upon Welsch said.
He attracts more young talent by keeping seniority clauses out of his contracts.
“The more experienced guy isn’t guaranteed a permanent position. It’s up for grabs for whoever does the best job,” Welsch said.
Giving Back To The Industry
Not many have given as much time, effort and dedication to the HVAC industry over the last fifty years as George Welsch has. By his own admission, when he started full time in 1963, Welsch was embarrassed to admit he was a furnace or heating guy. At the time, scam artists gave the industry a bad name, and Welsch vowed he would do his part to help make a difference. Over the years he has served on the boards of numerous industry associations both locally and nationally, working tirelessly to change this.
He also advocated for, and advised contractors during some of the greatest industry challenges. In the 70s the biggest fight was the proliferation of categories in the yellow pages under which contractors were being required to advertise. Welsch chaired a national committee that fought this, and through their efforts the number of required categories was reduced, enabling contractors to more economically promote their businesses.
In the mid-90s, when several contractors were handing over their businesses to consolidators who made empty promises of big payouts, Welsch, armed with knowledge from his own experience, spent two years traveling around the country to speak at ACCA-sanctioned functions, advising other contractors against accepting the deals.
“I’m sorry that as many guys lost as much money as they did,” Welsch said. “But I feel good…that what I was telling them was right, and over a period of time the consolidation thing went away.”
Giving Back To The Community
Giving back to the community is as important as giving back to the industry, and to this end, the company has for many years been dedicated to supporting sports, arts and the visually impaired in St. Louis.
For 50 years, the company has been a strong supporter of the Delta Gamma Center for Children with Visual Impairments. This organization, which is spearhead by the Delta Gamma Sorority Alumnae, provides education for children with visual handicaps.
The company regularly sponsors shows at The Muny, St. Louis’ opera theatre, the largest outdoor theatre in the country. Stages, a community theatre organization also benefits from consistent Welsch Heating & Cooling sponsorship, as did the LPGA Professional Golf Tournament during its six-year stint in St. Louis.
The Way Forward
Growth in the service and replacement business, while maintaining their position in the new construction market, will be the focus over the next five years.
“It’s important for us, because the homes we install units for then, now provide us customers for the service and replacement business,” Welsch said. “So we don’t want to be 100% service and replacement. We want a fine mix.”
From a personal standpoint, his goal is to see the company continue to prosper, and be a good place for people to work and support their families.
“I am blessed with several people…who I think share the same type of vision, so I am gradually turning over more responsibilities,” Welsch said. “[It] would make me the happiest to know that in 30, 40 years, Welsch Heating & Cooling…is still viable and has a reputation for the finest quality of any air conditioning [company] in this area.”
Given his absolute trust and faith in his staff, Welsch says he has every reason to believe that’s where the company will be, even though he won’t be around to see it.
The One Thing You Won’t Succeed Without
As the longest tenured Air Conditioning, Refrigerating and Heating News writer, Welsch has for the past 15 years shared numerous invaluable seeds of wisdom, and advice with his peers, and newcomers to the industry via his column; but the single most important piece of advice offers contractors is to be ready to for change.
“The one constant that is true in our business is that there is going to be change,” Welsch said. So to ensure any chance of success over an extended period of time, “be ready for change,” he said. “And don’t delay too long in making the change.”
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