Mix It Up: The Power of Industry Networking
Bob Champe’s career path in the HVAC industry probably sounds pretty familiar: He started out as a maintenance tech, moved to service, and then became a service manager.
“We just work hard,” he says of those who are employed in those positions. “The owners never shared numbers. I just did what I thought was the correct thing to do…it kept me busy.”
His employer had sons coming up in the business, and Champe admits he “saw the writing on the wall” regarding his future with the company. He started taking night classes at a community college and eventually pursued a business with his teacher.
It was around this time that Champe, now president of Shearer Heating, Cooling and Refrigeration in Washington, PA, added one of the most critical titles to his own resume: ACCA MIX® Group member.
“I got into ACCA and ended up being part of a new MIX Group,” he remembers. “We started out as three people – the group has grown to more than 10 at times – and the members have changed over time.”
But what wasn’t changed in the more than 20 years that Champe has participated in his ACCA MIX (Management Information Exchange) Group is the value he’s received from it. It’s a story familiar to many of those who have committed to this type of networking as a way to grow and support their businesses, as well as a way to give back to others in the industry.
A Diverse Mix
“In our industry, you’re basically a ‘briefcase’ or a ‘toolbox’ guy,” says Lon Johnson, owner of Pro-Tech Mechanical Services in Lansing, MI. “Some people came up through a family business; others went to school and earned a business degree. Whatever your background – influences what you can bring to the table, not just as an owner, but as a member of a peer group.”
Johnson’s exposure to an ACCA MIX Group occurred while attending his first ACCA conference. Up until that point, he admits he had no idea what they were.
“Basically, it’s a peer group, and a place where you can help each other on multiple levels,” he says. “Members are purposely selected so you’re not in competition with each other.”
That means that these groups are geographically diverse, often with members drawn from different parts of the country or regions. Additionally, businesses tend to be similar in scope and size, such as residential vs. commercial contracting, though it’s not unusual for some members to do both. New members are vetted, not just to ensure that their personalities will mesh with other group members, but also that what they bring to the table will be productive for both themselves and the group as a whole.
Everyone Has Their Own Strengths
“Everybody in our group is all good at something,” explains Bryan Naccarato, owner of Bryan’s Heating & Air Conditioning in Valley Center, KS. “But all of us all stink at something, too. That’s why were in these groups – so we can learn from each other.”
Naccarato has been a member of his ACCA MIX Group for five years and says that his experiences have been valuable. In the business world, networking is seen as a way to make connections and grow your business. ACCA MIX Groups certainly fulfill that role, but they also act as a deep resource for sharing general and industry-specific information.
“You start to talk marketing and my eyes roll to the back of my head,” he says. “My strength is the financial stuff, and that’s how I help our members. We have another member who is extremely big on processes – he sent us his procedures manual, telling us we were welcome to use the whole thing or use it to enhance our own. Our company’s procedures book is about a quarter-inch thick; his is about an inch. But that’s his area of expertise. That’s the type of help you get as a member.”
Johnson says that he’s found that, while the membership of his group is diverse, they all deal with the same issues and problems. “Our concerns are pretty universal: retaining and finding good employees, inventory issues, sales, and working with a sales force. We’re able to help each other work through those common concerns.”
ACCA Has You Covered For Networking
On a very basic level, ACCA MIX Groups are peer networking groups, where members share information confidentially and learn from each other. According to Matt Grizzard, ACCA’s director of membership and advocacy, there are currently more than 30 active ACCA MIX Groups comprised of members from throughout the country.
There’s good news if you aren’t currently an ACCA MIX Group member: there are spaces available for new members, as well as the opportunity to form brand-new groups. ACCA acts as an advocate in forming and assisting these groups. The membership requirements are simple: in addition to being invited after the vetting process, new members must be current ACCA members and they are responsible for any costs incurred in attending or traveling to ACCA MIX Group events.
“These groups typically meet a minimum of two times a year for about two to four days at a time,” Grizzard explains. “Usually one member hosts the meeting, and the other members use that time to learn and understand every bit of that business. They talk to the sales people, the call center, the techs – they are there to hear what the left hand and the right hand are saying, and if they find a disconnect, they’ll let you know there’s a problem.”
These types of visits can help both the host and the other members, says Champe.
“We had a meeting at our member’s business in Richmond, VA, and he had upgraded his building,” he says. “I went home and it got me to thinking: What I can do to improve my own building? After we left, I looked around and we threw away about $10,000 in obsolete supplies – nobody wanted it, you can’t sell it to anyone, but we were holding on to it. It wasn’t eating anything so it wasn’t costing us more money, but it was taking up room.”
Sometimes vendors and suppliers are invited to speak as part of the meeting, says Grizzard, but it’s not the kind of activity many are accustomed to.
“I’m very clear up front with them – this is not a sales presentation, you have to remove the sales pitch,” he says. “This is about going in and helping the members solve a problem. It’s an education opportunity.
Over time, the relationships in these groups tend to evolve to the point where help is available long past a scheduled ACCA MIX Group visit.
“These guys … I can just pick up the phone now and say, ‘Hey, I have a problem and I need your advice,” says Naccarato. “But it’s far more than business. These connections really do evolve into friendships. Our group really cares about each other. We want each other to succeed professionally, but also personally. We have a member in Beaumont, TX, and anytime we see bad weather moving in there, we all pick up the phone and make sure he’s okay.”
Members interested in exploring ACCA MIX Group membership are welcome to contact Grizzard at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (703) 824-8854 to get the process started. More information can also be found on the ACCA website at https://www.acca.org/members/mix.
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