Navigating Change: Tips for Surviving and Thriving
Wade Helms, president of Edd Helms Air Conditioning & Electric in Miami, can’t do anything about the severe storms that o¬ften batter south Florida. However, every May, he revisits his firm’s hurricane plan to better prepare for those stormy situations.
“Our hurricane plan is designed to allow the business to continue providing service to our customers, so it includes communicating with them in advance and sometimes pre-positioning resources or people,” explains Helms, whose customer base is 80 percent commercial. Updating the plan annually, he finds, is crucial for gathering current contact information for customers, as well as employees.
When a storm hits, Helms relies on a five-person hurricane team to communicate with the firm’s 125 employees via text, e-mail, and phone, to identify any problems and provide assistance. “Our hand first goes out to our employees. Then, once we make sure employees’ property and families are protected, we concentrate on supplying our service 24/7. For example, where is gas available?
Which supply houses are open for business?” he says. “The goal is to be storm ready, so there are no surprises.”
While devastating storms hit Florida several times a year, New Jersey had to contend with a once-in-a-century storm in 2012. Scott Nelson had about three days’ warning—enough to sandbag his building and cover up its windows—before Super Storm Sandy crashed down on Allenhurst, NJ, where he is president of Oceanside Services, Inc.
“The storm turned our business upside down and severely strained our resources,” Nelson remembers. “For the first three months, we had people working six and seven days a week, because so many of our customers were impacted. We had to strategically schedule time off so we didn’t burn anybody out.”
What Can You Do?
In part, Nelson credits his training as a community firefighter and incident commander for helping him make the best of a crisis situation. “The training has truly made me a much better businessman, because it helped me learn to think on my feet and make changes faster as a situation develops,” says Nelson, who also strapped on a tool belt to do service calls after the storm.
As the weather, the marketplace, the industry, and the workforce changes, here’s what you can do to cope:
Address the areas of change open to your influence. In the busy aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, Nelson’s 21 employees all pitched in to do heating and air conditioning-related work, no matter what their usual responsibilities. That reflects his approach to a significant concern for HVAC businesses: the shrinking skilled labor market.
“We’re careful about who we hire,” Nelson notes. “We tend to hire on attitude and then teach the aptitude.”
Likewise, Tim Cropp has revised his firm’s hiring practices to focus more on attitude—even if it means waiting a while to fill a position. “At one point we were just bringing on anybody and trying to teach them, but we found they didn’t necessarily have the right mindset or work ethic,” says Cropp, president of CroppMetcalfe Services in Fairfax, Va. “Now we focus on hiring the right people, even when in desperate need.”
Everyone new to the company attends CroppMetcalfe University — a program introducing the company’s core values and mission, coupled with a state-approved apprenticeship school for aspiring technical staff. “When we weren’t getting enough qualified people applying, we put together our own training program, which also covers the soft skills and mindset needed for high-quality customer service,” says Cropp.
The special program has helped the company retain its 314 employees for longer periods, as has stepped-up communications. “I thought we had good communications—until we did an internal survey and found that, by far, the biggest complaint from employees was they did not know what was going on,” Cropp recalls. In response, the company installed monitors in the break rooms to provide updates on contests, sales data, customer compliments, and upcoming trainings.
CroppMetcalfe also launched an intranet, through which managers share relevant articles, information on upcoming promotions, and examples of how employees have
demonstrated a corporate core value. Without such mission-oriented messages, “It becomes a major disruption to have people wondering, interpreting, and just guessing where the company is and where it wants to go,” says Cropp, whose firm now conducts an internal survey quarterly.
Identify the uncontrollable, but can still affect your business. In addition to the whims of Mother Nature, governmental activity dominates this category of change. Rather than simply complaining, Helms recommends keeping an eye on legislative and regulatory developments, as well as tracking economic indicators such as T-bill and bond rates, so you’re not caught by surprise.
This is where your memberships in associations and chambers of commerce prove particularly valuable. Workshops, seminars, and MIX Groups often review the implications of impending change and provide recommended steps.
For example, Nelson belongs to an ACCA chapter that recognized how much implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act could hike its members’ insurance premiums. The chapter established a self-funded insurance trust for its members, who last year saw their healthcare costs rise about 6.5%, compared to some of their counterparts who experienced 20% or 30% increases.
Control your own destiny. Or, as Helms puts it: Choose to be the windshield and not the bug going splat! In other words, he explains, “Choose where you are going and how you will adjust your business to that change and turn it to your advantage.”
As an example, Edd Helms Air Conditioning & Electric had ventured into building controls in the early 1980s, but ramped up its efforts in that area after the 2008 recession left tourism-dependent south Florida with a limp local economy. Helms says, “To differentiate ourselves from the competition and help our customers reduce their HVAC operating costs; we invested in developing our own programming expertise for building automation control systems.
“Now, we are more than a contractor who just does basic installation,” he continues. “We also offer the engineering expertise and programming to optimize HVAC performance, improve and manage indoor air quality, and provide operating schedules for lighting systems.” In 2011, Helms created a separate division known as Gulfstream Controls to provide building automation planning and programming for not only Edd Helms, but also other contractors and end users.
For Cropp, investing in technology has enabled him to merge CroppMetcalfe’s phone system with dispatching, sales tracking, and GPS software to produce an integrated look at company metrics and key indicators. These range from average call wait time to number of service appointments booked, from hours per service call to number of appointments converted into service agreements.
“We do a lot of planning and watch trends and forecasts to make sure we are going down the right path,” says Cropp. “We are quick to recognize any deviation from our course and bring things back on track. That’s how we control where we’re going.”
In addition to maintaining good relationships with your bankers and vendors, who can help you facilitate change, Nelson underscores the need to remain open-minded. “If, for example, you see from your financials that something is not going right or needs to be fixed, don’t be afraid to make a change,” he says. “Even when you are doing something right, maybe you could be doing something better.”
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