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Planning, Process Improvement, And Focus On The Team Gives Maryland Contractors The Competitive Edge

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When you meet the leadership team at GAC Services in Gaithersburg, MD, you get the immediate sense that this is a team like no other. Co-owners and business partners Tony Petrolle, Richard Biava, and Bill Wetzel are laid back, but full of enthusiasm for the industry and eager to build and improve their company.

Having been friends since they were kids, these three leaders took an “opportunity of a lifetime” and came together in 2007 to buy GAC. Since then, the company has quadrupled in size and has thrived regardless of the economic pressures. They have had that success, not just because of the strong leadership, but through constant evolution, focusing on improved operations, and continual education of the team.

Growing a Company In a Tough Economy
GAC Services, known for years as Gaithersburg Air Conditioning & Heating, was founded in 1970 by Dennis Hoffacker and was what the leadership team describes as “a typical small HVAC contractor, but with strong morals, work ethic and high standards.” Petrolle was hired by Dennis in 1991 as an install helper. When Dennis retired in 1995, Petrolle partnered with Chris Leonard to buy the company and the two ran the business for over ten years. When Chris decided to retire early in 2006, Petrolle knew he needed help to continue the growth they had started, so he turned to his trusted friends in Wetzel and Biava. The three friends partnered up to buy out Leonard’s share of the business in 2007 and began a new era at GAC with a strong foundation to grow upon.

That’s not to say that it was an easy path for them to go down. 2007 was when the economy started slipping and business was drying up for companies in every market sector.

“We started with a great company that had a great reputation, and that was helpful,” said Rich Biava, vice president. “But the key to us being successful was we sat down and did a lot of planning. We had to make sure that we truly understood what we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish.

“We refused to let the economy affect us,” added Tony Petrolle, president. “We had a vision, an outlook, and a mindset that we were not going to let that be what brought us down. This is a good industry, because people need us. Sure, we saw customers change the way they spent their money, and probably made repairs where before we would have replaced the system. But because we had the attitude that we weren’t going to fail, that we were not going to let the economy dictate how we did business, we were able to not have the same negative effects.”

Another key component to their success in the down economy was they didn’t cut back on the things that other companies were quick to slash.

“When a lot of people were pulling back, we were spending money on marketing and time on our sales processes,” said Bill Wetzel, vice president. “It was about improving the processes, so we could win over more customers.”

We also continued to invest in training and continued to give raises and bonuses during these difficult times.

Improved Processes Made It Easier
The leadership team’s vision for creating the ultimate customer experience quickly went from the planning stage to the process stage. The key to their processes is a streamlined experience that not only makes things easier for the GAC team, but also creates a wow factor for the customer.

As you walk through their building you clearly see the processes at work. The customer service area is open and each CSR has a list of technicians/installers that are assigned to them. This process makes it easier for everyone, because there is just one point to contact.

“We created these teams so that if the guy in the field needs something, they know they can call one person and that person can get it done,” said Petrolle. “It cuts down on confusion and allows everyone to give the customer the best possible experience.”

The processes are even more evident when you get to their service and installation warehouse. There is a long room that is filled with large staging “cubbies” that are filled with different jobs. Each job is dated and whether it is a morning or afternoon installation. Everything that the installer needs is in the cubby with the detailed plans for that job.

“One of our most effective processes is our Quality Assurance team,” adds Petrolle. “Unlike most companies, we send one of our QA managers to each job prior to the installation to scope out exactly what is needed to get the job done right the first time. He takes measurements, notes all important details and particular needs, takes photos, drawings, and generates the pick ticket of all the items needed for the job. Most importantly, he goes over the job one more time with the customer so they know what to expect on the day of the job and to ensure that there are no surprises to prevent the job from being done as planned; both for the customer and for the installation team.” This process also aids in proper scheduling of installations to allow the teams to work most efficiently.

“We include everything on the paperwork,” says Biava. “Once the paperwork is returned, our team at the warehouse pulls together everything that is needed for the job and puts in one of the staging slots.”

Every day, the install teams line up their trucks and everything for their job is loaded up from the cubby and they head off to the job site.

“This one process has made our installations run so much smoother,” adds Wetzel. “Our guys have exactly what they need for the job, which means they don’t have to waste time gathering materials or waiting for someone to bring them something they are missing, which delays the job from being completed. This makes the homeowner happier, as well, because we get a higher quality installation done quicker with no surprises.”

The system works so well that the company is able to get two complete system replacements done by one four man team every day!

The People Are What Makes It Work
When you are building and changing a company, there are bound to be people who aren’t going to jump on board with the changes. Add to that the fact that the leadership team was in their mid-30s when they took over, which created some interesting challenges. But this did not hinder growth for GAC Services.

When the leadership team took over, the office conflicted with the field personnel, the technicians didn’t trust the office, and they struggled with an environment where technicians were dictating their own schedules – even sometimes refusing to take calls due to their location, the customer, or even the time of day. The team worked to build trust and improve communications, breaking down walls, while building a team atmosphere.

“Some of the people who were with the company seven years ago, aren’t here today,” says Petrolle. “It was their resistance to change and their unwillingness to adapt that ultimately drove them away from our company.”

“Being that we were 35 years old, there were some employees who were 15 or more years older than us and didn’t want the company to change. We couldn’t convince them the direction we wanted to take this business would provide more opportunity, improved stability, and career growth,” adds Biava. “So, we had to get people to understand what we were trying to do and if they couldn’t, we had to make some tough decisions, and remove those that were hindering the business.”

What they found was by only having people who bought into the strategies of the company on staff, they were able to grow build and improve the business.

“It’s a tough decision to let people go, but sometimes letting people go makes the company stronger,” said Wetzel. “What happened by only having people who grasp the idea of the ultimate customer experience, everyone’s life gets easier.”

In the end, many of their employees bought into the changes in their processes and procedures, which in turn created a winning situation for everyone, the customers, the employees, the leadership team, and the company as a whole.

This great atmosphere also makes recruiting top talent easier. GAC rarely has issues filling openings, and usually has a backlog of people wanting to interview with them.

“We really don’t have any issues recruiting employees,” said Wetzel. “We always have people inquiring if we are hiring or not.”
“A lot of times we have employees who know a friend or family member who needs a job,” adds Biava. “It tells us our employees are comfortable with working here when they want to have their family or friends be a part of our team.”

Training & Education Are Key Components To A Strong Team
Any good contractor knows that having properly trained employees is a key to success, and GAC takes this part seriously. During slower months of the year, the team spends a lot of time in their state-of-the-art classroom brushing up on their skills. Whether it’s NATE certification prep, technical training, or customer service training; the team is required to put forth the effort to stay at the top of their game.

“We made sure that when we moved to this building there was a space for training,” said Biava. “This room lets us bring in large groups of employees for a variety of training. We can just connect our iPads to the big screen and we can teach the employees ourselves.”

Throughout the slow season, they also bring in outside trainers, utilize webinars, and send their team members to manufacturer training classes. But, the bulk of their education and training is done in house.

Besides having the most knowledgeable team, training in the slower months helps GAC from having to send people home with less than 40 hours.
“Training is an investment,” adds Biava. “We are able to keep our employees prepared for the busy season by training in the slower months, which ultimately benefits the customer. But it also keeps our people with a steady paycheck.”

The Future Holds…More Of The Same
When you ask Petrolle, Biava, and Wetzel what the future holds for GAC, they all answer, “More of the same.”

By that they mean that they have no intentions of slowing down. They will continue with their plan of consistent building and continual improvement. They believe that if they stay true to the methods that have put in place, the sky is the limit for success for their company.

And they encourage other contractors to set out on a similar course and offer this advice.

“You have to plan and then execute that plan and stick to it,” said Petrolle.

Wetzel adds, “Along with your plan, look for what’s outside your business that can affect your business and be ready to adjust for those things when they happen. That has to be part of your plan.”

Biava agrees and adds, “Make sure that you find the right people and let go of things, so that you can focus on executing the plan you have created. If you feel like you have to do everything and can’t let go, you are going to overwhelm yourself.”

Posted In: ACCA Now, Customer Service, Management, Money, Residential Buildings

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