The Coffee Conversation

Jerry was sitting in the coffee shop, sipping on an overpriced cup of Sumatra coffee, and staring at his phone. The coffee was a small luxury he should have passed on, but he was craving caffeine. He tried to enjoy it. There didn’t seem to be much he could enjoy lately. Yet, when an older gentleman asked if he could share his table in the crowded coffee shop, Jerry’s worldview was about to change.

“Excuse me,” Jerry heard. “Do you mind if I share your table?”

Jerry looked up. The man was cheerful and elderly with a head full of grey hair. Jerry said, “Sure, take a chair.”

“I just don’t get it,” mumbled Jerry to himself.

“Get what?” the man asked.

Jerry sighed. In a rush, he said, “I don’t get anything. I don’t understand the world. I don’t know why everything costs so much, why I can’t get air handlers for my business, why I can’t find employees, why the economy is tanking, anything.”

The old man said, “Yes, that is a lot. What do you do?”

“I’m a plumbing and air conditioning contractor.”

“I thought contractors have been doing pretty good,” the old man countered.

“Well, yeah, but that’s not the future. I mean, things don’t look good.”

The old man took a sip of his coffee. He said, “Do you mean things don’t look good in general or that things don’t look good for you in particular?”

Jerry wondered why the heck he was talking to this man, but it felt good to unload a little. He answered, “For… well, everything. I feel like nothing is in my control.”

“But you own a company?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Don’t you control your company?”

“Somewhat,” said Jerry. “It’s so hard to find people, so my employees know they have me over a barrel. If I ask them to do something they don’t want to do, they quit.”

“You mean you have to persuade them and lead them instead of simply ordering them? And that you control how you address them and lead them?”

“Uh, well when you put it like that it sounds different.”

“I think you have more control than you think.”

“What do you know about it?” barked Jerry. He was getting tired of the old man.

“Whoa. I’m not trying to argue with you or interrupt your pity party. I’m just trying to have a conversation over a cup of coffee. I can leave if you’d like.”

“No,” said Jerry. “Sorry. I’m just frustrated.”

“Well, I can understand that. But you said you can’t control anything. Are you sure?”

“What do you mean?”

“You can control your attitude, right? I mean, you may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond, right?”

“I suppose.”

“You’re the leader of your company. It’s my experience that the people in an organization respond to and reflect their leaders but amplified. If you look scared, they think the worst, expect their jobs are in jeopardy, and start looking for new jobs. It works the same way in reverse. If you’re confident and positive, they will be too. Does that make sense?”

“Uh, a little,” said Jerry.

“Then, you also seem worried about business.”

“I am.”

“But people can’t live without plumbing, heating, and air conditioning, right?”

“There are still fewer calls,” said Jerry.

“So, what can you do about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“What are your competitors doing?”

“Most of them are like me. They don’t know what to do, but they worry about money so they cut spending as much as they can.”

“Why?”

“Why? So they don’t run out of money,” said Jerry.

“So,” said the old man, “they are worried about money because there are fewer calls, which means it’s harder to find a customer, so they cut back on their efforts to find one? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Not when you put it like that.”

“But you don’t have to be like them, do you? I mean, you control your marketing, advertising, and sales, right?”

“Uh, well. Yeah. I guess.”

“Do you or don’t you?”

“I do,” said Jerry forcefully.

“So, what do you think will happen if you put forth more effort to get customers when your competitors are doing less?”

“I’ll get more customers?”

“Kinda what I think.”

Jerry thought about what the man said for a second. It made sense. He said, “So you’re saying I can’t control prices, inflation, or the economy, but I can control my attitude and I can control how my company responds.”

“Exactly, except you can control your prices.”

“To a limit.”

“Really? You just paid $6 for a buck’s worth of coffee.”

“Well, I really needed some caffeine.”

“And you don’t think people really need plumbing? Or heating? Or air conditioning?”

Jerry looked the man up and down. “Who are you?” he asked him.

The old man smiled. “I’m someone who was just like you. I used to own a contracting company and sold it years ago for a few million. I saw you get out of your truck and thought I’d strike up a conversation.”

“Why?”

“When I was coming up in the business and struggling, older contractors helped me. For the longest time, I didn’t trust them. Then I realized they were simply paying forward the help they received. This is a great business. You have more control over your life and business than almost any of the people you see working in the high-rise corporate cube farms surrounding this coffee shop. If there’s a recession, you can decide whether you want to participate in it, or not. Personally, I would advise against participating. I never did.”

“Thank you,” said Jerry simply.

The old man. No, the old contractor shrugged, got up and said on the way out, “Thank me by paying it forward.”

Jerry looked at his coffee. Yeah, he could probably charge more. If he did, he could market more. He sipped the coffee, relishing the taste. He realized that it was up to him whether he enjoyed things or not. Like the old contractor said, he had more control than he thought.

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Matt is the 35th and youngest person to be inducted into the Contracting Business Hall of Fame. The Air Conditioning Heating & Refrigeration NEWS presented Matt with the 2018 “Legends of HVACR” Award. Contracting Business Magazine named Matt one of the 22 most influential people in the history of the residential HVAC/R industry. Contractor Magazine named him one of the 18 most influential people in the history of the plumbing/hydronics industries (Matt is the only person to appear on both the Contracting Business and Contractor lists). The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration NEWS named Matt one of the top five business advisors in the HVAC industry. He can be reached at mmichel@servicenation.com or by mobile at 214.995.8889.

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