Why

Willie McGarn looked forward to the monthly local association meeting of his fellow contractors. He thought the programs could use a little spicing up, but they were just icing on the cake for him. This was a chance to discern how other contractors in the area were doing. For himself, Willie wasn’t doing well. He was close to hanging it up and shutting the doors.

When he arrived at the hotel where the meeting was held, he headed to the bar. Sure enough, other contractors had already arrived. As he approached the bar he heard the unmistakable drawl of big Sam Henderson. “Well if it ain’t Willie McGarn! How you doing, Willie?”

“Hi Sam,” said Willie, purposefully dodging Sam’s question. “How are you?”

“Why if I was doing any better, it would be illegal,” said Sam jovially.

“I certainly see enough of your trucks around town. If you don’t mind my asking, how do you do it? No matter what the weather or economy, you seem to truck along.”

“Well,” said Sam, “Why don’t you drop by one day and I’ll show you my operation.”

Willie couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Sam Henderson was one of the most successful contractors in the area, heck, in the state! And he was willing to let one of his competitors see his operation from the inside? No way. Willie decided to call him on his bluff. “I’d love to see your shop.”

Sam pulled out his phone and began scrolling on it. “How about Friday morning? I usually head out to the deer lease on Thursday, but Wilma’s got me going to some performing arts thing Friday night and threatened me good if I tried to skip out.”

“Uh, sure,” gasped Willie. “How about 9:00 a.m.?”

“See you then, brother. Now, what kind of program are they having tonight? I hope it’s something more interesting than that guy from the city permitting office we had last month.”

***

Sam pulled into the Comfort Commander lot and parked in one of the spaces marked for visitors. He wondered what people would think seeing his gleaming white McGarn Air truck in front of half a dozen of Sam’s green and black Comfort Commander trucks. Probably think I’m getting purchased, he thought to himself.

He entered a small foyer and pressed a button next to an intercom. “I’m here for an appointment with Sam Henderson,” he said to no one he could see.

“Well come on in,” a woman’s voice answered through the intercom and the door buzzed.

Willie pulled it open and walked through. What he saw was amazing. The large, open office was buzzing with activity. Lots of people with headsets were facing large computer screens, talking with customers. The screens danced with schedules and time blocks. Others were looking at different data entry or accounting screens. Willie wasn’t sure which. Large LCD screens on the walls displayed company key performance indicators, salesperson rankings, technician rankings, and so on. One screen cycled through customer reviews.

A woman rose from one of the desks to greet him. “Hi. You must be Willie McGarn. I’m Patty, the office manager. I was told to expect you.”

“I am,” said Willie. “Thanks.”

“Follow me and I’ll take you to Sam.”

Sam was seated in a glassed-in office at the very end of the hall. The office was paneled in Oak, boasting a well-appointed bar, conference table, and battleship desk where Sam sat. Several hunting and fishing trophies were mounted on the walls.

“Hello Willie,” said Sam coming around his desk and motioning to the conference table. “Have a seat. Want coffee?”

“No thank you. I’m fine.”

“Let’s chat for a few minutes, then I’ll take you on a tour.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Willie.

While they were talking, Sam essentially told Willie everything about his company. He shared his sales, margins, profitability, average service ticket, average installation, and on and on. Sam couldn’t believe he was being so open. On the tour, he showed Willie his training room, technician lounge, meeting rooms, warehouse, including his stocking system, and let him listen to a call between one of his service managers and a technician who was on the job. Willie was fascinated with all of it.

As they headed back to the office, Sam stopped at a large printer and said, “Hey, look at this. This is my new toy. It prints vehicle wraps.”

“You mean, you print your own wraps?” asked Willie, in awe.

“Yeah, why not? Buying the printer is easy to cost justify and we’ve got enough trucks. I switched to our wrap design a few years ago. It was hard to swallow the cost at the time. I realize now it wasn’t a cost at all, but one of the best investments I’ve made. Comfort Commander trucks pop. They are distinctive. Because of our trucks, we’ve got the best brand awareness of any HVAC company in the area. You should wrap your trucks. No offense, but one white truck pretty much looks like another white truck. It’ll make a big difference in your business, I promise.”

“I’ll think about it,” remarked Willie, who hadn’t really thought about it before.

“Heck,” said Sam. “With this thing, I’m thinking about wrapping furnaces and maybe even condensing unit caps. I can make mine look different and maybe even charge more. If I ever get into plumbing, I’m sure as heck going to wrap water heaters and disposers.”

***

“So what do you think?” asked Sam when they returned to his office. “What are your questions?”

“Wow, well I’m a little overwhelmed. I mean, you’ve opened up some possibilities I never considered. You know they don’t teach this at the trade school.”

“Don’t I know it. Too many guys in the trade know more about turning a wrench than turning a profit. It’s why they price so stinking low. And ‘cause they price so stinking low, they can only afford to provide a stinking level of service.”

“I might be one of those stinking guys.”

“Well heck, son. Change. It ain’t hard. What are you charging? Wait, no, don’t tell me. For some reason, it’s illegal for us to compare prices. But we can talk in generalities. I can give you my pricing calculator. Punch in your numbers and it’ll tell you what you should charge. Low pricing is the single most common problem in the trade. It’s also the easiest to fix.”

“I don’t get it,” blurted Willie. “Why are you sharing all of this with me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m your competitor,” said Willie, before stopping as he saw a blank look on Sam’s face.

Sam stared at Willie for a second, then burst into laughter. “Son, you’re not my competition.”

“I’m not?”

“For starters, which one of my satisfied customers are you going to take from me? None of them. The only way one of my customers would ever consider your company was if I screwed up. If I did a crappy job and then blew the service recovery, I might piss ‘em off so bad that they would look for someone else, at which point they would no longer be my customer.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“And take someone who’s a prospect-at-large. Do you know who my competition is for that guy?”

“Other air conditioning contractors.”

“Nope. Given the price of a new system these days, my competition is anyone who offers something more compelling in the same general price range. My customer is the spa guy or the 4-wheeler guy or the river cruise vacation guy. They all want the same $15 to $25 thousand I want and their offering is a heckuva lot sexier than mine.”

Willie had never thought of it that way before, but he could see that Sam was right. “But,” he interjected, “No one can live without air conditioning, right?”

Sam grinned. “Right. So, while my competition might win this year or the next, there’s a finite limit to how long we can keep an old system working. Sooner or later the customer will be mine and I’ll make his life better, not for a few months a year or for a week, but for years and years.”

“Makes sense.”

“But let’s get back to you. How are you doing?”

“Not well,” Willie confessed. “Maybe it’s me. It just all seems so hard.”

“Then do something else.”

“What?” asked Willie. Of all of the things Sam could say, this was the last thing he expected.

“You spend most of your waking hours at work. Life’s too short to spend most of the time doing something you hate. Do something else.”

“I don’t know anything else.”

“Why did you get into air conditioning.”

“Dad was a refrigeration mechanic. He told me air conditioning was where it is at and I should go to trade school, so I did.”

“That’s why you started. Why are you still in it?”

“Like I said, I don’t know anything else,” said Willie. He was feeling a little defensive. Was this why Sam asked him here, so he could talk him out of the business and reduce the number of contractors?

“Let me tell you why I’m in it,” said Sam. “I’m older than you are. I grew up in the south in a big old, historic house that was constructed in the twenties. It didn’t have air conditioning. My parents were proud of the house, but either didn’t have the money to retrofit it or weren’t willing to spend it. Three rooms had window units. One was my parents’ room. I shared a room with my brother. When he got asthma, we got a window unit for our room but were only allowed to use it at night. The third was in our TV room. Guess where we spent all of the time?”

“The TV room,” Willie answered.

“Right. The TV room. In this big old house, we spent all of our time crammed into one of the smallest rooms because it was cool. The rest of the house was hot and muggy most of the year. The smell of mildew was everywhere.”

Sam continued, “You see for me, this business is more than a way to make money, though I do that. It’s like a calling. People are miserable when a Comfort Commander truck shows up at their house and comfortable when we leave. We keep people cool in the summer and warm in the winter. We represent a good night’s sleep. We contribute to home safety because air conditioning makes it possible for people to close their windows and lock their doors. Most people literally could not live in this town without air conditioning. What we do is important and we’re darn good at it.”

Hearing Sam describe the industry, Willie felt better about himself and what he did. He could hear the passion in Sam’s voice and see it in his eyes.

Sam paused and said to Willie, “Sorry, I get a little carried away. But that’s only part of it for me. I’m also here because of my team. I love to see people develop and grow. Now, how about you?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“Son, that’s your problem. It’s your biggest problem. Figure out why you’re in business and other things will start to fall into place.”

Willie thanked Sam and left. He had a lot to think about.

***

Willie asked himself, why was he in business? And why HVAC? The easy answer was to make money, but that seemed insufficient. He could make money in lots of ways besides HVAC. Given his total take-home, he could probably make the same or more working for someone else. Plus, he wouldn’t have the hassles of all of the government paperwork. So why was he doing what he was doing?

His train of thought was interrupted by the phone. “McGarn Air, Willie here.”

It was Sheila, his wife, dispatcher, and CSR. “Willie, we’ve got a no cool and Jim and Dave are both tied up. The customer sounds like she’s up there in years. Can you take it?”

“Sure,” said Willie. “Text me the address.”

***

Willie rang the doorbell, stepped back, and put on his game face smile. A short woman with gray hair pulled back into a tight bun answered the door. Perspiration was dripping off her face as she fanned herself with a hand fan. “Oh, thank the Lord you’re here. I think I’m going to die of a heat stroke. Come on in. Come in.”

“Yes ma’am. Can you tell me what the problem is?”

“Lord, I don’t know. It just won’t get cool. I think I’m going to die of heat stroke.”

“Okay, let me take a look. Don’t worry,” reassured Willie. “One way or the other, I’ll get you cool today.”

Willie started down his diagnostic process. It didn’t take him long to zero in on the problem. Ants in the contactor. He told the old woman what the problem was and recommended replacing the contactor.

“Do whatever you have to do,” said the woman. “My son and grandson will be here for a visit this afternoon. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t get the house cool. Thank you so much.”

When Willie gave the woman the invoice after he finished, she looked sort of startled. “Is something wrong,” he asked, certain that she was going to complain about the price. They all complained about the price.

“No, there’s nothing wrong,” she said, handing him a credit card. “Why don’t you add $20 to the bill as a tip.”

“You don’t have to do that ma’am.”

“No, I want to. You’ve saved my family’s visit and made such a difference.”

***

At dinner that night, Willie said to Sheila, “You know, I went by Comfort Commander today.”

“So you told me.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking.”

“Uh huh,” said his wife, eyeing him skeptically.

“Yeah, I know. It’s dangerous for me to think too much. But I’ve been thinking that maybe we need a price increase.”

“We’ve raised prices every time the manufacturers jacked up equipment pricing.”

“I’m not talking about that. Well, maybe I am. But, I was really thinking about raising the labor component of our service pricing. I guess I’d do the same for replacement prices.”

“How much are we talking about?” asked Sheila.

Willie told her and watched while she made mental calculations. “Do you really think we could get that?”

“Yeah, I think we’re probably underpriced. I mean, what we do is important. We make people’s homes cool in the summer. We ought to get rewarded for it.”

Sheila smiled. “Do you know what a difference this could make?” She opened the calculator app on her phone and punched in a few numbers. My gosh, Willie, “We could pay down our credit cards. By the end of the summer, we might even have enough to take a real vacation. It would be a short one, but it would be a start.”

***

The rest of the week was busy. In between running service calls and babysitting his techs, Willie didn’t have time to think about Sam Henderson’s challenge to him. Saturday morning, Willie woke around 4:00 a.m. with a start. He sat straight up in bed. That was it. The old woman said it. His wife said it.

He got out of bed, grabbed a notebook, and started writing. When he finished, he leaned back and smiled. He read the page…

The reason why I’m in business is to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I will make a positive difference in my customers’ lives through the work the company performs by improving the comfort and air quality of the buildings where people work and live. I will make a positive difference in my employees’ lives by giving them meaningful work, fair pay, and opportunities to grow and advance according to their desires. I will make a positive difference in my family’s lives through the profits the business generates so they can enjoy an elevated lifestyle with tangible rewards and rich, intangible experiences that help us enjoy fulfilling lives. I will make a positive difference to the best of my ability.

Yes, he thought to himself. This is why I do what I do. I can make a difference.

___________________________________________

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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