Some people say the old business adage about the importance of location doesn't apply when you're talking about an hvac company. After all, how many consumers drive past a store and decide to pick up a new furnace?

More than you might think, according to the owners of Harker Heating & Cooling Inc. The company recently opened a new building along the Beltline Highway in Madison, Wis. This busy stretch of road carries more than 100,000 cars daily, many of which now pass by Harker's large, brightly lit sign. It promotes the company's three main brands of hvac equipment: Trane, Carrier and Research Products Corp.'s Aprilaire.

Owners Tim and Anna Heiar say they thought such a high-visibility location that would draw customers - consumers, especially - and it appears they were right: On the first day of their grand opening in September, sales representative Kevin Multhauf estimates that about 160 people visited the store. And they keep coming, he says.

"Since we've opened this facility, I can't tell you the number of people who have stopped by and said, 'Gee, I've seen your building and wanted to see what you have here,' " Multhauf says.

Harker sits alongside the Beltline Highway, one of Wisconsin's busiest roadways.

Showroom equals sales

They also are buying, according to Multhauf. He says close to 95% of visitors to the store end up purchasing a new hvac system from the company. Company officials credit the large 2,500-sq.-ft. showroom for turning prospective customers into buyers. Unlike many hvac company showrooms, Harker's is aimed at homeowners, not builders. Consumers can look at different working models, ask questions and talk with sales representatives about which system is right for them.

"There really wasn't any place in central Wisconsin where a person could go in do something like that," explains Multhauf. "Our showroom is a real departure from what heating companies have gone to market with in the past."

Owner Tim Heiar says he got the idea for the showroom from a display a local utility company used to have in Madison. Although the utility was not selling hvac systems, consumers could learn about how they worked and what to look for in a quality system. But the utility closed its showroom a few years ago, and since that time, there really hasn't been a location that offered the public an education in the workings of their home's hvac system.

Harker's showroom includes nine working systems and visitors can move from station to station and talk with company-trained representatives such as Multhauf, who says his job is as much about education as it is sales.

"I take the time to explain to people how the system works," he says.

The showroom's ceiling is transparent, allowing the public to see how the air produced by their furnace or central air conditioner moves throughout the house.

A look at the hvac showroom. Employee Gary Backey (left) speaks with two customers.

Well-stocked

The showroom also includes unit heaters, ductless split air conditioners, air-to-air exchangers, humidifiers, air cleaners, boilers, water tanks and more. But Harker is not strictly a residential contractor. The firm also stocks many light commercial products such as infrared and in-floor heating systems, zoning products and high-pressure air-conditioning distribution systems, and many of these are on display as well.

"We wanted the whole thing to stand out," Heiar says, adding that everything, from the showroom's layout to its color scheme, was professionally designed to make the area unique, attractive and accessible to consumers. "Everyone who walks in the (showroom) comments on how beautiful it is."

Beyond the showroom in the back of the building, Harker maintains its own sheet metal shop, staffed by about 30 workers, members of Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 18. The shop includes a Lockformer Vulcan plasma cutter, two eight-foot brakes, a Lockformer Pittsburgh machine, a Tennsmith drive lock bender as well as hand tools.

Ten employees make up the office staff.

In addition to residential replacement work, Harker does a lot of light commercial new construction projects, including banks, offices and strip malls. The company has also done work on the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus, and some city and county projects. Much of the work is design-build.

Mike Long in the sheet metal shop.

Fabrication work

Heiar estimates that Harker fabricates up to 90% of the ductwork it uses itself. Since most of its jobs call for rectangular duct, any spiral orders are subcontracted to one of about four shops the company works with in the Madison area.

Today, with $7 million in annual volume, Harker is one of the largest Carrier dealers in the state, and the winner of Carrier's Distinguished Dealer of the Year award. But according to Heiar, 50, that was far from the case when he purchased the then-40-year-old company in 1989. Although the company had a good reputation, it was down to two employees, and wasn't taking on very many new customers, Heiar says. Within a month of taking over, Heiar started adding workers, and he expanded beyond the company's traditional base of new construction into the replacement sales market.

"In the first four years, our growth was 40- to 50% per year," he says. Today, a good week's sales can approach $300,000, he adds.

Such growth is what prompted the company's move from its prior location, Heiar says. "In the other place, we didn't have any place to put or vehicles." Harker maintains a fleet of 10 service and 20 construction trucks.

Prior to purchasing Harker Heating, Heiar worked for a mechanical contractor in the area, supervising projects and performing estimating work.

Harker was recently received Trane's Comfort Specialist award for 2002, given to companies who are exceptional in the areas of customer service and employee training. It's all part of the company's philosophy, Multhauf says.

"We try to do the right thing," he says. "We want people to continue to continue doing business with us and we want people to be comfortable with their purchases and comfortable with us."