FREELAND, Mich. -- It seems that wherever you look in Answer Heating and Cooling's new hvac shop you see logos, ads and marketing gimmicks at work.

In the shop.

Answer fabs most hvac needs in-house

FREELAND, Mich. -- It seems that wherever you look in Answer Heating and Cooling's quiet, impressive new hvac shop you see logos, ads and marketing gimmicks at work. That's precisely the effect on new customers who first walk through the door.

Located on a busy highway between two of mid-Michigan's largest cities (Saginaw and Midland), the building itself is difficult to miss. The sign out front is plainly visible to the 80,000 or so vehicles per week that pass by. The vans and trucks out front have the Answer signage, of course. Owner Rick Dvorak has on an Answer shirt, an Answer jacket, and Trane Company logos are also sprinkled throughout the building.

Customers, who often drop in to check out the company showroom, have no doubt who they are dealing with, or whose products are being sold: Trane, Honeywell, Aprilaire, Sanyo, White-Rodgers. Even the new wall-to-wall carpeting has the Answer "AC" logo woven into it. In the showroom, equipment is mounted on wheels so the layout can be changed easily and equipment can be pulled out away from the wall for a better view.

The owners here want customers to know immediately who they are dealing with, and to share their sense of confidence in products and service. "A lot (of customers) are sold as soon as they walk in the door," says Dvorak.

Dvorak has a lot of years behind him to know just what he wanted in his new building, which consumes a sprawling 22,000 square feet.

A framed letter up on the wall next to the receptionist as you first walk in announced Dvorak and his partner Jerry Kipfmiller's first plans to open the business... in 1976. Like many, he worked for another contractor before starting out on his own. The other contractor was a general builder; Dvorak started out in the warehouse, then migrated to the heating department. The builder went out of business, leaving Kipfmiller and Dvorak without jobs. Necessity being the mother of invention, they launched Answer as an alternative to unemployment.

Today, the company is successfully closing in on 30 years in the business. A new Lockformer (Lisle, Ill.) Vulcan plasma cutter should be delivered soon. Ironically, Dvorak said he talked to some of his competitors about the brand to buy, and said he settled on this one because he was told it was a good, heavy duty piece of equipment that would be worth the extra cost. "We have a pretty good rapport with them and we talk to people at associations too," he said.

Down the road, he said his shop could still use a power shear and power brake, and even a coil line at some point since "We fab almost everything we need in-house."

There are about 57 employees, and most have a comfortable, quiet office environment to work in with plenty of windows -- one of the prime requests from employees in leaving the old building, located a few miles away and off the main drag.

It makes sense to keep employees happy, says Dvorak. "They're the ones who have grown the business for us," he says, adding that "turnover is very low."

It's definitely a family business. Dvorak's oldest son Nicholas is assistant installation supervisor, son Phillip is the lead installation tech, and youngest son Nate, still in school, works in the shop. Kipfmiller's oldest son, Jeff, does commercial estimating, while daughter Jill is office manager, and son Jason is a purchasing agent.

The company is 35% new construction, 30% retrofit and the rest commercial. Most of the residential new construction is confined to $250,000-plus custom homes.

Having this much space in a new facility also means having room for a spacious conference room and a separate training room, which has a closed circuit t.v. and comfortable chairs for 40 to 50 people. The training room is used on a regular basis; for instance, Dvorak said, the installers meet the first Thursday of every month. "We used to have to shut down the shop to hold a training session, now we can keep it up and running."

A former Lennox dealer, the company for the past four years has sold Trane furnaces and air conditioners. "I like the quality of the Trane units," said Dvorak. "We have very few callbacks." But the company does something else unusual, branding its own line of furnaces and air conditioners AnswerAire, supplied to it by Nordyne. Some customers, he said, perceive more expense in a nationally known name brand. It also makes for easier replacement sales: customers look at the name and remember it was installed by Action. "There is definitely a need for both products," Dvorak said.

Despite a soft economy, Dvorak said Answer hasn't cut back on its advertising. "We may have redirected some more into marketing as opposed to advertising, but we spend just as much." Dvorak estimates an annual advertising/marketing budget at around $250,000.

Answer leases two large billboards and a number of smaller ones, most of them rotating locations. How do you track the responses though? Dvorak has a special phone number for each of the large boards, so he knows just how many responses he gets each month.

Answer also has an active Internet site, from which they pull 100 to 200 inquiries per month. "We were one of the first heating and cooling companies with a website," he said, getting it up and running about six years ago. Dvorak is also the "Answer Man," on the www.answer website, answering such questions as "When replacing the outdoor unit on an air conditioner or heat pump, should the indoor unit also be replaced?" and "Can I use my chimney with my new furnace?"

The company is a member of the local ACCA chapter (Tri-County Heating and Plumbing Association), as well as state and national ACCA, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and various local chambers and boards. Dvorak is vice president of the local ACCA chapter. The company is also a member of Excellence Alliance, which is a group of independent contractors who share marketing tips. Action will soon have a customer newsletter, but is waiting to get some help on it from the Alliance.

IAQ is another area Dvorak is passionate about. "In fact, when it's time to pull an order for a new installation, if it doesn't include an air cleaner our guys think it must be a mistake."