ACCA conference in San Jose challenges the way contractors do business. SAN JOSE, Calif. - Marcus Buckingham, keynote speaker for the ACCA's 38th annual conference, March 28-30, closed his presentation by telling attendees that they are living their lives (and running their businesses) by myths they've learned to accept as fact

Marcus Buckingham, author of First, Break all the Rules, was keynote speaker for the ACCA's 38th annual conference. Image courtesy of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Marcus Buckingham, keynote speaker for the ACCA's 38th annual conference,

March 28-30, closed his presentation by telling attendees that they are living their lives (and running their businesses) by myths they've learned to accept as fact. One of those myths is that if you try and work hard enough you can fix your weaknesses or you can fix those of your employees if you just keep training and educating them. But according to Buckingham, success only comes when you "pay more attention to strengths, not weaknesses. Your greatest areas of opportunity are your strengths."

And once you recognize your strengths, you can help others figure out their strengths. As Buckingham put it, you need to "put your own oxygen mask on first."

Buckingham is the author of First, Break All the Rules, and he was the speaker to kick off the ACCA's conference theme of "Break all the rules." The conference provided numerous educational seminars to not only help contractors learn what rules they should be breaking, but to provide them with some new rules to help form a better business.

Adams Hudson, owner of Hudson Ink, led "The HVAC Marketing Rules You Must Break" March 29 at the ACCA conference. Image courtesy of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

Rule No. 1: Differentiate your business

For some contractors, their current business plan is probably keeping their company afloat. But what rules can contractors change to take their business from average profits to stellar revenues?

Several sessions at the ACCA conference confronted that question. Attendees could choose from seminars such as "Good Web Sites Make Money," "Taking Residential IAQ to the Next Level," "Finding the Sales Other Don't See," and much more.

Adams Hudson's March 29 session confronted unsuccessful rules that some contractors have been following to promote their company. "The HVAC Marketing Rules You Must Break" presented attendees with the marketing mistakes that many contractors are making. And those mistakes often happen with advertising.

Hudson, the owner of Hudson Ink, an HVACR consulting company, presented the mistakes that are made when it comes to Yellow Pages and newspaper ads, and direct-mail pieces. He also showed contractors new ways to get their company name out to the public.

How many times have you opened up the phone book and seen the same style of ad for every heating and air-conditioning contractor in your area, he asked. The ad usually has the company name at the top of the page in big, bold letters. They'll usually list various facts about the company, like "specializing in residential and commercial retrofit," or "family-owned and operated." And to top it off, the ad sometimes has a photo of a service truck or a penguin drinking a glass of lemonade.

According to Hudson, this has been the "rule" for creating phone book ads. And it's a rule that needs to be broken. He said that only 13 percent of sales are closed from customers who found a contractor in the phone book. And the average contractor spends the majority of his or her advertising on the Yellow Pages. This can be a large waste of money to create mediocre ads that only capture a small amount of business.

So what does Hudson advise? He presented an example of a Midwest contractor who was spending over $3,000 a month on a full-page ad in the phone book. This ad looked like every other ad, and it only brought in 272 leads a year. Next year he tried something different. He bought a one-sixth page ad for $1,400 a month and landed 324 leads.

But that wasn't all. The contractor eliminated all the usual ad clichés, including using his company name as the headline. Instead, the headline said exactly what his business could do for the customer. According to Hudson, this differentiated the contractor from other heating and cooling companies, and gave customers a more specific idea of what the business could offer them.

When it comes to Yellow Pages ads, Hudson encouraged contractors to create effective headlines, eliminate bad layout and dull copy, and "create a call to action." He said every ad should prompt the customer to pick up the phone and call the company.

These ad tips can be used for all advertising, including newspaper ads and mail to potential customers' homes. Hudson said to make sure that every ad is informing the customer of exactly what your company will do for them.

Rule 2: Pay attention to the next generation

While there are several things you can do to change the rules, sometimes the rules are changed for you. This is especially true when your Generation X work force starts outnumbering baby boomers, according to Robert Wendover.

This subject was tackled in "Hey Dude! Managing Age Diversity in Today's Workplace," presented March 29 by Wendover, who works for the Center for Generational Studies. Contractors learned how to lead this new work force by understanding their beliefs and work ethic.

Wendover also presented "From Paying Your Dues to Changing the Rules: Succession Planning and the New Generations." This seminar aimed to explain to company owners why they need a succession plan. He said that as the company veterans begin to seek retirement, many leadership positions will open up and an owner needs a solid plan to fill those vacancies.

This plan can be even more challenging when the business is family owned. Who takes over the company if a family member dies? If you retire and leave the company to your offspring, do you know if they will handle the business the way you would want? And most importantly, do they want to take over the business? Wendover said that some of the biggest mistakes occur when a business is left to someone in the family who never wanted to be in it. According to Wendover, this is the most important aspect of succession planning.

"You can get the financial stuff on paper; it's the emotional stuff that can tear you apart," he said.

The next generation had their chance to speak out during a March 30 session titled "Your Future Employees - What's On Their Mind?"

Led by Dick Shaw, technical education consultant for the ACCA, the session included a panel of mechanical engineering students from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., and the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa.

The session provided a dialogue between future HVACR professionals and current contractors. The students had the opportunity to ask the contractors a variety of questions to prepare themselves for graduation and future employment, and the contractors were able to ask the students what they could do to make the industry more desirable to young people.

For most of the students on the panel, their concern was experience. As students with only college credits and some summer internships on their resume, would they be what HVACR contractors are looking for?

To answer that question, one contractor in attendance asked: "When can you start?"

For most of the contractors and company owners, technical skills were important. Many said that they need employees who will know the fundamentals. But it is the "intelligence and character" that contractors said they are desperately looking for.

For example, many of the attendees told the students they need a clean driving record. If a potential hire has a drunken-driving conviction or excessive traffic tickets, they shouldn't even bother to apply because they would never be allowed to drive a service truck.

But what about age? Is it difficult for a 22-year-old graduate to compete for jobs? Not according to the ACCA contractors. Most said they would like to hire a "clean slate" that they can help educate.

"Youth doesn't hurt," said an attendee. "The contractor can guide the tech along."

The San Jose Convention Center was the location for the ACCA's March 28-30 meeting. Image courtesy of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

Rule 3: Keep your customers happy

Contractors have two types of customers: internal and external.

For the customers calling up for your services, ACCA presented several sessions to keep the phone ringing, including "Selling to Women & Couples," "Creating Customers for Life" and "If the Customer Can See It, You Can Sell It."

But ACCA also focused on what contractors can do to keep the internal customers satisfied. More importantly, what company owners should do to make sure qualified employees don't leave.

Stephen Kruz from training and consulting firm Callahan/Roach and Garofalo Inc., presented "Getting & Keeping Good Employees" March 30.

According to Kruz, in a recent Gallup Poll, 2 million workers from 700 different companies were asked why employees leave their jobs. The No. 1 answer was "bad bosses."

When it comes to hiring qualified employees, Kruz said that contractors are "in a crisis period in getting new people. Once we get them, how do we keep them?"

Kruz said the solution is two-fold: contractors need to know how to hire the right workers and they need to know how to keep them.

Kruz said that attendees needed to look for potential employees everywhere. When it comes to placing help-wanted ads, "don't pick one thing," he said. "Don't just run a newspaper ad every week."

Instead, try posting job notices online, at employment agencies or contacting the local trade school.

He also says contractors should not interview everyone that applies for a job. He recommends studying work history carefully. If someone has had five jobs in the last five years, it's unlikely he or she will be a viable candidate.

When you are ready to interview a potential new worker, Kruz says you need "to make the time to do it right." Make sure you are focused on that one potential hire. Also, Kruz suggests asking about more than just work experience. He said to ask questions that will reveal a person's character. These questions will get further to the heart of whom you may be hiring.

Once you've hired that new worker, how do you keep them? Kruz said that it comes down to understanding what "de-motivates good employees." The top things that deter employees are fear of change and misunderstood expectations.

These can be easily solved, according to Kruz, by being an advocate for communication. If you claim to have "an open-door policy," you need to make sure that is true. Also, don't just communicate with your employees when there is bad news. Kruz said employees could learn to associate you with only the negative aspects of the job.

Finally, he says it is important to solicit feedback. Employees want to know that their opinions are valued. If workers are not taking advantage of the "open-door policy," make sure you schedule times to speak with everyone on an individual basis.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail

Sidebar: ACCA hands out awards

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America took the opportunity to honor several members during its 2006 annual convention, March 28-30 in San Jose, Calif.

Castellano Air Conditioning & Heating in Tampa, Fla., was recognized as the association's 2006 Residential Contractor of the Year.

"This award is the highest honor a residential HVACR contractor can aspire to," said Paul T. Stalknecht, ACCA president and CEO. "It's always difficult to decide among the many entries. Those who enter are the best of the best. They deserve our praise and respect for their commitment to excellence and professionalism. They are outstanding companies that are also active in their local communities, which is one of the judging criteria."

Tommy Castellano accepted the award at the conference. In nominating her husband, Carol Castellano related a story:

"In 1982, Castellano Bros. Air Conditioning & Heating had a major fire. We lost everything. (Some advised him to file for bankruptcy.) He said he intended to stay in the air-conditioning business and intended to continue living in Tampa. How could he face his creditors and his customers? He told me, ‘I can do it. I have a plan.' Well, he did it. Everyone at Castellano Air Conditioning & Heating gets their strength from Tommy. He is always saying, ‘Don't tell me it can't be done, because we can find a way to do it.' "

The ACCA's Commercial Contractor of the Year was Engineering Excellence Inc. of Cincinnati.

When he nominated the company, CEO Thomas A. Winstel wrote: "Results are what count. Engineering Excellence Inc. provides many programs from maintenance to construction to assure continuous comfort and total reduced costs for many clients."

The company says it prides itself on communication with customers and its safety program. Its Web-based software, Intellitrak Management System, provides real-time access to the status of any call, preventative maintenance or information about clients' HVAC mechanical assets.

Skip Snyder of Snyder Co. in Upper Darby, Pa., was presented with this year's Spirit of Independence Award. The award is presented occasionally to an individual who has made lasting contributions to HVAC contractors, and according to the ACCA, "recognizes an HVACR industry leader who displays creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance in their pursuit of a better industry."

One of Snyder's most significant contributions was bringing the North American Technician Excellence program to ACCA contractors.

The ACCA's Distinguished Service Award went to John F. Parker Jr. of Alabama Power. Since he joined the Alabama Power training center in 1986, Parker has ensured that ACCA manuals and procedures are properly taught and fully understood. He has provided utilities, schools and training organizations with materials related to the ACCA's residential and commercial design series.

The Spirit of Federation Award went to Kenneth Bodwell of Innovative Service Solutions in Orlando, Fla., and George Gardina of Air Source HVACR Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

This award is presented to the ACCA chapter leaders who have contributed most to the organization. Bodwell and Gardina were instrumental in establishing the ACCA's Florida chapter.

"Ken and George have worked tirelessly to create a clear, single industry voice in Florida," said Stalknecht. "Their efforts are bearing fruit and it's appropriate to recognize them for their hard work."

The Southeast Michigan chapter was honored with the Spirit of Giving Award. The chapter was recognized for its work during the Al Keats Seniors Day, which provides free service and repair of HVAC units for the elderly. The chapter was also recognized for its participation in the 2005 Habitat for Humanity "Blitz Build" in Detroit.

The College of Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., was honored with the Jeff Forker Award for Excellence in Training. The award is named in memory of the late publisher of Contracting Business magazine.

"Formal training is critical to enhancing the professionalism of our industry," said Stalknecht. "Ferris State University's program strengthens the industry's reputation and commitment to the technicians - and customers - of tomorrow."