Matt Michel, president and chief executive of the Texas-based Service Roundtable, offered a litany of ways for contractors to grow their businesses despite tough times.

PHOENIX - At a time when many SMACNA contractors are grappling with the worst economy they have ever seen, a lot of them are hungry for ways to generate and grow their businesses.

So the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association packed an Oct.10-13 convention here - its 67th - with seminars and experts on the economy and ways contractors can survive and even prosper in the slow market.

That’s where Matt Michel came in. The president and chief executive of the Texas-based Service Roundtable, offered “Over 12 Dozen Ways to Get and Keep Customers.” During his hour-long Oct. 11 presentation at the Residential Contractors Forum, Michel gave contractors numerous ideas for generating work. Some he called offbeat, but he said that all of them help.

One suggestion of Michel’s was to accept trade-ins of old furnaces and air conditioners.

“We see this every year with lawnmowers” and it is very successful in generating new sales for their dealers, he said.

Sales tips

Another suggestion: Place an ad in a church, community or small political newsletter. You can’t beat the return on investment, Michel said, adding that he had used it successfully when he was a contractor.

“It cost me $25 for a year,” he said. That put his company in front of a “small, but well-heeled audience.”

He asked contractors to consider “remnant” advertising on television or radio – the small ad time left over from the larger, longer commercials bought by bigger companies.

“You can do some amazing things if you get creative,” Michel said. Try giving “employee” discounts to your commercial customers.

And speaking of employees, give all of them printed business cards - not the kind with just a blank space for their name - and encourage them to give them out to friends and acquaintances.

If you’re a company owner, join your local civic club. It’s good for you - and your business.

“This is basic marketing,” he said. “You’re going to be doing good work, which is rewarding in and of itself, but you are also building contacts.”

Try sponsoring a 5K run. Participants are likely to be health-oriented and interested in clean indoor-air quality. Include coupons and company information in the bag of freebies they usually give to participants. Another option is to put an ad on the official race T-shirt.

The road not taken

How about adopting a highway? This shows your company’s pride in the surrounding community. But chose which stretch of road you want to keep clean carefully, Michel said.

“Don’t adopt one where the speed limit is 65 mph - no one will see” your company’s name on the sign.

Michel encouraged his audience to enter themselves in contests sponsored by associations or trade magazines.

“Enter every contest,” he said. “Eventually, you will win.” That allows you to promote your company as an award-winning business.

Get involved in new media. Michel is the author of a book on this subject, Social Media for the Service Contractor, and said the world of Facebook, Twitter and blogging is now too big for HVAC contractors to ignore.

“You’ve got to use it,” he said.

Start collecting your customers’ e-mail addresses, and create a company Facebook page where customers can become “followers.” Send “tweets” about your business through Twitter. Encourage employees to become involved with social media on the company’s behalf. Start a YouTube “channel” dedicated to your business. Monitor online review sites for customers’ opinions on your company.

“If you get negative reviews, you need to know that, and counter that with positive reviews,” Michel said.

Not all time was work-focused at the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association’s annual convention. A number of attendees, such as Robert Zahner, participated in the association’s golf outing, which benefits the group’s College of Fellows.

Play tag

Also learn about “mobile tags” and start incorporating them in your advertising. Similar to a UPC or bar code, mobile tags are small black-and-white or color boxes that when scanned or photographed with a smart phone, automatically call a number or take people to a website.

“These things are novel enough today that people who see them are going to scan them,” he said. “You are going to see a lot more of these in the future.”

Other marketing suggestions Michel offered:

• Speak at civic clubs.

• Put marketing messages on your company’s fax cover sheet and in your work e-mail signature line.

• Teach a home improvement seminar.

• Give free fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants. Include your company’s name on the paper inside.

• Paint your company’s name and logo on the roof of your building.

• Host your own weekend home improvement radio show on local radio.

“It’s cheap,” he said.

• Give free postage on tax day.

•    Pay for a carpet cleaning or maid service after installing an HVAC system.

• Put logo-emblazoned refrigerator magnets on the back of your service vehicles.

“People steal them - which is the point,” Michel said.

• Encourage satisfied customers to tell their friends about your company.

“Let people know you want referrals. Homeowners are kind of clueless about this,” he said.

• Pay to spruce up the area around a new condensing unit. A quality installation will stand out with a neatly mowed lawn.

• Publish a quarterly company newsletter. You may want to pay a professional writer to look it over, Michel added.

“I’ve seen a lot of good ones and I’ve seen a lot of really bad ones,” he said.

• Hand out grocery list notepads with magnets attached that have your contact information at the top.

“Homeowners love these,” he said. “They will call you back when they run out.”

Construction expert Thomas Schleifer, Ph.D., told the audience for his two Oct. 12 presentations that full recovery for the sheet metal industry will take some time.

Waiting and hoping

If you’re waiting for the sheet metal industry and economy to return to “normal,” take a seat. You will be waiting for a long, long time.

That’s what construction expert Thomas Schleifer, Ph.D., told the audience for his two Oct. 12 presentations at this year’s convention. Schleifer, a part-time professor at Arizona State University’s Del E. Webb School of Construction, has written several books on construction and appeared before SMACNA members numerous times.

He acknowledged the depth and length of this downturn has confounded many pundits who predicted things would be much better by now.

“This one is longer than any we’ve ever had,” he said. “It may not be the same industry” as before the recession.

Schleifer said the recession has eroded some of the public perception gains the industry made in the last decade. More owners are now viewing construction as a commodity.

The tough economy is going to cause even more firms to fail.

“I’m afraid we’re going to see some non-payments … just flat-out defaults,” he said. Midsize contractors, especially, are struggling in this economy.

While in the past local trends worked their way up through the state, federal and eventually world economies, many experts now say global trends have outsize influence on the local economy.

Under current conditions, it’s hard to figure out where the economy is heading, Schleifer said, adding that he would like to have just a little certainty.

“We don’t need to know exactly what is going to happen today, tomorrow or five years from now,” he said. But if the industry could know 15 percent to 20 percent of what is going to happen, it could plan better.

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

Ronald Palmerick

SMACNA names Contractor of Year

Ronald J. Palmerick, president of Ridgewood, N.Y.-based Aabco Sheet Metal Inc., has been named SMACNA’s Contractor of the Year.

The award is given annually in memory of Snips founder Ed Carter and his son, Nick Carter, the magazine’s longtime editor and publisher.

“It is an honor to recognize Ron Palmerick, whose tireless guidance and vision while serving as co-chair of the National Pension Fund helped SMACNA and its members navigate through some difficult situations,” said 2010 SMACNA President John Lindemulder Sr. “Ron is incredibly insightful about industry issues, and offers wise counsel and something extra to think about whenever he’s asked for his advice,” Lindemulder explained. “He really makes you think about all the angles.”

Palmerick served as SMACNA president from 2007 to 2008.