With a sharp wit and sense of humor, Bryan Orr has quickly become one of the most powerful and recognizable voices in the HVACR industry — covering everything from duct fabrication to installation in his wildly successful HVAC School podcast. He is the vice-president of service at Kalos Services Inc in Clermont, Florida which he started with his dad when he was 17, and he regularly helps his team train and troubleshoot as a working contractor. But if you ask him about it (and we did), he’ll say he’s just keeping busy.
For Techs by Techs
Bryan Orr’s HVAC School is a free, online community that compiles and shares the most applicable HVAC/R training material around, including weekly podcast, daily tech tips, resources, quizzes, videos and more. For more information, visit hvacrschool.com.
Here, Orr shares a little more about his background, best practices and why life doesn’t get better than working with your hands.
Can you remember the earliest memory of what you wanted to be when you grew up? What career was it and why?
I’ve always had a touch of “megalomania” as my younger brother calls it, so I always imagined myself doing big things. I loved recreating radio dramas on my little tape recorder and imagining myself as a politician or scientist. I’ve always enjoyed learning, but I realized pretty quickly that I needed to have a career that would allow me to apply what I learn quickly because I also get bored really easily.
You describe your early years as a “hot cereal” upbringing. For inquiring minds, what does that entail?
I grew up in a radically conservative household. We had no TV in the house when I was young and didn’t listen to popular music. My dad worked as an electrician and later started his own electrical contracting business and my mom homeschooled me in a time when that was not a normal thing to do.
I was surrounded by people who worked with their hands doing interesting jobs, including my uncle, who was an aircraft mechanic and electrician, and my grandfather, who had an aircraft junkyard.
Out of all the trades, what made you pursue a career in HVACR industry? Was college an option for you?
I graduated high school at 16 and by that time I was already really impatient to get my adult life started.
I chose HVAC specifically because it was so broad with so many opportunities to learn interesting things. By the time I went to vocational school, my dad had switched from electrical contractor to general contractor, and he told me some of the things that HVAC contractors worked on. It was fascinating to me. I also had a strong desire to forge my own path rather than doing something that my family members had done.
While some of the college disciplines seemed interesting, the idea of spending more time in class without actually doing something with my hands seemed impossible to me.
The term “blue collar” has come to have negative connotations and is often used to describe jobs in the HVACR and sheet metal industry, leading many young adults to pass on jobs in the trades. How do you respond to that perception?
I hate the idea of being white collar at any level. I know it’s a little judgmental and snobbish for me to say, but I’ve worked in the field and felt looked down upon by enough “white collar” professionals to feel like I have the right to return the favor a bit.
I think the idea of “blue collar” as hard labor is a bit too limiting. There are many people who get their hands dirty from time to time who aren’t out getting covered in grease every day or digging ditches, though there’s nothing wrong with those things. Blue collar should and does have as much upside as any other career and not only as a “manager” or starting your own business like many people think.
Click here for brazing and soldering best practices from Kalos Services Inc.
You can make a lot of money and have a huge impact as a really good HVAC specialist in many areas that don’t require you to carry a wrench or crawl in attics all the time. To me being blue collar means you aren’t afraid to do those hard things to get a problem solved. In my definition, blue collar is a mindset more than anything else.
I also like the term “new collar” to describe jobs that are more technical but in traditionally blue collar industries, if you prefer. So if you want to categorize me as something other than blue collar because of my soft hands, I would accept “new collar.”
Considering the shortage of labor in the trades, how do you think we can make the trades more attractive again?
We need to start telling kids how awesome they are and ditch the “woe is me, my life is so hard” narrative. Yes, sometimes we have late nights and sometimes we work hard and get dirty ... so what?
It’s an incredible business with so much to enjoy and learn with so many opportunities. We need to embrace the fact that every generation is looking for a way to stick it to their parents at least a little bit. So sure ... mom and dad said go to college, but wouldn’t you rather earn while learning rather than being saddled with student loans?
We need to stop talking out of both sides of our mouths and embrace that we have a lot to offer young people who aren’t afraid to work and think for themselves.
What made you take up podcasting?
Have I mentioned that I started a business with my father at the age of 23 and that I get bored easily? (Laughs)
In 2014 we had about 30 employees and 12 of them were family members. The stress and pressure of running a business with so many family members was getting to me. In addition to that, I had started a web startup software company and it wasn’t going well. I started podcasting about small business, and I found that same joy I had at 9 years old with my tape recorder.
I really enjoy everything about podcasting, from recording with cool people to editing and production, it’s all a blast. For me it’s less about the topic and more about being able to make something of quality with people that I really like getting to meet.
With advances in technology, HVAC apprentices can now learn from the comforts of their home. What is your view of technology as it relates to our industry? Are we jumping in too soon or not fast enough?
Technology is a good thing and should be embraced. It isn’t the technology that concerns me, it is the way we rush to market with new products and processes without applying rigor to field testing, design and training.
Any technological advance that is well designed, well tested in the field and properly trained on at every level is a good thing. Unfortunately I’m seeing a “fever” for innovation that isn’t being backed up by thoughtfulness.
What do you think are some of the issues that hold the HVAC industry back from growth?
It depends on what we mean by “growth.” The industry is growing in the sense that there is more and more work being done. There is nothing we can do to stop the march of demand.
What we lack is quality and intentionality within the growth. More than anything I think we need to provide better training at every level of the industry. Schools, manufactures, reps, wholesalers and contractors need to get serious about education. This means creating systems to take young people from vocational schools through apprenticeship all the way to competency without giving up as soon as they can turn a profit.
These days, what is the main source of your business at Kalos?
Kalos is a good sized organization right now with 100 employees. We do work all the way from residential service calls up to grocery store refrigeration retrofits and controls.
Our biggest source of business is employing amazing people and supporting them in doing such a great job that our customers tell others about us. I know that sounds cliché but it really is the truth.
What I do on HVAC School helps to make people aware of what we do, but it is only a small thing I do to contribute to Kalos and the industry as a whole. (arrow to sidebar on HVAC school)
BTW, what does Kalos exactly mean? Is it just a cool name?
When dad and I we’re trying to come up with a name, we were spit balling ideas at the kitchen table, and he grabbed a Greek dictionary he had lying around.
I know that’s an odd thing to have at hand, but he had recently been studying Koine Greek.
As we were thumbing through we found this word “kalos,” which has several meanings. The one that stuck with us was “integrity or noble.”
It was and has been our goal to operate Kalos with the highest integrity even when it is hard to do so. I think we chose the name as a constant reminder to ourselves of who we are and what we have committed to be.