HVAC Service Contractors Working Together
Meeting Industry Challenges Together.
Master Class Podcast - Q&A Transcript
In this PCA Master Class (Podcast), I am pleased to interview Jim Bartolotta of the Synergy Group.
This wide-ranging interview covers the HVAC business and how HVACR business owners can create amazing business outcomes by working together.
Jim’s tagline for this podcast, “Collaborate to Accelerate,” threads through this entire interview.
In essence, Jim has figured out how to create real Synergy within an industry that has mostly been made up of many independent operators for decades.
This post covers key Q&A of my conversation with Jim.
Discussion transcript note: This post started with an electronic transcription of the podcast. Some of the text has been modified from original words spoken by the podcast guest and host for clarity.
Programming note, if you want to listen to my conversation with Jim in its entirety, you can visit the PCA Podcast page by CLICKING HERE.
Host question: Let’s start back at the beginning. So you were a business major, and then you decided that you would go into the HVAC contracting world. How did you end up where you are now working in a contracting firm and heading up the Synergy Group simultaneously?
Jim Bartolotta: Well, it’s interesting; sometimes it’s the turns and twists you take. I started by attending Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, studying business. When not in school, we had to work every summer.
My dad had a friend who worked for Montgomery Ward’s; some folks who have been around awhile may recognize that name. So one summer, I started to work with my friend repairing window air conditioning units and one summer turned into three summers.
Important to point out, when I started that first summer, I had zero technical knowledge.
After learning the basics, I learned how to replace fan motors and clean coils.
More importantly, learned how to take care of customers by going into angry residents’ homes who weren’t happy with not having cooling. So that got me some people experience as well.
When I got out of college, I stopped in an employment agency, and they said there was a company hiring, looking for a maintenance salesperson, and the rest is history.
Sometimes I think, suppose I had not stopped at that employment agency. We probably wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about this industry.
I quickly found out that HVAC is a wonderful industry.
We’ve learned this past year during COVID being deemed an essential business that there will always be a home for somebody who does HVAC installation, design, and service.
Host question: You brought up an interesting topic. How has COVID impacted your community of HVAC contractors?
Jim Bartolotta: Some HVAC contractors I’ve talked to you have made it through stating that business has never been better? And some have struggled.
We did a series of webinars for the Synergy Group members on this subject.
Depending on the contractor’s market mix of service or maintenance, some weren’t impacted much at all. Others who had heavy presents in construction were dramatically impacted.
For instance, if you did a lot of retail work or schoolwork and were in an area where everything was closed down, your business shut down.
On the automatic mechanical (Jim’s HVAC business) side in Chicago, we don’t do much retail with a very large preventive maintenance customer base. And ironically, 2020 was a record year for us.
The Covid experience exposed how important a good mix of business and to avoid having all your eggs in one basket.
We found out real quick the value of having a good mix of maintenance and service clients.
Host question: How did the ideas of starting The Synergy Group come about?
Jim Bartolotta: Well, I’m going to date myself now, but back in the 80s, many consolidation efforts were going on in the HVAC contracting space. For many mechanical contractors, this was a great exit strategy.
We need a platform for independent contractors to share best practices to find training opportunities and keep themselves ahead of the curve and compete with maybe some larger companies in our space for those who want to remain independent.
So, we set out to put together a group of purely independent mechanicals that had a passion for really taking their business to a whole different level.
With Julie Bishop, our executive director, who I’ve worked with for the past 20 plus years, we had the perfect person to run Synergy Group.
Host question: How is a group like Synergy different from larger HVAC associations like ACCA, RSES, or ASHRAE?
Jim Bartolotta: If you were part of a mixed group that might have been consisted of many HVAC contractors, that was great.
The downside, after a while, information exchange might become a little bit stale, and you didn’t have any new ideas to try in your business.
At Synergy, we mix things up and require high engagement levels to be part of the group.
Another key to Synergy Group is we are selective on membership. This assures that members can openly share new ideas coming into every meeting with no concern or worry that your competitors are sitting listening in.
Host question: What’s the latest on HVAC companies overcoming the industry’s labor shortages?
Jim Bartolotta: It’s an industry challenge we’re faced with. I guess our industry isn’t sexy enough.
Yet, we are starting to see things turn a little bit where people realize there’s a great career to be found in an HVAC service and installation.
We just had a service idea exchange a couple of months ago. A couple of our members have gone to having a recruiter direct on their payroll.
I’m also involved with the local apprenticeship committee in Chicago.
I’ve seen a turn as they’ve been aggressive, going out to different high schools and trade schools to promote this industry.
As a result, we’re now getting a couple 100 applicants per year.
The idea is to catch them right out right out of high school when we can.
Ironically, we’ll get a handful of kids with college degrees who went away to college, got a job, and didn’t enjoy what they were doing. We scoop those folks up as quickly as we can.
Host question: In general, what is the HVACR manufacturing community doing to help contactors and technicians?
Jim Bartolotta: They are in their normal rush to get equipment built and out the door without naming names. As usual, they are mostly focused on beating their competitors.
Side note, we hired a woman from one of the manufacturers a couple of years ago. And she knew first off the manufacture she was working for was putting machines, chillers out into the field that hadn’t been beta-tested enough. As a result, there were compressor failures and things of that nature, but they were doing what they had to do to kind of get out there and get their product out.
Host question: What are HVACR manufacturers doing to support contractors in training as equipment designs get more high-tech, such as in VRF applications, as an example.
Jim Bartolotta: It is getting more difficult to get good training via the manufacturers.
When it comes to high-tech gear, such as VRF, the question remains what the manufacturers are doing behind the curtain.
What we are seeing is more in-house training happening by the independent contractors independent of the manufactures.
Contractors are also turning to groups like ours (The Synergy Group) for specialized training not being adequately covered by the manufacturers.
Businesses like yours (Process Chiller Academy) is also helping to fill the training gaps in our industry for the specialty markets, and that’s very helpful.
Host comment: As I do process chiller consulting for both owners and contractors, I hear more complaints than usual about their technicians needing to be on phone hold for support in the field.
My read is that the brain drain going on by way of old guys like me retiring and not getting replaced by new talent also impacts the manufacturers.
They are probably having the same challenges at finding qualified HVACR support techs as the contractors they serve.
Host question: Why should a person, perhaps not destine for college, consider HVACR?
Jim Bartolotta: We talked earlier about the challenge of finding good people in the skilled trades. So I think that speaks to the why for somebody who’s considering a career in this trade.
This industry desperately needs good solid service professionals. There is a great opportunity for people who have that commitment and desire to take care of clients and always grow.
An aspect of the HVAC service industry is it tends to be somewhat resistant to economic downturns. New installations may slow when the economy takes a hit; however, existing equipment still requires maintenance and repair services.
Host question: What advice would you give to a new technician just getting started in the HVACR industry?
Jim Bartolotta: Do whatever you can to continue to grow professionally and personally.
If you pick an employer that treats you well and invests in your professional development, try to make an in-kind commitment to your employer.
Always be learning and continue, no matter how long you’ve been in the trade.
It is also a good idea to seek out specialty training opportunities such as automation controls, boilers, and process chiller applications. Having training and experience in these specialized areas can increase the number of opportunities that come your way.
Another tip I would give them is to never forget about the people side of its service.
In addition to knowing how to fix machinery, successful technicians know how to make the customer feel like they are being taken care of. The feeling of being taken care of is what the customer always remembers most.
A new HVAC technician will be assigned to a journeyman for the first 30 days in most cases. During that time, the journeymen will make an assessment.
Key review areas are:
> Do you show up on time?
> Ask a lot of relevant questions?
> Is this person a hard worker?
If the answers to these questions are yes, the journeyman is likely to take the new tech under his wing and share what it takes to be a great tech. If the answer is no, you may not last long.
Host question: I want to revisit the specialty services side of the HVAC industry that we touched on earlier. What are some key service areas in the HVAC space the technician should pay attention to?
Jim Bartolotta: We see growth in the specialty areas such as building automation controls, boilers, and process chillers. From a contractor’s perspective, these specialty areas can be a goldmine since companies that can execute in these areas are in demand, and the special work tends to be a very good profit margin.
In addition to being highly in demand, these specialty service markets also tend to be in mission-critical areas. More specifically, if the cooling equipment stops, production tends to slow or stop. In these mission-critical markets, customers tend to be motivated to service and maintain the equipment at a much higher level since the consequences of a failure can hit their bottom line very quickly.
Another aspect, speaking to technicians out there, knowing how to service specialty areas such as process chillers can make the day-to-day work life much more interesting.
If all you can work on is rooftop units, that will mostly what you will be working on for some time.
If you have a specialty skill, say in boilers, you can put that type of work in the mix, making your work life much more diverse and exciting.
Host question: Is Synergy Group looking for new members at present?
Jim Bartolotta: We do have some openings.
There are certain areas of the country that we were actively looking to add the right type of contractor. Contractors interested need to reach out to us, and we’ll tell you quickly, depending on your market, if there’s a Free Territory.
Host question: What types of contactors is Synergy looking for?
Jim Bartolotta: In general, we are looking for companies with a service discipline, which can come in many forms.
The Synergy membership is very diverse. We run the gamut from a three or $4 million service operation up to an $80 million service operation contingent upon the country’s area. The size of the Service Group isn’t as important to us as commitment and a passion towards service to their customers.
Host question: Do you have a Synergy Group success story you can share?
Jim Bartolotta: Yes, we had a gentleman in the Pacific Northwest who left his job working for a big mechanical contracting firm to start his own company, and he was looking into joining The Synergy Group.
He explained that he wanted to get “help to grow this thing.” He was concerned that he was too small for Synergy as it stated, “Right now it’s just me.”
Well, now has 48 technicians doing 20 plus million dollars. So it’s really not the size of the group as much as the person what they have inside.
This contractor is now selling his business to some internal employees over the next several years.
He said, one of the things that’s going to be non-negotiable is your involvement in Synergy; because these people helped me out, we’re going to be there to support them as well.