By Rob McManamy of HPAC Engineering
In July, HPAC Engineering and CONTRACTOR Magazine began a new video series running on their respective websites that combined practical insights and handy how-to advice for boiler operation and maintenance. Those videos are produced by the knowledgeable and remarkably prolific content creators at WARE, a family-owned, third-generation, commercial and industrial boiler rental and service firm based in Louisville KY.
Founded in 1952 as a residential air conditioning and heating company, WARE today is an especially unique player in the boiler industry because of its remarkable "side business" as an educator and unofficial videographer of the American Boiler Manufacturers Association (ABMA). Currently, WARE's YouTube channel boasts than 29,000 subscribers, hundreds of videos and millions of views. And its headquarters now also houses a state-of-the-art "Boiler University" classroom, which teaches continuing education courses accredited by Western Kentucky University.
With all that in mind, we asked Chairman Ritchie Ware to explain his company's unusual approach to this business.
HPAC: Ritchie, for a boiler service firm based in Western Kentucky, your family firm certainly seems to think outside the box. Each generation seems to have a broader vision of your company mission. Please tell us a bit about the roots of the firm and how that broader mission evolved.
Ritchie Ware: The company actually started as a residential heating and A/C company. Our dad, second generation, started moving us more to the commercial and industrial side. He brought the idea of renting a boiler to the company after hearing about how they were doing this in Chicago. The company, originally started by Ivan Ware, was a servant of others before providing service.
So, if we first take care of our employees, it allows the company to grow, employ, increase generosity, and take care of our customers. This was handed down to us by our founder Ivan Ware. Our dad (Richard Ware) and his sister (Kit Moore) continued that vision, and for the last 25 years we have carried on the legacy on the foundation that was laid before us. We are the success of many that have sacrificed and put our customers and our company first. Our people genuinely love to serve our customers and take care of them. It’s fun to watch.
HPAC: 'Boiler University' is certainly a unique aspect of your firm that also seems more driven by the idea of industry education that your own bottom line. And now you have new physical facilities dedicated specifically to Boiler U., as well as a Continuing Ed affiliation with Western Kentucky University. Please tell us about the evolution of this teaching aspect to your business...
RW: Our company has always been about sharing knowledge. That is internal, to our customers or to anyone who has an interest in steam. Boiler University was actually started by an employee from his idea. Jeff Barto was a former technician and loved to teach. He has since retired but, he really got it off the ground by showing up at hotels and custom classes at customers sites. We always wanted our own facility and was so glad Jeff got to see his idea and vision come to life and be a part of designing the facility with a lab that has 4 live fired boilers, a stadium class room that seats 60, a cafeteria that seats 85 and a breakout classroom that seats 30. As finding boiler people got harder and harder, we knew we were going to have to grow our own. So, Boiler University serves two purposes:
- It teaches anyone that wants to grow in their steam knowledge and profession and companies that are looking to improve their boiler room(s) with efficiency or safety; and...
- We use it to train our technicians and our employees.
HPAC: A more recent manifestation of that educational mission is WARE's vast media library, which now includes several dozen instructional videos explaining virtually every aspect of the boiler industry. In fact, WARE's YouTube channel now has nearly 29,000 subscribers. How did this side business evolve, as well?
RW: Currently we have over 29,000 subscribers and about 7,000,000 views. With over 600 videos now on the YouTube channel there is not a more comprehensive library of boiler industry videos in one place. We are excited about doing this as we can see this will help the industry for many years to come.
We currently have a weekly show on Fridays called Steam Culture that talks about how steam has impacted our culture in our everyday lives. With 80% of all products touched by steam at some point the boiler industry is one of the most important parts of our success as humans. These videos are entertaining, educational and quick. Our other show is a bi-weekly show on Monday’s called The Boiling Point. This is where we get to interview industry professionals about the industry. It has a wide range of topics from "How a Firetube Boiler Works" to "Blowing Down a Boiler", "How Scale Forms", and many, many more. If you have any interest at all in this industry, there is something for you on The Boiling Point. Our third show is Weekly Boiler Tips, which come out on Wednesdays. This is where you get to hear Jude Wolf, our Boiler University instructor give his insights and tips as a Technician. It’s simply outstanding watching him share all of his knowledge.
HPAC: How has the pandemic affected these 'side' businesses? Many firms have had to trim staff to stay afloat over these last difficult 18 months. How has WARE managed to keep from turning inward and cutting back on what outsiders might see as "non-core" businesses?
RW: Wow! The interesting part is that no one has a playbook on this one. We have been very blessed to not have to lay anyone off. We did have to change processes, get creative with labor and our employees on making sure we didn’t cross-contaminate our workforce and have to quarantine everyone. That would have been awful for our customers. Our revenue dropped about 35% during this time. So it is definitely a challenging time. But we used that time as an opportunity to contact our customers and prospects with a huge calling program to stay in touch and let them know that we are still here to help when needed.
If people were not going to come to us, and they didn’t, we were going to give an opportunity for people to do Boiler 101 at their pace at home and not have the travel, time and expense. We even reduced the class price, even though there is over 14 hours of video developed. The content our guys created is outstanding.
HPAC: Lastly, next year will mark 70 years since your grandfather started Ivan Ware & Son in the early '50s. What would he say, do you think, if he could see the business today? What would surprise him the most?
RW: I think he would be in awe of what his vision has evolved into and how proud he would be of the employees, his kids (Richard and Kit) and his grandkids that have poured their souls into making WARE what it is today. I think from a business perspective, it would be more than he had ever dreamed. From a personal level, he would be thrilled that the values he instilled in serving others has stayed strong in WARE. Our employees love one another, share their knowledge, are as loyal as they come, innovative, hardworking and just love solving problems and taking care of WARE’s customers. Most of all, he would be humbled that God has blessed his business and would be so thankful.
HPAC: Thanks so much for your time here. Let's talk again down the line once we finally put this pandemic behind us.
RW: Thanks for having me. I look forward to it.