Bottom Line: People, Planning, Being Proactive

Sept. 1, 2008
It is important for contractors to set aside time to plan how to maximize bottom-line results for the long-term.

Mechanical contractors are typically too busy to sit back and analyze ways to minimize risk and increase productivity and profitability. Yet, to ensure future business growth, it is important for contractors to set aside time to plan how to maximize bottom-line results for the long-term.

In the day-to-day rush, contractors usually are concerned about getting enough manpower out to complete current jobs. There often is a scramble to assign whatever staff is available and hire the least expensive subcontractors.

This is a sure way to diminish quality of work. A better approach is to switch focus from just winning bids to developing trusted partnerships with customers who will bring in profitable business today and in the future.

Recruiting and retaining highly qualified people strengthens your position to make more profitable bids. The contractor who adds value with a competent staff has an advantage in the bidding process.

Today, contractors face hiring challenges as fewer qualified professionals enter the HVAC industry. This makes it even more critical to attract the right talent and hold onto them.

Ways to build a stronger workforce:

  • Engage in recruiting efforts at trade schools and colleges in your area. Participate in trade fairs and promote your business as an attractive place to work. The ACE Mentor Program of America Inc. (, which aims to make high school students aware of career opportunities in architecture, construction and engineering, is one excellent way to support students entering the field.

  • Carefully select subcontractors, check references and ensure they have a strong history of quality work and meeting deadlines. They also should be properly insured and have a proven safety record.

  • Take advantage of training programs through associations, such as ASHRAE, ABC, MCAA and SMACNA, the Design-Build Institute of America and the U.S. Green Building Council to keep your staff up-to-date on the latest skills and certifications.

  • Conduct in-house training. Many tools can be found on the OSHA Website. Also find out what training programs your HVAC supplier might have to offer.

  • Develop a system to share and exchange knowledge. This could include peer groups that meet regularly or Web forums.

  • Conduct regular feedback sessions with your staff to gauge satisfaction and learn how you can improve work conditions. This also is an opportunity to discuss skills development.

It might seem that winning new business always is a good thing. But the truth is that many businesses fail because they cannot handle their growth.

When things get too busy, contractors run the risk of getting into constant firefighting mode, rushing from job to job just to get things done. The key to smart growth is to plan each project to meet the customer's deadlines with quality work.

Ways to stay proactive:

  • Create a business plan that sets forth your goals and strategies for the next year, five years and, if possible, 10 years

  • Select construction and project planning tools to fit your business size and style

  • Make sure your entire team follows the project planning system

  • Move jobs that can be done off-site to your shop

  • Work with your HVAC supplier to schedule deliveries according to the job completion schedule

  • Consider lean construction methods. Refer to the Lean Construction Institute

Build vertical market expertise. The demands in markets such as schools, healthcare, government buildings industrial plants and retail continually grow more complex. By gaining experience and knowledge in one or two of these vertical markets you increase the demand for your services.

Tips on building vertical market expertise:

  • As you hire, consider recruits with vertical market expertise

  • Obtain certifications related to various markets, such as the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Accredited Professional certification or the American Society for Healthcare Engineering Healthcare Construction Certificate Program

  • Join associations in the markets in which you are looking to do business (ASHE for healthcare, ISPE for pharmaceuticals, BOMA for commercial office buildings, etc.)

  • Partner with a supplier/manufacturer with vertical market expertise

Foster long-term customer relationships. The more expertise a contractor builds in the customer's business, the more likely they will be called on for future jobs.

All the steps above can help you to build long-term relationships with customers that will lead to more business.

A few more things to consider:

  • Ensure customer satisfaction - conduct followup interviews and satisfaction surveys

  • Take corrective actions to avoid making the same mistakes and let your customer know what actions were taken

  • Build as many relationships as possible within the customer organization

  • Consider ways to conduct joint marketing with your HVAC supplier

  • Train your staff in relationship management

In the midst of daily challenges to complete projects on deadline, take the time to position your business to grow for many years to come.

Heather Pedersen is Mechanical Contractor Segment Leader, Trane Commercial Systems, responsible for Trane's mechanical contractor programs and initiatives. She focuses on increasing productivity and profitability in the mechanical contractor community by providing sales tools for the field organization.

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