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HVAC company heats up sales in cool economy through acquisitions

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Doubling annual sales might seem an impossible feat in a recession, but at the modest office of Williams Comfort Air and Metzler's Mr. Plumber, it is a reality.

Consolidation has been a primary factor in the heating and air-conditioning installer's leap to $11 million in sales. President and owner Joe Huck, 52, has worked in heating and cooling since 1974, when he created Huck Heating. He sold his company in 2001 to Maryland-based Bluedot, where he worked until 2007.

In May of that year, Huck, along with partners Tom Doll, Dan Lockart and sons Jacob and Joshua Huck—his current sales, operations, IT and service managers, respectively—acquired Carmel-based Williams. The partners bought the 41-year-old company from then-owner Jim Williams Sr., who at age 70 was ready to retire.

Through a more aggressive advertising campaign and a significant upgrade to Williams' equipment, they managed to pull the company out of its three-year, $3-million-in-annual-sales doldrums.

Just a year later, in May 2008, Williams merged with 63-year-old Metzler's, a plumbing installer that was pulling in about $1 million a year. With former Metzler's Manager Jeff Kirkhoff as the hybrid company's new plumbing manager, Huck saw their combined revenue double over the previous year to $11 million.

"[The company's] growth is phenomenal," said Tim Perry, sales manager of Evansville-based statewide HVAC distributor Koch Enterprises, who is familiar with Williams and Metzler's work. "They just do so many things right."

The increase in advertising, aided by cross-marketing between the two companies, yielded not only customers, but an abundance of employees as well. The advertising drew the attention of several newly out-of-work employees of independent heating and cooling repair businesses. Williams and Metzler's hired a number of them, quadrupling its work force to 90 by the end of 2008. Although the Air Conditioning Contractors of America's 2008 members' report cites the "significant labor shortage that contractors have been grappling with" as the industry's biggest challenge, Williams and Metzler's has managed to breeze through.

"Our success in employment was no accident," Huck said, crediting the quality of his staff and their work to the attraction of new talent.

Another crucial aspect of maintaining business in the current climate is being able to expand services, Huck said. Besides the recent assimilation of Metzler's into Williams, the business has focused more on maintenance of existing heating and air-conditioning units than on installation of units in buildings under construction, since spending on residential construction is down 5.1 percent from 2007. Although his predecessor focused heavily on new construction projects, Huck is ready and willing to provide whatever is needed.

"We do anything that pays in the field," he said.

The shift in focus from furnishing new units to upgrading and maintaining existing equipment is not unusual in today's business environment: It's more cost effective not only to maintain old equipment but also to continue working with known, reliable customers than to hunt for new ones. Marty Bloyd, the owner of Fishers-based playground installation center Child's-Play, knows this well. His company has shifted from installing new equipment to maintaining previously installed equipment.

"Maximizing your customer base is essential," Bloyd said, stressing the importance of finding and supplying a service customers will pay for.

The trend toward environmentally friendly HVAC units also has been friendly to Williams and Metzler's. The U.S. Department of Energy three years ago issued a protocol that increased the minimum Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating on all heaters and air conditioners. The changes have increased the price of new units by $600 to $1,000, so that a typical home unit now costs $3,000 to $4,000. Research indicates lower energy bills could make up the difference for buyers within a year.

Huck attributes his company's success to a combination of an unflinchingly positive outlook and customer service provided by a knowledgeable staff. Williams and Metzler's emphasizes customer-service training just as much as technical training.

"I was overly impressed with [the service]," said customer Jeff Gaither. "The technician quickly addressed the problem, informed us of the correction, and sold a service policy. I wish all my guys were so efficient."

Huck adopted his business philosophy from a customer he had in his early days: an elderly man in need of a new heater.

"He told me, 'Whatever you think, you're right,'" Huck said. "'If you think it's bad, it's bad.'" The job, Huck gregariously explains, is to be straightforward with customers while helping them keep their HVAC and plumbing setup as inexpensive and energy efficient as possible.

Although many in his industry may be hunkering down, Huck is setting his sights high.

"We're at a point where reaching status quo is a victory [for a business]," Huck said. "We believe that this is unacceptable."

Address:
1077 Third Ave. SW, Carmel
Phone: (877) 499-5328
Web site: www.williamscomfortair.com
E-mail: joe.huck@williamscomfortair.com
Founded: 1966 (Williams), 1945 (Metzler's), 2008 (joined)
Founder: Jim Williams Sr.
Owners: Tom Doll, Jacob Huck, Joshua Huck, Joe Huck, Jeff Kirkhoff, Dan Lockart
Service/product: heating, air-conditioning, and plumbing installation and repair
Employees: 90
Revenue: $11 million

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