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20 Questions with Joe Nichter, President, Tri-City Mechanical

Originally published: 03.01.08 by Terry Tanker

At the ACCA annual meeting in Denver, Joe Nichter, president of Tri-City Mechanical (Comfort Systems USA), accepted the commercial contractor of the year award. HVACR Business publisher Terry Tanker sat down with Joe to discuss challenges, triumphs and business best practices.

1. How does it feel to be recognized as ACCA’s Commercial Contractor of the Year?

I am very proud. Any recognition that can focus attention to our team confirms that all the hard work is worth it — this award is icing on the cake.

2. Was this a specific goal for your company?

Yes. We want our people to be proud of where they work. Last year we received awards for “Best Place To Work” from the Phoenix Business Journal and “Company of the Year” from Comfort Systems USA.

3. How did you get started in this business?

I went to Erie Community College in Buffalo, N.Y., for heating and air conditioning. I went into the service business for a very short time until I found out in Buffalo you need a snow shovel as part of your tool box. In 1984, I went to work for a friend at Tri-City Mechanical

and started off as the service manager. I became president when he sold the business to Comfort Systems in 1997.

4. Are there challenges to being part of a publicly traded company?

The benefits outweigh any challenges. Comfort Systems is distinctive because it guides instead of rules individual operations. It allows an entrepreneurial leadership style that conforms to our history and environment. Being a part of a bigger company you are able to share best practices.

5. What was it like to ring the NSYE opening bell?

An event I will never forget! Your impression when you see the exchange floor on TV is that it’s very chaotic and unorganized. After walking around you realize that there definitely is an organized method to the madness.

6. What is your business philosophy?

Create a vision that everyone understands and buys into and empower the team to execute the vision.

7. With 550 employees, what is the largest challenge you face each week?

Securing new work with our current run rate of $97 million a year. Another challenge is communication.

8. How do you overcome that challenge?

BlackBerrys are very effective along with our newsletter and monthly bulletin. We also schedule management meetings to update everyone on new projects, prospects, benefits, policy changes, new members on the team and any other changes that need to be announced.

9. How do you make the company more intimate?

We try to build comradery through company events. We have an annual golf tournament, bowling tournaments, potlucks for the office, a chili cook off, Christmas social, annual company picnic in the fall and an annual fishing tournament where we rent an entire lake in the White Mountains.

10. What challenges have you overcome?

Growth is a challenge due to the shortage of qualified people. As a result, we look for diversity in our offerings so we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. We encourage employees to be innovative, because it’s a core value of our vision. This type of thinking has resulted in a new division within the company called Hydro-Kool.

11. What is Hydro-Kool?

Hydro-Kool, a LLC of Tri-City Mechanical manufactures a modular central plant. They are pre-engineered and pre-assembled modules and are available up to 750 tons per skid, and up to 5 skids can be connected to provide a 3750 ton plant. The value is in the quality and repeatability of the product and when the plant ships it can be assembled and started in one day. It also closes the financial gap between DX systems and chilled
water because, you do not have the costs of the bricks and mortar that is associated with a traditional central plant.

12. What are your big future challenges?

Manpower. We are making strides to overcome this with pre-fabrication for piping, plumbing and sheetmetal. Another is keeping up with technology and training for our service division. Also, understanding the LEED process and incorporating Green into future mechanical systems.

13. How are you addressing labor challenges?

We have a full apprenticeship program with 65 students enrolled. It’s easy for us to attract ground-level people and teach them a trade. What prohibits our growth is qualified middle management. We have foreman, superintendent and project management training to encourage our people to take leadership positions. This solves the education dilemma and it also creates opportunities for our people.

14. What is your most important role?

To lead and to set the vision that everybody can follow along with and to help model behavior.

15. What is the favorite part of your job?

I look forward to going to work. I believe that I need to be out of my office during the day. I need to be visible giving encouragement, watching, asking questions and learning.

16. What is your least favorite part?

Dealing with an upset customer, but not for the reason you may think. It’s because at all levels of the company we’ve given employees the tools and empowerment to maintain our customers’ trust. So obviously, if I’m involved in a situation, we’ve had some breakdown.

17. How do you escape the pressures of business?

I like to go to my cabin and tinker around. I also love to play golf, hike and bicycle and spend time with my family.

18. Who do you relate to most: Norm Abram, Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong? Why?

Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. Lance because in 2000 I was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. When you are faced with something like that you have to overcome physical and mental obstacles and learn to prioritize what’s important in your life. Tiger Woods because I love the challenge of wanting to be the best and want my team to strive for that as well. After you are on top of your game, you have to use your skills and knowledge to maintain that status.

19. Is health care a big item for you?

When Comfort Systems USA bought Tri-City, the whole management of our health care, insurance, liability and bonding all became part of our corporate office responsibility. This allowed us to take advantage of the economies of scale that come with a billion-dollar company.

20. What best practice serves you well?

Hire the right managers and let them do their job. When you choose the right caliber of people to run a portion of your company, you have to put faith in them and be confident that they are going to make decisions that align with the vision. As leaders, we have to concentrate on recognizing success and looking for individuals who want to move up and take on more responsibility.

Terry has over 23 years of experience in the advertising and publishing industries. He began his career with a business-to-business advertising agency. Prior to forming Hutchinson Tanker Ltd. and HVACR Business in January 2006, he spent 20 years with large national publishing and media firm where he was the publisher of several titles in the mechanical systems marketplace. 

In addition to his experience in advertising and publishing, Terry has worked closely with numerous industry-related associations over the years including AHRI, AMCA, and ABMA. He has also served on the Board of Directors for the American Boiler Manufactures Association (ABMA) and as chairman, for both the Associates Committee and the Marketing Communications Committee of ABMA.


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