20 Questions with Chris Baker, President and COO of Virginia Air Distributor

Originally published: 01.01.13 by Terry Tanker

A few weeks before the holiday rush publisher Terry Tanker spent time with Virginia Air Distributor’s Chris Baker, President and COO, to discuss family businesses, customer service that sets his business apart from others and his passion for triathlons.   

1.  Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I attended the University of Virginia and their undergraduate McIntire School of Commerce.  It was a great program with lots of case studies and opportunities to work with real businesses.

2.  Did you join Virginia Air Distributors (VAD) right after college?

No. After college I was a full time triathlete, competing in the Ironman World Championships.    Triathlons didn’t pay much so I also was a swim coach, bartender, and numerous other random jobs to support my triathlon “habit”.  After a couple years it was time to get a “real job” that’s when I started full time for Virginia Air Distributors.     

3.  In the hvacr industry it’s common to have family members working together. As a second generation executive what advice do you have for others? 

It’s an incredible opportunity and privilege to be the “next” generation.  All the hard work the prior generations accomplished is often taken for granted.   You also have to make sure you separate work life and personal life. Don’t take work issues to family gatherings, enjoy them for what they are.    

4.  What is the best business advice you’ve received and who gave it to you?

I’m not sure from whom this advice or expression came but the old adage “Slow to Hire, Quick to Fire” is my favorite.  With people being our most important asset it’s critical for our business to hire the right individuals. Making a mistake is costly on a number of different levels. 

5.  What differentiates VAD from the competition?

Without question it’s our people and the incredible customer service they provide.  It’s ultimately our product, not the boxes in the warehouse.     

6.  VAD expanded rapidly its first five years in business are their further plans for expansion?

We’ve always had healthy organic growth but 10 years ago we acquired both our NC region and our OH / PA region within a span of 6 months.  We doubled the business, number of branches and people virtually overnight.  That said, we are always exploring strategic acquisitions and new territories.

7.   What areas of your business operation are growing most significantly?

Ductless and geothermal are really booming but we’re just riding the wave.  In addition our supplies initiative has grown successfully as we look to diversify and help offset the weak unitary equipment market.

8.  What types of training do you offer contractors?

We have Contractor Based Programs that combine business and technical training, marketing assistance, co-op, trips, and retail sales tools.    Ultimately they help our contractor customers be more successful, which, in turn, helps us be more successful.

9.  Where do you want to lead VAD in the next 3-5 years?

We want to continue to improve our customer service. We have a goal of being the best HVAC distributor in the world and we continue to work toward that goal.    In addition, we want to take advantage of the digital revolution to become a technology leader.

10.  Where are your growth opportunities in 2013?

Our biggest growth opportunity is to continue to increase awareness of our brand and customer service capabilities.  Once we attract a customer they rarely leave, but getting new customers is often very difficult.     

11.  What is a “best practice” you employ?

I send a monthly update to all our employees in which I overview our performance including sales, financial performance, company records we reach, outstanding individual performances, and more.  It’s been so well received that I’ve asked our VP of Human Resources to start sending a similar communication from his department every month to all our employees reviewing safety, anniversaries, benefits, and much more.

12.  Are you working on any specific tools to help contractors be more productive? 

Yes we are. The first is our Digital Contractor Manual.  We’ve taken our traditional printed manual and made it into an App with incredible interactive content. It’s available on the Apple App store --— check it out!  

13.  You’ve mentioned customer service several times, how do you measure customer satisfaction?

We’re developing new metrics and employee centric dashboards that track and compare our critical customer service job tasks, which brings to mind another saying, “What Gets Measured, Gets Done!”   

14.  What types of marketing work best for you at VAD?

For several years we’ve been watching the shift to digital media. Web SEO is very popular as is social media.  It’s typically a smaller investment and can be measured more easily.  But we’re also aware that a complete marketing strategy has to include trade media, and we’re very appreciative of industry-specific media placements from manufacturers.   

15.  What does the future hold for hvacr distributors in general?

I think there will continue to be great opportunity, and while the pendulum swings I think manufacturers realize the importance of strong independent distribution.   It can really make or break them in a market.   I think there will continue to be mild consolidation and a dramatic increase in the use of technology to reduce costs.  One of the biggest challenges, as always, will be to attract, train, and retain good talent.   

16.  What is your leadership style? 

I had to ask around to get a little help on this one.  I tend to be very involved and engaged in our newer, especially digital, initiatives.  On the more routine day-to-day tasks I tend to let our team members do their jobs and review on a higher level regularly, holding managers accountable for their specific areas of responsibility.    

17.  Can you share your business philosophy with us?

I’ve mentioned it numerous times in other forms already, but basically it’s that customer service is our passion and we will be the best in the world at distributing HVAC products.   

18.  Are you working on any pet projects this year?

We’re working on a project we’ve called the “configurator”.   It will allow employees and customers to pick AHRI — matched HVAC systems and all the related accessories in a graphical and foolproof system.  It will dramatically improve customer service and accuracy in addition to increasing accessory sales.  

19.  What are your favorite aspects of managing the business?

Working with our incredible team. I really enjoy trying to determine how to best capitalize on the tremendous opportunity we have in our market(s).   

20.  Any closing comments?

Happy New Year everyone. Make it a good one.

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