20 Questions with Tom East, President Refrigeration Sales Corporation
Originally published: 02.01.11 by Terry Tanker
Publisher Terry Tanker met with Tom East, president of Refrigeration Sales Corp. (RSC), at their corporate headquarters to discuss running, training, education, wholesale distribution, contracting, and leadership.
1. I heard you’re a marathon runner. True?
I have run in marathons, and I do train every day and average 70-80 miles per week.
2. How do you keep that schedule with our extremely cold and snowy Midwest winter(s)?
If it’s too nasty outside, I’ll train on the treadmill.
3. Do you run to burn off the stress of the week?
(Laughs) No. But it certainly helps. Running is simply something I enjoy and view as a hobby, along with reading and learning.
4. Speaking of learning, you have a Ph.D. in organizational behavior, an MBA in business administration, and a BS in management. Is this one reason RSC offers so many training classes?
There are new people and new technologies continually entering our field, and it’s imperative that we train technicians to properly install, maintain, and service all brands of equipment.
5. How many students pass through your classrooms each year?
About 1,500-plus students divided into two categories — technology courses, which range from three to 18 weeks in length; and skills courses, which are one-time, selected topics.
6. Do you charge for the training?
Yes. Good education comes at a cost. And, charging for training is a great feedback mechanism. If no one is willing to pay, then we need to change or improve our classes.
7. How do you promote the training?
Our website, regular e-newsletters, direct mail, and counter displays in our stores. Our sales team also carries training brochures and information. And finally, we include mail stuffers with our monthly statements.
8. How did you get started in the HVACR industry?
My father owned his own heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration business for 38 years. I grew up cleaning his service trucks, and then eventually running the service business for him, before I took over for him in the late 1970s, after returning from the U.S. Marine Corps and a tour of Vietnam.
9. What happened then?
I enjoyed owning and growing the business, but felt I wanted to further my education and work with small businesses, and believed working for a wholesaler would allow me to do that. So in 1984 I sold the family business to a good friend and took the opportunity to work in the wholesale business.
10. RSC was originally a contracting firm. Willis Carrier asked your founder to consider something else. Can you explain?
RSC began as the Kelvinator Cleveland Company in 1921, selling mechanical refrigeration “ice-boxes.” Despite the success we had as a contractor, the growing refrigeration (and now air conditioning) industry was ready for the advantages that wholesale distributors had to offer. Between 1943 and 1945, Warren Farr Sr. (our founder) — after what is described as “several meetings with Willis Carrier” — finally agreed to transition his contracting business into pure wholesale.
11. How do you attract top talent to RSC?
We do a good deal of marketing and recruiting. We proudly promote our company culture, and work to define our values to make sure they are upheld. We make our goals and mission clearly understood so all employees can incorporate them into their work. And, we have an industryleading mentoring program for new hires and an excellent review program for all employees.
12. Where do you see the most significant growth in your business?
We have several new productinitiatives and are investing in new store locations. Our new products are green, energy efficient, reliable, easy to use, and affordable.
13. Weather has been extreme in most parts of the country and certainly in the Midwest. Has that translated into significantly more business for contractors and for RSC?
The extremes do help. However, we are continually trying to take weather out of the equation when we help our customers market their businesses, and generate leads.
14. Where do you want to lead RSC in the next 3-5 years?
Our long-term strategy is to become a super regional player. The HVACR market has matured, and in order for us to continue to grow and build value, we will continually look for new-location opportunities in markets we are not currently servicing, and we’ll be looking for acquisition opportunities.
15. What aspects of RSC do you want to grow?
Last year we opened a call center to expand our customer services, and to relieve our store counter people so they could spend more time with their walk-in customers. Another area we want to expand is our website.
16. What is your marketing philosophy?
We constantly want to better understand what our customer’s need and wants are. We then strive to develop marketing promotions and programs aimed at filling these wants and needs. This means that we carefully conduct and evaluate marketing research as an essential component of our marketing process.
17. Does RSC have a mission?
Service Speed, Expertise, Relationships! RSC believes that the most valuable minute belongs to the customer, and we provide Service Speed to make sure we are respecting their labor productivity. Expertise means that we are recognized and trusted for our ability to share industry knowledge; while loyalty and deep trust are earned through Relationships.
18. What is RSC’s leadership style?
Our senior management’s leadership style is authentic. An authentic leader chooses to live a life of integrity. They are not only honest in relationships with others, but most importantly, they are honest and true to themselves.
19. How does this style benefit RSC?
It promotes an environment of continual growth. The employees and their collective creativity adjust to changing conditions. This shapes our culture. People become more honest with themselves and others, developing higher levels of trust and goodwill toward each other.
20. What are the challenges facing wholesaler-distributors today?
Charting a successful course in this new economic environment today will require a combination of bold initiatives and prudent investments. Striking the right balance will require an intense focus on getting much closer to customers and building a highly motivated, capable, energized, and enabled workforce.
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