Bill Stueber, owner of Blue Ridge Heating and Cooling
Originally published: 06.01.15 by Terry Tanker
HVACR Business Publisher Terry Tanker recently interviewed Bill Stueber, owner of Blue Ridge Heating and Cooling in Pine Beach, N.J., a 2015 Tops in Trucks Fleet Design Contest winner. Stueber, who started his company in 1986, discussed the challenges of finding good people, updating the company brand and transitioning the business to his daughter.
1. How did you get started in this business?
I was in the Air Force for five years and worked in HVACR while was stationed in Hawaii. When I got out of the service, I came home and went to work for a company in Asbury Park as their lead technician.
2. As a result of your experience in the Air Force, do you try to hire veterans?
Yes, because typically you're getting a well trained, disciplined individual. They're tough to find, because every company wants to hire them.
3. Is it a challenge to find good technicians?
We could grow 30 percent pretty easily, but our focus has been on quality rather than quantity. We're all challenged to find the right type of service technicians for our companies. Sure, we could hire anyone, but we hire based on personality and work ethic. Technical skills we can teach — we do a lot of in-house training.
4. Does your company do specialty work?
We've done a lot of cleanroom work for technology companies, as well as in the medical field where they process human tissue and bone. We've also done environmental chambers.
5. That sounds like interesting work — do you ever blog about it?
No, but I've joked about writing a book with all the funny things I've experienced. For example, when I was younger I was sent on a job with another technician to strip down an ice cream store that was closing for the winter and being remodeled. The owner was late and told us to jimmy the door and go inside.
We stripped the store, put the equipment on the truck and as we're heading back, we get a call from the office, "Where the heck are you guys, the owner is really mad he's waiting for you." I said we were done and there was nothing but silence. All of a sudden, they're yelling for us to go back. The address was wrong and we stripped the wrong store! It was amazing no one called the police.
6. Your daughter Jennifer is working with you —what are you teaching her?
I think Jen is teaching me! She's been coming in since she was very small; she's always worked with me through high school and college. She's held a lot of positions and is now vice president. She's influenced me on how to run the business and brought a new perspective into the company. We're 100 times better with her.
7. What has she learned from you?
Hopefully, that taking care of the customer is number one. I'm a Disney "nut" and I'm currently reading the book "Be Our Guest." It's about the Disney experience of customer service.
8. On which areas of the business does Jennifer concentrate?
She's really helped with our company culture and employee relations, setting up our weekly meetings and training, and how we communicate with one another. She's also instrumental with safety, employee incentives, Google searches and our social media.
9. Do you have a time frame for succession?
In the next five to seven years I'll be a consultant to the company and come in only once or twice a week. I've been handing things off to Jen and another manager, Steve, but it's been difficult for me. It's hard to let go.
10. Updating the brand was also difficult for you — when you did, were there immediate results?
Our customers noticed immediately. With our website, Facebook and, of course, the fleet, we've had a lot of exposure. A lot of companies wrap their fleets now to get noticed and take advantage of what that mobile billboard can accomplish.
11. What aspects did you want to incorporate?
Good old fashioned service, because I don't think a lot of companies concentrate enough on serving and servicing the customer. I wanted something that looked a little retro too, to get the point across, "Let our family take care of your family."
12. What do you estimate the cost was to rebrand?
The process took more than a year and we didn't track hundreds of the intangible hours such as time spent in meetings to discuss and develop the final design and to educate the staff. The hard assets are easier to track — wrapping a vehicle is $1,500 to $2,000.
13. Did the staff enjoy their involvement in the process?
Everyone had a seat at the table and voted on what they liked and didn't like. In the end, more input was better for us and gave us the best result. We were able to show them how we were reinvesting profits back in the company.
14. How big is your service area?
We cover three counties. It's roughly an hour in any direction, but if a customer really wants us, we'll travel 90 minutes more than that — the travel time isn't fair to the customer. If the customer allows us to leave a sign in their yard, each month we have a drawing and they can win $100.00. I think we have more than 1,000 out there right now. You should see the faces when we deliver the check!
15. Why do you support NATE certification?
New Jersey wasn't licensed when North American Technician Excellence (NATE) launched. Having some type of certification that said the technician we're sending out knows what he's doing was important to me. Training and education is really important.
16. Who conducts the training courses?
We do a lot of training through Ferguson and ABCO Refrigeration. Overall, I think they've really decided to take an interest in helping owners run a business. They want to help you be successful, because the more successful you are, the more they're going to be.
17. Are your technicians supportive?
Yes. Our policy with continuing education is, I pay for it if it's after hours. If it's during the day, you get paid for it. We stress to the guys that technology is constantly changing, and even if it's redundant, you're always going to pick up something you didn't remember or something that makes you say, "Oh yeah, I remember that, but I didn't do it."
18. Have you found the training you offer helps with recruiting of service technicians?
Yes. My operations manager, Steve, and I both attend the training classes too — we're regulars. Two technicians approached us at class and said their old bosses never went to training. Hearing our commercials, seeing our trucks and uniformed employees appealed to them and that's how we were able to bring them in.
19. Do you have a company philosophy?
Do the right thing, because you've got to be able to sleep at night. Doing a good job, do what you should be doing, and treating the customer like they're your friends.
20. How do you keep employees engaged?
Communication is number one. But if you're talking about tangibles, Jennifer has developed some great rewards. We take all the families out each spring on the River Lady (a boat) for a thank you. We also send flower to the technicians' wives at Christmas, thanking them for the time their spouses have spent away from home.