David Heckler, co-owner of Comfort Supply Inc.
Originally published: 10.01.07 by Terry Tanker
David Heckler, co-owner of Comfort Supply Inc. (CSI) in Pittsburgh, which was twice named Comfortmaker Distributor of the Year, recently chatted with publisher Terry Tanker about vision, discipline, service and marketing.
1. You're a third-degree black belt in judo. How did you get your start?
I started when I was 8 years old. I had some success with it, winning a National Championship at age 11, a Junior Pan American Championship next and placed third in the NCAA when I was in college.
2. Have you ever had to put your talents to work outside of the ring?
Not really, and as part of your training it is discouraged.
3. How did you get your start in the business?
My great-grandfather and four great-uncles started Heckler Heating in 1904. My father owned a manufacturers rep firm when I was a kid and later started Comfort Supply. It's cliché, but I've done everything from sweeping the floors to working with the bank.
4. How has your experience in judo helped you in business?
It taught me about good work ethics. It also taught me about goal setting. Achieving goals improved my confidence. It's all very connected.
5. What else?
You would be surprised — simple things like traveling. Back then it was a big deal to travel out of state and internationally to compete. I became mature more quickly and those are the kinds of things that really help when you own and manage a business.
6. What is the best advice you've received about business?
My dad told me, "Don't ever get in the mind-set that the reason we do things a certain way is because we've always done them that way. Keep your options open."
7. What advice will you share with your sons?
I will pass the same advice on to them. It's timeless.
8. What is your business philosophy?
Focus on service to differentiate our company and offer a strong engineering support component.
9. Do you believe this is unique in your market area?
We believe this is our strength. Just about anyone can sell boxes. We look for niches where we can add value. Our expertise and unique offering is servicing contractors through engineering support. More than half of our business is commercial and we will meet with owners, architects and engineers on behalf of our customers to help them make sure they have the right solutions for the job.
10. How are you able to offer the engineering service?
We have five salesmen with over 100 years of experience all on the technical side of the business. That team is a great resource for our customers.
11. Are there any unusual jobs you've helped your clients with?
We've done radiant systems for helicopter pads. It's critical that they work properly with the amount of snow we get in the Pittsburgh area. But more importantly, we embrace new innovative products from manufacturers and in turn help our customers solve problems for the end user.
12. Are there specific engineering support services that you offer?
We offer CAD (computer-aided design) drawings, control drawings, job-site project evaluations and on-site technical support.
13. Are there special markets or projects Comfort Supply focuses on?
We gravitate toward technical projects that we can add value to. We do this through our product knowledge and the engineering support.
14. What is a "best practice" you employ?
Total owner involvement and direct access to our very qualified staff. Our business cards have our cell phone numbers as well as our home phone numbers. No one abuses this. They know if they have a problem and need help on a holiday they can reach us.
15. What part of the business would you like to improve?
Operations is our Achilles' heel. We concentrate on service and sales almost to a fault, but it has served us very well.
16. What plans do you have to improve operations?
I've been working on that recently, and it's possible we would need to make an addition to the staff and hire an operations manager.
17. What would you change about dealing with manufacturers?
I would preface by saying the only reason we make suggestions to the manufactures in the first place is because we care. We're passionate about the product lines we carry. Many people who work for manufacturers have not been in our position as a distributor, so their understanding of our business is not what it could be. Implications of seemingly small decisions sometimes have adverse effects on us.
18. What types of marketing work best for Comfort Supply?
We are very active marketers, and I think it all works. We've done E-zines, reprints, newsletters, postcards, tradeshows — just about everything you can think of.
19. Do you have specific marketing plans laid out for the year?
Actually, we do five or six each year based on manufacturer, product line and product. It's a six-figure investment each year. For face-time in a non-business setting, we like to treat contractors to field trips. Recently, we chartered a bus and invited 30 contractors to join us as our guests in Cleveland for the Steelers vs. Browns game. They are a captive audience, but they enjoy it because it's a fun time. And having the Steelers clean up the field with the Browns wasn't bad either!
20. What does the future hold for HVACR distributors?
As long as distributors add value to the sales chain, they will be an important part in the supply chain. If they can't or don't, they will be gone. In the future, successful distribution will have to be more flexible and position itself to become even more valuable to the contractor's business. Lead generation, business planning, technical expertise, and on-site service specialists all are things that we will need to embrace to help our customers grow and to have them continue to see us as an integral partner in their business future.