Eric Knaak, vice president of operations for Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning
Originally published: 09.01.19 by HVACR Business Staff
We sat down with Eric Knaak, vice president of operations for Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y. and current chairman of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). Eric discussed learning to be a leader, educating the industry and staying humble.
1. Can you tell us about your background?
I spent four years in the Marine Corps, and when I got out I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My father, actually, at the time, worked here at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning. He was a supervisor for the commercial installation group and he got me an interview with Jim Isaac. Had my father not worked here, I don’t know what I’d be doing.
2. What did you do when you were first hired?
I worked in our new homes division installing HVAC systems, ductwork and gas lines in new homes. I actually worked directly with Ray Isaac when I first started. He, of course, is the company president now.
3. What was your progression in the company?
I worked in the new homes division for about six months, and then I asked to go into commercial installation. I did that for a few years when they asked me to be a warehouse manager. After about a year, I asked to be a residential service technician. After about five years as a service technician, I was brought into a management cycle back in 1996.
4. What was that transition like?
It was very trying in the beginning. My previous leadership experience had been as a squad leader in the Marine Corps. In the military, it’s pretty straightforward — you said to do something, people did it. There was no debate and no questions. That’s the way the Marines get the job done. But, obviously, in the civilian sector that did not work the same.
5. How long did that adjustment take?
It took me a good couple of years to make that adjustment to the point where I was becoming more effective as a leader. Early on, I was a manager-director … directing people. I’ve learned over the years that leading people is a lot different than directing people. And it’s hopefully evolved enough to the point where I’m much more effective than I was 25 years ago.
6. What kind of resources helped you develop?
There was definitely trial and error. I think you learn best when you’ve had the opportunity to make the mistakes and learn from them. We like people to learn by trial and error, but as managers we’re there to guide them. Ray is a student of leadership, and he was developing his skills at the same time that I was, but he would help guide me.
7. Did the company invest in your leadership?
Yes. They saw enough in me to send me to some leadership coaching, some professional development courses and things like that early on in my career. I’m very appreciative of, and I still continue today. I’m in Vistage, which is an executive leadership organization. The company continues to invest in my leadership and development.
8. What is Isaac’s philosophy on education?
We are big believers in training development on the technical side, as well as the professional and personal development side. We’ve had a formalized program going back to around 1998 called Isaac University. We have two full time instructors, we have a classroom and we have a 2,000 square foot lab space. We’ve got 119 employees that are signed up and set up to begin their training classes in the fall.
9. Has that helped with recruitment?
It definitely has helped us. We still have openings, but we are bringing people up, training and developing them. We’ve got 85 people right now that wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the boot camp program. So it’s been extremely successful.
10. Is it difficult to invest in training and then see someone leave?
We’ve got so many young people now that are looking to try different things that they come and they go. We end up training some technicians that are pretty darn good. And because of that, some are getting lured away financially. It’s just part of the battle.
11. You’re still willing to make that investment?
Here’s what it comes down to: We’re better off training people and maybe losing some than if we kept them and didn’t train them. It also provides an emphasis on the part of our leadership team to make sure that we’re evolving and creating a culture to retain people.
12. How important is company culture?
Our people and our culture, really to us, are primary over the work that we do. It’s just heating and air conditioning. That’s what we’re doing. It’s nothing major. We want to create an environment where people want to be here because they feel compelled to be here. They want to be part of something that gives them opportunities that they might not have realized. We’re big proponents of being involved in the community.
13. What’s your management style now?
It’s evolved. I like to be hands off and allow our managers and leaders to make decisions and to make the mistakes the same way that I did. I’ve learned that, as a leader, once we give you thoughts or opinions, it seems like a lot of people will start to shut down because you’ve already said what it should be.
14. What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Helping others to achieve more than they would have ever done on their own. To see someone who came here with no experience take on a role where they are enjoying what they do, they’re financially where they want to be, walking in with a smile … that’s really what it comes down to.
15. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not advice, but it is something that I’ve made part of my life. There is a Tim McGraw song, “Humble and Kind,” and some of the lyrics in that song go like this: “Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you; When you get where you’re goin’; Don’t forget turn back around; Help the next one in line.” I believe in giving back, I believe that everyone deserves an opportunity.
16. What’s new with ACCA this year?
One of the things the board of directors and the executive committee wanted to do was put together a formalized strategic plan. Having that plan has been one of the best moves we’ve made, because now we have a lot of direction and guidance.
17. What’s the most important part of the plan?
Membership. And it’s not just about having more members, but the increased, engaged membership allows us to have a stronger voice as an industry. It’s important that the voice of the contractor be heard.
18. What’s the biggest benefit to joining ACCA?
We want to make sure that we are the source for our industry, for the contractors, to be able to get the answers to those questions that they have, because there are so many challenges today.
19. How does a contractor get the most out of membership?
One would be to go to the website, because there is a tremendous amount of information on there. Everything from white papers, to training information and more. Secondly would be to attend either our annual conference in the spring, or our fall meetings, which this year is going to be in Dayton, Ohio. Finally, get involved in a MIX Group. MIX Groups are one of the biggest game changers that ACCA has to offer.
20. What are your personal goals as chairman?
I want to be sure the items in the strategic plan are fully implemented. So having the plan, but not having it fully implemented, it doesn’t do us any good.