Featured Entrepreneur: Karen Lamy DeSousa
Originally published: 02.01.18 by Pete Grasso
Karen Lamy DeSousa’s father started his commercial HVACR contracting firm, Advance Air and Heat, out of the dining room of the family’s home when she was 11 years old. Her mother was the “back office” of the operation, while her father did everything else.
“At first, I had no interest in joining the family business,” she says. “I wanted to be President of the United States.”
As the business continued to grow, DeSousa developed her management skills running a program at a small non-profit organization. Then, something unthinkabl happened with her dad’s business. A devastating theft by one of the employees left the company in a difficult financial position and without an office manager.
“It was a dark moment when I decided to join the family business,” she remembers. “I don’t think I realized at the time what a risk that move might have been.”
What followed was an incredible commitment of teamwork from the entire company, and the business was able to pull through and continue to grow and thrive. And, with her father as her mentor, DeSousa continued to learn the HVACR business.
“He’s still my go-to person for advice, although he’s been retired for a couple of years now,” she says.
Because she doesn’t have a technical background in HVACR, DeSousa knew she had to make the most of the 10 years she’d have of working with her father before he retired — a time frame that isn’t nearly long enough to learn both how to run a business and how to be a technician.
Karen Lamy DeSousa
Title: Owner & President
Company: Advance Air & Heat Co., Inc.
Year Founded: 1986, incorporated in 1988
Headquarters: East Freetown, Mass.
Work Performed: Commercial HVACR service, maintenance & installation; building automation service
No. of Employees: 20
Annual Revenue: $4 million
Affiliations: Women in HVACR (board member), Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA), Mechanical Service Contractors of America (MSCA), NEMCA, United Association Local 51, Sheet Metal Local 17
She had to make a choice, so she decided to focus on learning as much about the business as possible, while squeezing in technical knowledge when she could.
“Most of my technical knowledge comes from asking a million questions, writing an HVACR blog which I call, ‘Confessions of an HVAC Chick,’ reading technical journals and working with lots of building automation software,” she says.
And although she’s taken many HVACR classes, she has almost no hands-on field experience.
“That lack of practical technical knowledge means I cannot help to cover emergency service calls when it gets busy,” she says. “I hate sitting on the sidelines while others are pulling long hard hours in the field. It makes me crazy.”
Still, it doesn’t stop her from running a growing, profitable business — she knows where her strengths are and how to use them best for her company.
“The HVACR field is so broad and constantly changing and advancing,” DeSousa says. “Whether your interest is mechanical, computer technology, environmental, customer service, mathematical or creative, you can find something in this field that fits your interest.
“Or do all of the above on a daily basis,” she adds. “That’s what I love about it — I can explore all of these areas from one place.”
Today, Advance Air and Heat is a Certified Woman-Owned Business that specializes in solving commercial HVACR and control issues in a way that is environmentally friendly, economical and makes sense for the individual business needs.
“We strive for a true team approach to management and we realize our success as a company depends on our ability to work efficiently and productively together to be the best HVACR contractor we can be for our customers as well as our employees.”
Like many contractors, DeSousa believes the greatest challenge right now is a lack of qualified technicians. She’s made it Advance Air and Heat’s mission to focus its efforts on investing in education and support for young and inexperienced people who show great promise and help them grow into strong, confident, well-rounded, experienced technicians.
Since she has taken the reigns of the company, it has continued to grow and thrive, but one thing remains the same — it still operates out of her childhood home.
“Albeit now, it operates out of a large addition and a series of garages,” she says.