Erica Estes, Owner of Southern Heating & Cooling, and Tops in Trucks winner
Originally published: 07.01.22 by Heather Langone
Managing Editor, Heather Langone spoke with Erica Estes, Owner of Southern Heating & Cooling, and Tops in Trucks winner, about the challenges of running an HVACR business, being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and tribe culture.
1. Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
The biggest influence would be my mom. She taught me always be honest. It never pays to be dishonest. And she taught me to always give back.
2. What book is on your bedside table, if any?
I keep a book on my desk. It's called Tribe Culture. It’s like my handbook.
3. What is Tribe Culture?
A tribe is defined by its culture. I’ve created a collaborative culture at work. Sometimes I take the book with me to meetings, Specifically, when guys aren’t working together, the book serves as a reminder. I assure them, that if someone has a skill that you have, that doesn’t mean he or she is there to take your job. We all work together.
4. When you need to relax, do you prefer shopping, self-care, sports, or a hobby?
Self-care. For me, that comes in the form of exercise. I lift weights. I've always enjoyed it.
5. Where is the most unforgettable place you've traveled to or would like to go to?
The most memorable trip was to New York. My family and I had a fantastic time. I’d also like to take my daughter to Greece at some point. As a child, she was obsessed with the movie Mamma Mia. She still loves it. 6. Had you ever worked in HVACR before? No.
7. How is it that you ended up owning a business in the HVACR industry?
I’ve always wanted to run my own business. I have a degree in accounting and worked in finance. My husband worked here as the controller for the previous owner who then started talking about retiring. He asked my husband if he’d be interested in taking over the company. He said, “You're going to need an asshole to run this place.” And my husband responded, “I know the perfect person.” It took a few years, and I did have experience in mergers and acquisitions. Still, it was a big risk, but we went for it. We're glad we did.
8. Up until now, had you ever run a business?
No, it’s been a learning process. The previous owner stayed on for the first year. Our company does new construction and typical retrofit jobs. He was worried that the builders might not respond well to a woman. I reassured him that it wouldn’t be a problem. I had never been treated differently before. And it wasn’t. The builders that he was worried about at the time are the same ones we work with today.
9. What do you see as the most pressing challenge facing HVACR owners today?
Staffing. Some will say the supply issues or price increases, but staffing has been a challenge.
10. What do you do to attract qualified service techs to grow your company?
We've been fortunate with our technicians. If one of them were to leave, I don't know how easy it would be to bring someone else in to fill those shoes. Therefore, we recognize the value they bring by offering excellent benefits that rival any of the competition. Fantastic health, vacation, and retirement benefits - something you rarely see in this industry. We also have an in-house training program for new employees.
11. What is the biggest lesson you've learned since starting the business?
Have confidence, embrace the challenges, and have a willingness to learn. Coming into this business – between COVID and staffing issues, I knew there was a shortage in the trades, but not to the extent that it has been. You can't prepare for everything. I’ve learned to have a game plan, embrace any challenge, and then find a solution.
12. What advice would you give to a woman entering the industry?
The trade is predominantly male. Some men might think you won’t be able to keep up. Have confidence and do it! Women pay more attention to detail, and I think we have better customer service skills. If you couple that with a willingness to learn, you can be a beast in the field, or as a business owner!
13. You have never owned a business before, correct?
No. However, I feel like the opportunities afforded me at my previous job, helped prepare me for this role. I couldn't have done it otherwise.
14. Is philanthropy a part of your company’s mission?
My mother taught me the importance of giving back. It’s one of my main reasons for wanting to be a business owner. The first time I had enough money to buy a meal for my mom and my sisters, it was a big deal. I've always wanted to do that on a larger scale. We give to many schools and organizations. Our employees get involved as well like with Habitat for Humanity. We’ve built many houses for those in need here in town. Our guys get excited about that.
15. What business advice, if any, did you receive that caused you to pivot or continue?
When faced with a challenge, view it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
16. Where do you see your company in three years?
I want to be the Chick-Fil-A of the HVACR industry, in terms of our customer service. If a customer feels like you're taking care of them, then they're more likely to be forgiving of a mistake and less likely to leave. I think in today's climate, with all the reviews, and social media, outstanding customer service is vital.
17. Who is your local distributor, and have they been supportive of the company?
Air Engineers – out of Birmingham. They are supportive of everything we do. The better we do, the better they do. They're very resourceful and invaluable to us.
18. What are the three brands you sell?
Trane, Mitsubishi, and RunTru. Those are our top three. I mean, we run our numbers and that's 99% of our business, those three brands.
19. Do you specialize in any type of system insulation or replacement?
No. We cover almost everything, from traditional heat pumps to gas systems, chillers, ductless systems, and mini-splits. We probably dominate, in our area, for the ductless systems.
20. Do you offer maintenance plans, and have you found them to be helpful during slow times?
Yes. We have many maintenance plan customers. We have two guys that are employed full-time year-round to do nothing but maintenance. We have enough to keep all the rest of our technicians busy during the slower seasons full-time.