You Win Some, You Lose Some

Originally published
Originally published: 3/1/2010

Shoot-outs, flying toilets, and crashing copters. Who says a contractor's job isn't exciting?

At the suggestion of the publisher, I am going to lighten up on my Leadership articles (this is my 37th article for the magazine) and relate some “interesting” experiences I’ve had as a contractor. At the sake of completely embarrassing myself and having you question me as an effective leader, I’m presenting some of the more memorable moments that I hope you will find entertaining. Actually, there is probably no reason for me to be concerned, as I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences. In fact, if you would like to share a story, please submit it to We’ll share them in an issue later in the year.

Look Out Above!

I founded my first hvac contracting company in 1965. Many of you know the story. I started it with $500 of borrowed capital, no customers, and no coworkers. Years later, however, it was a dominant company with revenues — in today’s dollars — of over $40 million. My first coworker was Wes, a big kid, about 18 years old, with very little work experience. Wes and I were working together installing a new outdoor heat pump, a custom coil in the customer’s existing old Typhoon unit, and replacing some ductwork in the attic. As Wes was crawling around in the attic above the living room, the owner and I were standing below, where the owner was expressing his concern that Wes could potentially ruin his expensive tile ceiling. Within seconds after me saying “Wes will be very careful up there, don’t worry,” Wes’ big combat boot with attached leg came crashing through the ceiling to hang down in the room directly between the concerned customer and me. The customer was very upset, but we managed to find a qualified repairman to fix the damage by the end of the next day. My company paid for the repairs, of course, but Wes was on his own to restore any damage to his boot.

Look Out Above! The Sequel

This story could have ended tragically, but now that so much time has passed, we can laugh at it. We were working on an installation at a mall that was under construction in Florida. As contractors sometimes do, we hired two pilots to lift the large units from the ground and deliver them to the rooftop with a helicopter. The copter was ready to lift the first unit as three of my installers waited on the roof. Mid-air, the engine of the helicopter exploded, and the bird — with our unit attached — came crashing down, chopping down a nearby palm tree during the fall. The extremely loud noise and commotion of course caught the attention of everyone in the area, and fire and rescue units came to the scene. Fortunately, no one was injured, but we were embarrassed to see ourselves on the front page of the local paper the next day. Later, we learned that the helicopter company had used the wrong type of fuel, which caused the engine explosion.

He Loves The Job, But The Commute Stinks

My father worked in our company for several years as a supervisor. Dad was always very descriptive with his language. One evening while driving back to the office, he was following a flatbed loaded with construction-site toilets. One came loose, flew off the trailer, and hit the front windshield of Dad’s pickup. He picked up his two-way radio, called the office, and announced, “I just got hit by a flying s… house.” There were several of us working in the estimating room that evening, and when we heard this announcement on the radio, we nearly fell over from laughing so hard.

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Another time, several of us were once again in the estimating room. It was late and relatively quiet as we all concentrated on our work. But, the silence was broken when we heard Dad arguing with a general contractor over a job he was supervising. And, of course, we could only hear Dad’s side of the conversation since he was yelling. After a heated discussion we heard him tell the contractor “Don’t call me a S.O.B, you S.O.B.” We all burst out laughing. Actually, he and the contractor ended up good friends.

Shut Mouth, Open Wallet

Once in small claims court, where we had filed a claim, the judge suggested to the defendant that he just pay our bill and get it over with. The defendant replied that he could not do so as in the United States there is no legal tender. He went on to say to the judge “Just look it up.” The judge immediately answered, “There is a complete law library just one floor above us. You go look it up, and you have 30 minutes before I rule against you in favor of the plaintiff.” Not surprisingly, we won.

‘King of Briefcases’ Just Doesn’t Have The Same Ring

Another time we were in circuit court with a suit against a general contractor for non-payment on a large commercial building. My attorney and I took our positions in the courtroom while the opposing attorney took his position, but his client wasn’t yet there. He came in a few minutes later carrying a large empty cardboard Budweiser beer case holding his records on the job and plopped it down on the table. Everyone in the courtroom — including the judge — looked at each other and tried not to laugh.

It Rots Your Brain Anyway

We rented a home for several months while our workers were on three big commercial jobs about 150 miles east of our home office. The crew was a mix of fulltime employees and local installers we hired on a temporary basis. One evening they got into a heated argument over which channel to watch on T.V. One of the guys went into a bedroom, came back with a handgun, and shot the T.V. There were no more arguments about what to watch after that.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Once while we were still a very small contracting company, my assistant made an appointment for me to give a prospective customer a presentation on replacement equipment. I arrived at the couple’s home as scheduled, told them I was there to look at their heating and air conditioning system, and provide them information. They seemed surprised but told me to go ahead and look. As I started my survey, I recognized the system was operating well, and it surprised me that they wanted to replace it. I gathered all of the information and made a presentation, which they accepted. Together we agreed on a price for the system and a schedule for the job. When I arrived back at the office, my assistant told me that I missed my appointment. That’s when we determined I had gone to the wrong home … but was successful in selling the job anyway. Incidentally, after rescheduling the original missed appointment and making a presentation to that family, they decided not to invest.

Mister, Can You Spare a Dime?

I have long had a reputation of not having any money on me. My purchasing agent and my CPA were traveling in my car to visit a company I was considering buying. We stopped at a convenience store, and I ran in to get a candy bar. But I had to come back out to the car to borrow 50 cents because my pockets were empty. My CPA looked at me and with a calm and measured tone said “And, you’re going to buy a company?” Another time while traveling back from a large commercial job I was supervising, I decided to stop at a diner for dinner. It had been a very long day, and I was very tired, but most of all hungry. After a very satisfying meal, I reached in my empty pocket and couldn’t pay for the meal. The owner was very nice. He handed me his business card and told me to simply mail him a check, which I promptly did the next morning.

Ron Smith is a well-known authority in the hvacr business. He has more than 45 years of experience as a contractor, franchisor, consolidator, and consultant. Ron has just released a nine-disc audio CD set of the book HVAC Spells Wealth. The CD set and his two books, HVAC Spells Wealth and HVAC Light Commercial Service Agreements can be ordered at or by phoning 615-791-8474.

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