We sat down with Lanny Huffman, president of Hickory Sheet Metal in Hickory, N.C. and newly installed chairman of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). Huffman discussed the evolution of his company, giving people responsibility and the importance of industry associations.
1. How did you get started?
When you grow up in a family business you’re already a part of it, whether you want to be or not. I can remember coming to work with my dad when I was like 8 or 9 years old and I always liked to go back to the shop and mess in the metal, so it’s kind of always been in my blood. Then, as I got older, in high school I worked in the shop and then when I went to college.
2. Is this what you always wanted to do?
No. I wanted to be a thoracic surgeon. Of course, a family friend told me I’m going to be 40-years-old before I ever make any money and to be a physician is a calling. I thought, “Well I’m not so called to be that,” and engineering was more of my forte. I thought instead I’d go to school and learn how to build airplanes, because I always loved airplanes.
3. How did you go from that to HVACR?
About that time, Boeing wasn’t hiring anyone, and aircraft manufacturing kind of just fell out, so that wasn’t an option. I earned my degree and became a mechanical engineer. I went to work for a company that built cooling towers for nuclear power plants, and about that time I got engaged. We both really didn’t want to be moving around a lot, so I asked dad if I could come back here and try it.
4. What was that like?
Of course, he was ecstatic. He was glad to hear it. He said he was never going to ask me, because it had to be my own decision. Forty-two years later, here I am. I have not regretted a moment. I’ve got to meet a lot of interesting people along the way and see this industry transform.
5. How has the company evolved?
My grandfather started this business in 1928, and it was basically just sheet metal fittings. Then this interesting thing came along about central heating of your home. They put in some coal fire furnaces and the radial duct work. Then this real interesting thing came along called oil fired heating. We put in a lot of oil furnaces and then, of course, this real newfangled thing came along called air conditioning. My grandfather, at that point, told his three sons that were involved with the business, “If y’all want to take care of that, that’s fine.”
6. Then you were in the AC business?
They installed air conditioning in a couple of furniture plants and of course after the people were working in it, they had to have it in their homes. That’s how we got involved in residential heating and air conditioning systems.
7. What happened when you joined?
By the time I came along, everything was going back to gas or heat pumps. I kind of took it from there as far as residential sales and then light commercial. Then, finally, I moved into the large commercial work that we do. That’s how it’s transformed over the years.
8. How big is the business now?
We’re working somewhere between 35 and 40 employees. We’re doing a lot of contractual work too with subcontracts and also with temporary labor because finding people to work has gotten to be extremely difficult.
9. What’s it like running a business?
As a matter of fact, last year I felt like I was getting to a point where I couldn’t get my arms around the businesses. I felt like it was running me instead of me running it, so I brought in a business consulting firm, and they revamped a lot of our methods and practices.
10. Can you give us an example?
Their statement to me, “We want to get it to the point where you can run this business from an iPad.” I said that would be great. I work longer, but it has made a significant difference in mostly just empowering the people, your employees, and holding them accountable. It has made a world of difference. It’s amazing to watch an employee blossom once you give them responsibility.
11. How do you motivate employees?
Once they were held accountable and they were given responsibility, they ran with it. I guess they were tired of me with my finger on everything. I’ll be upfront, I used to be a micro-manager and I backed away from that and it has worked very well.
12. What’s recruitment like?
The employee situation has probably been one of the hardest things we’ve ever dealt with. We have one company we work with that basically finds talented people. We work them, train them and observe them for 90 days. If we see it’s a good fit, they come on full time.
13. Where else do you look for talent?
Our community college here is doing a training program and we’re participating in that. A lot of our recruitment has come from word of mouth from our employees, finding people that have some basic skills that we could bring in and train. You put your finger in as many holes as you can to find those people and draw them into your business.
14. What’s the most important job?
It’s between managing employee procurement, of course, and always managing the billing and the procurement of new work. I reach out to a lot of general contractors, business and real estate developers, keeping my tabs with them, see what’s available in the marketplace and of course, just trying to keep up with this industry, the changes, especially on the federal level.
15. Where do you see growth?
The replacement market is going to be where most of the growth will happen. I just got a Better Business Bureau report and it’s predicting a 3 percent growth in the HVACR business for the next five years. Although that doesn’t sound alarming, it’s a continued growth, and I think a lot of it is going to be in the replacement market, both residential and commercial.
16. What’s new this year for ACCA?
ACCA has been very active, of course, with everything related to COVID-19, particularly in the Paycheck Protection Program. They’ve been working on the AIM Act, which has kind of been put on a back shelf, but it’s still out there. Building our relationship on the federal level. We’ve been also developing a training program for the new A2L refrigerants.
17. How is membership?
As all associations do, we’re trying to build up our membership. We’ve had a really good, tremendous membership growth the past couple of months, so we’ve been focusing more on our memberships. My goal is to make ACCA more of an in your backyard type organization.
18. How’s the strategic plan progress?
We’ve made really good progress on that. As a matter of fact, at our last board meeting, I made the comment that we’re more than halfway through this strategic plan and a lot of it’s just cleaning up a few items along the way. We have made really good progress. I applaud Bart (James) and his staff, they have done a yeoman’s task in a very short period of time, and I applaud them.
19. What’s ACCA’s biggest benefit?
In the past couple of months, it has been evident more than ever that you need to be a part of an association. For instance, at first we were not going to be listed as an essential business and letters went out to, I don’t know how many congressmen, and we were listed of course, as an essential business. We’re stronger together than we are separately.
20. What are your goals as chairman?
To push the strategic plan down the road a little further, get that accomplished. Build our relationships with the affiliated contract organizations (ACOs), and with our membership, and build the membership. Also, I want to get the A2L refrigerant training ready to market and out there and ready for people to use.