20 Questions

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20 Questions

20 Questions with Talbot Gee

President and CEO of HARDI

Originally published
Originally published: 4/1/2022

Publisher, Terry Tanker, interviewed Talbot Gee, President and CEO of HARDI. HARDI connects HVACR Leaders with essential resources, management tools, and wholesale distribution support. The two discussed understanding your organization's 'why', making difficult changes for long term progress, and the importance of a strategic plan.

1. As a bourbon connoisseur which is your most cherished bottle?

I’m more of a tequila guy these days (thanks, Frank Meier) especially when it’s cold out. I love a nice pour of Elmer T. Lee over a big rock.

2. Where did you find it?

Ridiculously hard to come by these days, so you gotta have your feelers out there or a solid “in” with a good liquor store (or spirits distributor).

3. What’s your hidden talent?

After 12+ years of being a “Lax Dad” for my three daughters, I think I’ve become a pretty good amateur lacrosse coach. This proud papa happily boasts that we’ve got three bad-@$$ lacrosse players with one heading to play division one in college next year, and two more likely to follow.

4. What would people be surprised to learn about you?

Despite it being an important and essential part of my job, I actually don’t love being in large groups. I keep a pretty tight circle both personally and professionally. In Predictive Index terms (a behavior analysis tool HARDI uses religiously, and vigorously endorses for our members), I have a low “B” – the reason I don’t work the room.

5. What always puts a smile on your face?

Watching others in my circle succeed. It could be a team member, a daughter, my brother, a colleague/counterpart, or friend. Other people’s success energizes me.

6. You joined HARDI in 2006, how has the organization changed?

It is more the environment and role of trade associations that has changed. I like to think HARDI has remained ahead of the curve anticipating and positioning for these changes, thanks to strong volunteer leadership and talented team members’ vision. In 2006, HARDI did an excellent job of responding to members’/leadership’s requests. In 2022, HARDI is doing a wonderful job of anticipating and delivering on those requests before they come. Wholesale distribution has advanced tremendously as a science since 2006 as has the sophistication of our members. This has translated to more sophisticated expectations of their association.

7. You became the CEO in 2010. What did you want to change?

My fantastic predecessor, Don Frendberg, had recruited me to be his successor, and after successfully leading us through the Great Recession, decided it was time and handed over the reins about two years earlier than we’d planned. My priority was to assemble a team of subject-matter experts and fill the HARDI team with talent and expertise which unfortunately, some members did not already readily possess. While always a work-in-progress, this has been perhaps the greatest key to HARDI’s growth.

8. How did you accomplish that?

It was difficult because we had great staff who loved and served our members but did not possess unique expertise that aligned with the more pro-active approach we were taking. I lost one of my first industry mentors in Bud Healy---far too early in my HARDI tenure--- to a terrible bout with cancer. This [restructuring] exposed one of my biggest blind spots {and my own lack of knowledge] around education and training. It took three tries to understand and identify the right skill set and talent, to redesign and relaunch what is now HEAT.U as well as all our talent offerings.

9. Did you make significant changes to the organization your first two years?

We restructured into a departmental approach around the new SME’s and created a performance management model and the largest bonus incentive pool for any comparable organization our size.

10. What has been the most significant management challenge you’ve faced over the last 12 months?

In 2021 HARDI’s leadership team committed to responding to team feedback on areas in which our internal communications needed to improve. So, we restructured staff and team meetings and focused on building tools so everyone could see the association’s progress on key performance metrics. This year my 360 review revealed we had successfully improved our communication. However, our collaboration and empowerment were not as strong as I’d thought, so those will be areas of focus in 2022.

11. How would you describe your management style?

Ha! Probably best described as a constant work in progress. I suffer from a dangerous combination of impatience and adult ADD. I’ve worked every day since 2010 to temper it. I love our members and believe they need and deserve the absolute best. Still, I have very high expectations of our team. Also, I strive to reward achievement both in terms of compensation and incentives, as well as offering a flexible work environment that offers employees more work/life balance. We work extremely hard to define and track our key performance indicators and focus on them to prioritize our work and focus.

12. As CEO of HARDI what is your most important job?

Strategic vision and resource allocation. In 2019, HARDI revamped its governance model which put far more pressure on HARDI’s management to build and execute HARDI’s strategies so the Board of Directors could function as more of a governing body and still maintain a primary focus on running their own businesses. Simply stated, a HARDI’s CEO is primarily responsible for the ownership and execution of the strategic plan which is overseen, approved, and refined by HARDI’s Board of Directors. While we’ve nearly tripled the size of HARDI’s budget since 2006, resources are always constrained so my second greatest responsibility is making sure those limited resources are allocated to the most impactful strategic initiatives. Everything, especially team dynamics and culture, flow from those two things, and it’s essential we win in those areas far more than we lose. That, in a nutshell, is my job.

13. What is the largest challenge facing the distribution network this year?

As demand continues to regress to an albeit higher mean, while supply chains slowly recover, inflation intensifies, and the Southern US Regions brace for disruptive efficiency standards changes, there is a scenario in which wholesale distributors will get caught in the worst of cash flow storms. Therefore, we devote so many resources to forecasting and market demand analyses for our members. It is why we teach and preach the value of distributors’ cash conversion cycles to every contractor audience, so they understand the roles they play in enabling wholesalers to carry 30%+ more inventory (dollars and units) than “normal”.

14. What are you and the HARDI management team focusing on in the second half of 2022?

We’ve launched a content series to help distributors get more than 26% of contractors to offer financing options because system sales will be more challenging and there will be confusing noise in the industry data by then.

15. What messaging is HARDI focused on this year?

2022 is about getting back to basics and the blocking and tackling of distribution execution. Demand needs to be created, value needs to be differentiated, and execution needs to be flawless to have any chance of repeating 2021’s volumes and share gains. Sales forces need to be sales forces again, no longer simply managers of bad news. All the technology investments of the last 2-5 years need to start paying off with improved inventory management, logistics, and training.

16. What legislative issue is HARDI working on?

Not much happening legislatively, but we continue to pursue any kind of sell-through relief for our Southern distributors prior to Jan. 1, 2023. However, you may have noticed, Washington is not particularly productive these days. We are challenging the US EPA in federal court over their ban of non-refillable refrigerant cylinders and excessively burdensome refrigerant tracking and reporting regulations. Last year HARDI established a Legal Defense Fund for our EPA challenge and in anticipation of future challenges to various regulations. I wish we didn’t have to do this. In the end, we will do whatever is necessary to defend our members from poor policy.

17. What’s the best advice you’ve received from a member?

Surround yourself with people who know things that you do not and do everything you can to ensure everyone on your team knows the “why” of what the organization needs to do.

18. What is your favorite communication technique internally?

I don’t think I have just one because different techniques lend themselves to different objectives. My favorite thing internally is when teams present plans or proposals because I love seeing all the thought, creativity, and work, talented people put into solving problems, and potential innovations for HARDI. They always think of things I wouldn’t have, and I always learn something new.

19. How do you communicate effectively with your membership?

We remain overly reliant on email. However, the team has worked incredibly hard to continually improve our discipline and targeting, so members aren’t receiving unnecessary or irrelevant emails to their interests and responsibilities. We continue to grow our social channels and audience. Our greatest advancement for exclusive, member-only content, is reflected in our revamped website in which everyone within our member companies has a log-in and can set their own content preferences to give them a uniquely curated web content experience. HARDI is a content-driven organization. We strive to provide members with content that is most relevant to them, content that they can’t get anywhere else, and which is delivered faster than they could get it from anyone else. We highly value our relationships with publications such as HVACR Business because most are contractor-focused and give us further insight into what’s important to our members’ customers. So, we eagerly use and reference resources such as yours in our analyses to our wholesale distributors.

20. How do you ensure things don’t get lost in translation and in the end, measure success for HARDI?

a. Start with the conclusion and key points. Then explain things in more detail for those who want to learn more. The fewer words the better, and much like with our internal communications, I try to always start with the “why” or the “what’s in it for me.”

b. Membership and engagement. Continued consolidation prevents membership alone from telling the full story. Engagement is the next most important metric by which we measure success. We use an internal dashboard to match individuals’ interests and responsibilities with resources and engagement opportunities. Revenue, net contributions to assets, and asset growth round out our major KPIs.

Terry Tanker is the owner of JFT Properties LLC and publisher of HVACR Business magazine. He has more than 25 years of experience in the advertising and publishing industries. He began his career with a business-to-business advertising agency. Prior to forming JFT Properties LLC in January 2006 he spent 20 years with a large national publishing and media firm where he was the publisher of several titles in the mechanical systems marketplace. In addition to his experience in advertising and publishing Terry has worked closely with numerous industry-related associations over the years including AHRI NATE and ABMA.

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