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Company Culture

Tribal Culture – Why It Matters in the HVACR Industry

An HVACR Owner Shares Advice on Creating a Successful Company Culture

Originally published
Originally published: 8/29/2022

Making the Transition into HVACR Ownership

When working at my previous employer, in corporate finance, I was asked frequently to work with many Division VPs of Finance, third-party bankers, CPAs, and financial analysts. In my more than ten years with the company, I never once thought “there’s no way I’m working with them on this project”. We were a team. I wanted the company to be successful just as much as our CEO, CFO, Board of Directors, investors, and coworkers. I had “bought into” who we were, what we were about, and where the future was taking us. I loved my job. 

Enter 2018. I left the corporate finance job that I loved so much, to purchase an HVACR company in my hometown. The opportunity to work in the HVACR industry sort of just fell in my lap. My husband worked as the controller for the previous owner who had begun talking about retiring. He asked my husband if he’d be interested in taking over the company. Knowing that I’d always wanted to run my own business and with my previous work in finance, my husband immediately thought of me. The owner said, “You're going to need an asshole to run this place.” And he responded, “I know the perfect person.” That’s how it all started. But I don’t want to oversimplify it. It took a few years. I did have experience in mergers and acquisitions, but it was a big risk. Still, we went for it. And as with everything, I learned everything I could. 

I was given the advice early, “This will be very different, but you can do it. You have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those that are a part of this company,” and I repeated this mantra to myself daily while making this giant transition. I knew going in, that I would be faced with many challenges, but my competitive nature loves a good challenge.

Challenges Within the HVACR Industry

    1.    Challenge: Attitude and the lack of “Tribal Culture” 

The HVACR industry does not have a very good reputation --- I have since learned --- for creating and maintaining positive work environments. There are guys (and a few gals) that have been in this industry for 30+ years. Many of them are set in their ways and refuse to accept any new methods for improving their job skills. Or they refuse to teach the newcomers the basics of how to work in this trade.

Changes were needed if I wanted my company to become the most customer-service-focused HVACR company in town. I knew that meant that the employees needed to be happy. Employees need to feel that they are heard. They need to feel they are making a difference every day. They need to feel like they belong here. They need to be treated with respect. I knew what I wanted for this company but was not certain how to tackle the challenge. What I did know, was that this would be a slow process. There would be a lot of trial and error and obstacles to tackle. But with each error we make, there is something to be learned. I am nothing if not competitive and I work to win. If I don’t win, I learn and work harder. So, the first step – learn and avoid making the same errors. 

    2.    Challenge: Forging My Path

Must there be plumbing, electrical, and HVACR companies out there that have found the “secret” to achieving these goals already? One would think so – whether that be creating a better company culture, streamlining processes, or a hundred other challenges I was newly coming up against. Have I run into one of those company heads yet to pick their brain and see how we can implement similar changes to achieve the same level of greatness within? No! Everyone I have visited and/or talked to has had the same obstacles to overcome. The strange common denominator I found, however, was that some of the company owners don’t mind it – they live with it. The collective sentiment seems to be, “It is what it is.” But I was determined to find the answers to achieving a better company culture. Complacency was never a choice - at least not for me.  photo 

Advice from A Comfort Advisor

One of our comfort advisors recommended a podcast to me in passing back in 2020. He knew that I wanted the culture to change around here, and he felt I would find a useful nugget of some kind when listening to it. He was right. The Podcast was LIVE the Outbound life, Episode 9. Garry Ridge (CEO of WD-40) on Building a Happy, Billion Dollar Tribe. What stood out to me the most, was when Garry stated that we must create this “positive, lasting memory” with our people. Think about it. If we create memories that are positive for our people, that makes their lives a little brighter. If they have more joyful lives, that joy is reflected in their job performance, including in the quality of work and customer interaction. 

Creating A Better Company Culture

As such, we wanted that for our employees. We offer a benefits package that is unmatched for the trades in our area. Our pay is also much better than our competitors and we pay profit sharing bonuses a couple of times a year. Pay is not everything though. Pay is not what keeps employees long-term. Pay is not what makes those “positive, lasting memories”.  Don’t get me wrong, they must be paid a wage that allows them a comfortable lifestyle, but most want more than just pay. Therefore, in 2020, we decided to move our company dinners away from our shop, where they have been held since the beginning of time. Now, we shut the office down early and everyone meets at a local restaurant for lunch. We have drawings for prizes (tools, TVs, Airpods, Gift cards, etc.). We have even brought in an ice cream truck and invited their families to join. Additionally, we started sending birthday gifts to spouses and children, and anniversary gifts to the employee and spouses. But the one small thing we have received the most positive feedback on is a handwritten card thanking them for their contributions to the company, along with whatever positive attribute(s) that employee brings to the table. We randomly give these out with a small cash bonus. We hear time and time again that the card means more than the money. 

After making some of these changes, I wanted to hear more of what Garry had to say. I picked up his book “Tribe Culture: How it Shaped WD-40 Company”. I have read this book several times now. I keep it on my desk at the office to reference when I feel we have stumbled over a problem that seems to be due to a lack of “working together” or when I need a creativity boost if I am trying to make work more meaningful to our people. 

Company Pledge: Professional Responsibility 

Garry Ridge has what he calls the “Maniac Pledge” in this book, and I have adopted this pledge. If you were to ask our employees, you would hear the following repeated often around our shop:

“I am responsible for taking action, asking questions, getting answers, and making decisions. I won’t wait for someone to tell me. If I need to know, I’m responsible for asking. I have no right to be offended that I didn’t get this sooner. If I’m doing something others should know about, I’m responsible for telling them.”

“I am responsible…” We have struggled with trying to break the blame game between the departments and reaching a point where everyone takes responsibility for his/her actions. “Install” blames the salesmen/comfort advisors. The service technicians blame the installers. Dispatch blames the service technicians, and the technicians blame Dispatch. Too much of no one told me – the not my responsibility response. It goes on everywhere to some degree. That’s when the Maniac Pledge is pulled out and repeated to them. Initially, they did not like hearing it, but now they know what is coming and have their moment of “Yeah, you’re right”.

All of them think their job is the hardest job within the organization – and it may be true from their perspective. But, all of our jobs have a degree of difficulty. How do we change this collective attitude? While talking with the General Manager of our Trane distributor, we were discussing the misunderstandings of job functions between a dispatcher and a service technician. He asked if I had ever put the dispatcher in a van with a technician or had a technician sit in the office with Dispatch for a day. I had considered it, but it was always during peak season. But at that moment, I decided that peak season is the perfect time for this to take place. That is when both teams are at their max level of stress and things get “crazy” in the world of air conditioning. This thought expanded beyond dispatch and service. If we all have a better understanding of what other departments go through, then maybe we can all be more empathetic and remove the initial assumption that everyone else is out to make the other man’s job more difficult. 

Positive Change Requires Difficult Decisions 

In a time where labor is extremely short, it can be challenging to change the culture. To affect change – sometimes requires difficult decisions. It may mean that there need to be different players at the table. That is a tough situation to be in when you are already further behind with your workload than you have ever been. But we have goals, and we cannot allow those who do not buy into our company values, negatively affect those that are on board. If you don’t remove the poison from your environment, you will run off the people that are working to move the company in a positive direction.

At the end of the day, we must remember that everyone is different. Not everyone responds to the same feedback or form of praise. Not everyone works well together. And that is okay. As long as they are respectful of one another, we can make it work. Shuffle people around. Let them test out various job functions or work with a variety of teammates. Ask for their feedback. What will make their job more enjoyable? They will tell you. You only need to be ready to listen. Finally, if your goal is to be the best HVACR company in town, you also need to be willing to make changes. 


Erica Estes is the Owner/President of Southern Heating & Cooling, Inc. Southern is a Top 10 Trane dealer & Top 10 Mitsubishi Contractor in Alabama/FL panhandle. Southern received the Trane TCS Dealer of the Year award for 2020 and has won the People's Choice Best of the Best in HVAC for Jackson County for three years running.  Please visit https://southernheating.com/.

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