20 Questions

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20 Questions

20 Questions with Tom Howard

Owner of Lee’s Air Heating and Plumbing

Originally published
Originally published: 10/1/2023

Publisher, Terry Tanker met with Tom Howard, Owner of Lee’s Air Heating and Plumbing in Fresno, California. The two discussed rebranding a company, training, finding, and paying service technicians, and involvement in the community.

    1.    How did you get into the industry?

I worked here when I was fifteen years old, cleaning tools and sweeping floors after school. I got a scholarship to go to college at BYU. I wanted to get a business degree, so I never had to work in the HVAC industry. I ended up coming back. I took over as GM and then the owner sold it to me. He carried the note.

    2.    How big was the company when you made the acquisition?

Eleven employees and about $1.6 million in revenue.

    3.    And where are you now?

We’re at 155 and we should do $35 million this year in Fresno and $50 million in California. 

    4.    Why did you rebrand Lee’s? 

The cost of advertising gets expensive when your brand is terrible. I think you can grow almost any brand, it's just a matter of cost. How much do you want to spend to grow it? I realized that if I wanted to get stronger in our market, I was going to have to spend the money to rebrand. 

    5.    What were the results like?

We had three times as many phone calls for the same amount of advertising dollars. In fact, we overloaded the CSR staff. We had a thousand abandoned calls in one day once it was shocking. We fixed that, but I wish we would've done the rebrand sooner!

    6.    With explosive growth how do you handle the labor in your market?

Everyone talks about the labor shortage. There's no labor shortage. It doesn't exist. It's a figment of your imagination. There's a difference between what you're willing to pay and what the market is demanding. That's the problem. If you start paying appropriately, you'll have people knocking on your door from everywhere trying to come work for you. It's the reality of the situation. People are trying to pay $18 an hour for installers right now. You can get $18 an hour working at Taco Bell. Why would I crawl in attics for $18 an hour? 

    7.    What is your pay scale?

It depends, keep in mind, that we have our own school, and we pay those people to attend school. When they get out, they will be making $70,000 a year with their bonuses. And once they have experience, they can earn $150,000. We had a couple of technicians making over $200,000 in Las Vegas.

    8.    Would you explain more about your training program?

We have two full-time trainers, one for HVAC, and one for plumbing, and it's a separate training building. We have an HVAC lab and a plumbing lab. There are real-world installation tests they must pass with attics, rafters, and insulation. 

    9.    What type of tests are we talking about? 

They must pass written and working tests. We graduated 20 installers from the HVAC side and then got our first 110-degree day and half of them quit. It was disappointing because we had spent all that time and money training them. We learned that if you train them in the off-season, it’s not realistic. We decided to make the lab real world and installed a furnace that heats the lab to 130 degrees. We wanted to weed out individuals who wouldn’t make the cut early in the process before wasting a lot of time and money.  

    10.    Are you the spokesperson for Lee’s?

No. We use our employees. They get excited they're going to be on TV or one of our billboards. One of our guys, James Bushman, was on a billboard. He took a picture of it, blew the picture up, signed it, and gave me the picture as a present. It was great. He was having fun and I appreciated it.

    11.    Would you tell us about how you get involved with the community?

One of the campaigns we did was with Valley Children's Hospital. They have a children’s cancer ward. They are all young. The kids are there for six months and their parents live in RVs outside the hospital. It’s tough on all of them. We were running a big billboard campaign and we wanted to get the kids involved.

    12.    How did you do that?

We bought them colored pencils and paper and asked them if they could draw us a billboard with our name on it.  We had rainbows, unicorns, and robots. They have great imaginations.  

    13.    Were you able to use them in your campaign?

We used every one of them… [Tom gets choked up] We turned them all into giant highway billboards. We had them professionally photographed and then made baskets to give to the kids. Inside the basket was the photo, a certificate that said, “Honorary Lee's Marketing Representative” as well as Nintendo Switches. The billboard company found out what we were doing, and they made custom miniature billboards that were a foot tall, so the kids had their own personal billboards.  The kids just absolutely loved it. (To see the drawings, go to, then, About Us, or See Us Around the City)

    14.    You also had a major marketing redesign of your fleet. How many vehicles did you wrap? 

 One hundred twenty-five… 

    15.    How did you come up with the idea for this fleet design? 

We hired a firm to create the design. 

    16.    How did you choose the colors and logo? 

We wanted to establish an easily recognizable brand and one that would make a lasting impression. One that was professional, cohesive, trustworthy, and reliable. As far as colors we liked the avocado green and navy.

    17.    What type of investment have you put into your fleet marketing campaign? 

We did this during the pandemic so the price to remove the old logos and rewrap our vehicles got expensive quickly due to a shortage of supplies and price increases for the vinyl. We've spent about half a million dollars rewrapping our whole fleet. Also, to promote our rebrand, we spent heavily on billboards to showcase it.

    18.    Have you seen a return on this investment? 

Yes, a tremendous return. We grew about 30% year over year when we implemented the new brand at the end of September 2020 and another 27% the following year. 

    19.    How have customers responded to your fleet design? 

The customer response has been great. Overall, they have felt an enhancement in the overall customer experience and added a level of professionalism and credibility. 

    20.    How have your employees responded? 

It brought us even closer. We discussed company culture earlier. This is just another example of something smaller impacting the whole. 

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