Laura DiFilippo, Contracting Business.com’s 2013 HVACR Woman of the Year, would like to share the best advice she ever received. She had just
joined the board of directors of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), and was feeling as if she was in over her head sitting at the same table with a group she calls, “The kings of our industry.”

Upon arriving home from her first board meeting, DiFilippo told her father, Bob Howell, that she didn’t think she could fulfill her term.

“My father told me, ‘The way I see it, you have two choices.’” DiFilippo relates. “He said, ‘You can quit — and he knew if he used that word I would never do it — or you can go back, be yourself, and stand up for what you believe in.’ Being myself, doing what I think is right, and not worrying about what others might think of it is advice that I carry with me to this day.”

DiFilippo didn’t know it at the time, but — aided by her father’s advice — she would overcome her first-day-on-the-board jitters to the extent that she would eventually end up serving as the first woman chairperson of ACCA, in 2012-2013.

A Star Isn’t Born — But a Career Is

The HVAC industry wasn’t on Laura Howell’s radar screen as a young girl. A talented musician and actor, she originally wanted to pursue a career in musical theater. While dreaming of being on Broadway, she met her leading man: a dashing young man named Vince DiFilippo. Vince was working at his family’s HVAC business in Paoli, PA. Shortly before he and Laura were married, Vince took over the service side of the business and needed help.

Laura, with a background as an account administrator at the Vanguard Group, started working one night each week out of their home’s guestroom, doing the company’s books.

That was 25 years ago, and DiFilippo’s Service Co. is still going strong. The $2 million company, which performs residential service work only, is located about 30 miles outside of Philadelphia.

The Importance of Getting Involved

Laura DiFilippo’s long involvement with the company and HVAC industry has given her a profound respect for and desire to help other contractors. The best way to do that, she says, is to get involved. She traces the beginnings of her path to becoming the chairperson of ACCA to getting involved years ago with her local Delaware Valley Chapter of ACCA.

“Vince and I were attending the ACCA’s Quality College classes around the time Pennsylvania was deregulating its utilities,” DiFilippo says. “Suddenly we had a lot of big companies with huge marketing budgets coming in and offering HVAC maintenance and service. It was a scary time, because there was a very real threat that they were going to take over the market.”

The DiFilippos and some fellow Quality College attendees formed a networking group to share ideas on how to survive — and then overcome — the utility onslaught. Laura DiFilippo’s involvement in and devotion to her local ACCA chapter (she served as chairperson of the Delaware Valley Chapter from 2003 to 2006) also served to introduce her to Skip Snyder, president of Snyder Company, Upper Darby, PA. When Snyder became ACCA chairman for the 2004-2005 year, it left his regional spot on the national board open and he strongly encouraged DiFilippo to pursue it.

“Skip was a great mentor,” DiFilippo says. “To be in a chapter where he was the president, to have his encouragement to join the national board, and then to have his encouragement all along the way as a board member and then as chairperson, was amazing. He’s very knowledgeable and a great guy, and I appreciate everything he did for me.”

Relationships like that, and the opportunities they bring — opportunities to help both oneself and the industry — are why DiFilippo is such a proponent of getting involved.

“There’s much going on outside our own businesses that affects what we do, and that’s why it’s so important to remember that we have to get involved,” she says. “You have to know what’s going on outside your door. Join an association, attend a convention or a conference. Keep yourself well-schooled, keep yourself involved, keep yourself knowledgeable. If you have a passion for something, get involved and help. If there are things that we in this industry need, we can’t expect others to get them for us. We have to get in there and do it ourselves.”

Stepping up to help the industry not only helps contractors, it also helps customers — the reason for contractors’ existence in the first place, DiFilippo notes.

“The manufacturers can say whatever they want, but at the end of the day we as contractors own our customers. They believe in us and trust us, and we have to make sure we’re protected as businesspeople so we can be there for them.”

DiFilippo has fond memories of her term as the first female chairperson of ACCA, but also a sense of humor that most ex-chairpeople can appreciate.

“It was amazing to be involved with that group of people,” she says. “It was great to be able to travel, to represent the association, and to be involved in all the processes and procedures. It was also humbling to represent the nation’s contractors and help them and make things better for them. It was so much fun. But, having said that, I wouldn’t do it again. One year was enough!”

A Valuable Partnership

When Laura DiFilippo first started in the HVAC business, poring over the business’ books one night a week in the guestroom, she was preparing to leave the workforce to devote her time to becoming a full-time mom. That obviously didn’t go as planned, and there were many challenges to be found working full-time, with a spouse, in a busy service business, while raising two children (Marcus, now 20, and Lexi, 17). That’s why there is one more person Laura DiFilippo wanted to thank: the young man who brought her into the business in the first place and became her partner in more ways than one, her husband, Vince.

“It can be difficult working with a spouse, but Vince and I are lucky in that he’s very good at what he does, I’m good at what I do, and neither of us wants to do the other’s job,” DiFilippo laughs. “But truly, Vince has been one of the keys to my success. He has always supported me, always encouraged me, covered for me at home when I couldn’t be at home, and covered for me at work when I couldn’t be at work. I’ve had his support on all levels and I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Vince and Laura’s mutual support of each other and their business continues to this day — in fact, Vince nominated her for this award.

“Laura is the perfect candidate for Woman of the Year,” Vince wrote in his nomination letter. “To us, she is loyal, organized, intelligent, a team player, and dedicated. To the HVAC industry, she is an invaluable asset.”

Broadway may have missed out on a star, but the HVAC industry gained one. Congratulations to Laura DiFilippo, Contracting Business.com’s 2013 HVACR Woman of the Year.   

What the HVACR Industry Says About Laura

Paul Stalknecht, president and CEO, Air Conditioning Contractors of America:

Laura DiFilippo is the very definition of a true leader. She did a superb job of driving ACCA forward during her tenure as Chairman of the Board of Directors. She was committed to our strategic plan and vision during a year when everything else — from politics to the economy — seemed uncertain. Laura always puts her own unique view on the issues, and worked tirelessly with committee volunteer leaders and staff to ensure that ACCA was representing contractors with a strong and unified voice.

Now that her tenure as Board Chair has ended, she continues to focus her energy and efforts towards improving the industry through her leadership of the ACCA Chairman’s Committee (comprised of the organization’s former Chairmen of the Board) and as Chairman of the Chapter Relations Committee, working with ACCA’s local, state, regional chapters.

Laura is a champion for contractors; she never hesitates to share her experiences and ideas. She understands that to raise the bar in this industry that all contractors must become more professional on all levels. She leads by example and putting into practice the things she is encouraging other contractors to do.

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Talbot Gee, executive vice president and COO, Heating, Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International:

I think the world of Laura. She understands the industry, she understands the supply chain — which is very important to us a distributor organization — and she truly values what our members do for her. At the same time, she’s very open with ways that we can improve and make her life easier. She definitely understands the business of contracting and the challenge of being a quality contractor in the market today, which we greatly respect.

She’s a fantastic emissary for ACCA and for the smaller family owned contractor. DiFilippo’s is a smaller family owned contractor that does things the right way. They invest in their employees and their business, and they’re a great example to other contractors that you don’t have to be a Goliath to do things right and be really tops in the market.

In addition, she’s a great mom and I also have a lot of respect with coupless who can work together so well and run such a successful business. That’s an incredible skill to be able to do that with your spouse.

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Terri Howell, office manager, DiFilippo’s Service Co.:

Working with Laura for the past 12 years has been both rewarding and educational. I have learned so much from her. Laura treats each employee as an individual and if I could pick one word to describe her in that capacity, it would be “fair.”

Laura brings a different perspective to the HVAC industry. As a woman she approaches things with a determination to bring people together for the common goal. She has not only survived but she has excelled in a male dominated industry.

On a personal note as her mother, I couldn’t be more proud of all her accomplishments, being the first woman chair of ACCA and now Contracting Business.com’s HVACR Woman of the Year. I think Laura would be the first one to tell you her father taught her to stand up for herself and anything she believes in. That philosophy has helped her to get where she is today.

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From the nomination letter sent by Vince DiFilippo, president, DiFilippo’s Service Co.:

Laura has been an integral part of our organization for 16 years. She is always pushing us to be a better and more successful business. With her oversight and management, she helped our company institute the ACCA quality improvement process, which grew our company 22% in one year. She has instituted many programs and procedures to both streamline the office and increase client satisfaction.

When I was elected fire chief, my time in the office was limited. Laura stepped up to the plate and ran the business better than I could have.

Laura has always been a team player, empowering employees to make decisions and contribute many ideas to help the company run smoother. She is constantly seeking training, new equipment, new ideas, and procedures to make us better. Laura never sits on her laurels. She also makes sure we are raising the bar in our industry by consistently following ACCA quality guidelines and best industry practices. Our awards both nationally and locally are proof of this.

Laura is an outstanding planner. She can see and plan for things in the future and make adjustments now before things get out of hand and bad decisions are made because of time constraints. She has worked very hard the past two years on redundancy procedures that are now in place so that all employees are cross-trained.

Laura is the perfect candidate for Woman of the Year. To us, she is loyal, organized, intelligent, a team player, and dedicated. To the HVACR industry, she is an invaluable asset.

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Larry Taylor, Contracting Business.com Hall of Fame member:

Laura is a unique blend of combinations that have created a wonderful person. She is a mother, wife, business partner, Industry champion and the “First Lady” of ACCA, serving as its first Chairwoman.

Having known and watched Laura and husband Vince work together while accomplishing so much has been a source of excitement and pride. The old saying of there is there’s always a good woman supporting a good man but in this case it worked both ways and the man was always there to support his partner.

Laura has always been willing to step up to the job at hand. Whether in a support or leadership role she has always executed with professionalism and integrity. Many times in today’s world it’s easy to take the easy way out but not Laura. She has always faced tasks as a force to be reckoned with. Her actions speak much louder than her words and the words are worth their weight in gold.

I am honored to call her my friend and so will you when you have had the opportunity to met her.

Congratulations Laura on receiving the HVACR Woman of the Year honor. Well done!