I first visited Hughes Environmental Engineering, Montvale, NJ, in mid-2008, when the U.S. economy was sliding toward a recession, and the worst was yet to come. However, President Frank Hughes, Vice President Brian Hughes, and the entire team of sales, engineering, and service professionals were charging forward, confident that whatever pressures the economy would exert, they could bend without breaking.

Fast forward to my second visit, in March 2010. I observed the company much more closely over the course of two days. I spoke with more than a dozen key employees, and managed to pay a visit to a job site. And what do you know: it was as if I'd never left.

In two years, nothing had changed operationally, and the company was going strong. A weekly review of dozens of projects in various stages of completion began at 8 a.m., followed at once by efforts to make the day a good and profitable one.

Standing in the halls at midday, you'd think everyone had left early, when in fact, the building was filled with about 20 people focused on that day's pursuit of excellence. Conversations were in progress and decisions were made in civil tones, with absolutely no stress anywhere. That’s how they roll at Hughes Environmental Engineering, Inc.

It's not a great revelation that every successful company plans ahead, and does all they can to remain profitable in trying times. But my observations of Hughes Environmental Engineering found it to be a great example of a company that operates with the utmost consistency, discipline, teamwork, and a highly refined sense of "what works."

Brian Hughes has heard similar observations from industry colleagues. "We had an Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) MIX® Group meeting last November, and someone from one of those companies remarked that it’s not always obvious "who does what" at our company. They were doing what had to be done, without worrying about whether or not it's in their job description," he recalls. "We follow an unwritten rulebook, which I think is the key to operating a successful smaller business. We don't need to put many rules on paper. We've lasted 75 years without that."

One of those "unwritten rules" might very well be to have fun, and it would have come from Frank Hughes, one of the friendliest people in the refrigeration service business. He enjoys discussing the company's history, accomplishments, and challenges, and has a beaming smile. Most of all, you can see that he holds his employees in high regard. He started here as a technician's helper in the company founded in 1935 by his father, Richard, and grandfather, Frank W. Hughes — Electric Products. From there, he moved into accounts receivable, and, with time and training, became chief refrigeration systems designer. He's one of the industry's best refrigeration systems designers, and is a very proficient accountant, if not by training then certainly by his vast experience in crunching the numbers. The 20-column spreadsheet now managed by controller Bryan Smith and his Great Plains software used to be Frank's responsibility.

It Starts By Hiring the Best
Brian Hughes displays a solid understanding of the company's history and of its ongoing mission. He joined Hughes Environmental Engineering in 1994, after working as a logistics manager for Ryder Trucking Company. His main focus is on sales, marketing, and recruiting. In 2000, he expanded the sales team and set out to improve the company's recruiting methods and service department methods. He compiled a proprietary database of industry professionals who have at one time or another expressed interest in working for the company. When it's time to hire, he reviews many of those resumés for possible contact. He's quick to mention, however, that they refuse to poach other companies' employees. "We don't hand out business cards at supply houses, or follow them to coffee shops," he says. "However, if we spot a posted resumé, and have a job that's open, we contact them.."

Once an employee is on board for a time, the company is eager for feedback. Hughes recently conducted a voluntary survey of employees was conducted to learn what they liked and disliked about company procedures. Comments included:

  • "Offers wide, diversified experience for those who want it.
  • "Hughes takes pride in its reputation, and wants the employees to know that they're a part of that reputation."
  • "Genuinely concerned with the balance of your personal life and your work commitment."

From Electric Products to Refrigeration
Electric Products — founded in 1935 in Jersey City by Frank W. Hughes and Richard Hughes — was the forerunner to Hughes Environmental Engineering. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the business gradually moved into air conditioning and refrigeration sales and service. It specialized in air conditioning service as a York contractor into the 1950s. In the 1960s, it became a Worthington dealer. Subsequent moves took the headquarters to Moonachie, NJ then Montvale, its present location since 1993.

Over time, the team realized the value of being one of the few companies in the region to specialize in low temperature refrigeration. Today, the company manages a vast number of commercial low temperature refrigeration service contracts. It also performs HVACR construction work and replacements, but more often than not, a specialty refrigeration need exists. Its refrigeration customer base includes owner-occupied facilities, including offices, warehouses, manufacturers, pharmaceutical storage, cold storage warehouses, food processors, and other buildings with unique HVACR requirements.

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The company leaders see a light at the end of the dark economic tunnel we've all been through, and its engines are stoked and ready to run at full steam.

"As the recession subsides, we credit our refrigeration expertise for helping us bridge the economic gap," says Brian Hughes. "While business may not be gangbusters for some time to come, it's generally accepted that the worst is over. When the recession came, we stood on top of the wave, thanks to our refrigeration business."

That focus on refrigeration brings with it an absolute understanding of the importance of many low temperature projects. "We may have to be at a site all night, because food preservation is critical," says Brian Hughes. "You can't go home at 5 o'clock if a cooler repair isn't completed. Comfort cooling customers, on the other hand, aren't as demanding as food or pharmaceutical refrigeration customers. Many will tolerate lower levels of quality at time, in exchange for lower pricing."

And once they come through for a customer, Hughes's exceptional proficiency makes them a customer for good.

Frank Hughes hastens to give due credit to customer loyalty. "The business isn't driven solely by price. Many of our refrigeration maintenance contracts have lasted for decades. It's a continuing relationship," he says.

Tactical, Controls-Based Energy Savings
The team at Hughes promotes service and systems improvements as keys to energy conservation and equipment longevity.

"Customers are investing for the short term," Frank Hughes says. "Those investments include many improvements in controls, because of what controls mean to energy efficiency. Today's food processors need to demonstrate to their customers the temperatures that are maintained throughout the plant: loading dock, holding coolers, production areas, shipping coolers, and more. It's on a computer and is part of the control system."

Hughes Environmental Engineering's exceptional expertise in refrigeration controls technology is due to the wizardry of Bill Way, manager of automation and special projects, in cooperation with Wayne Lehr, vice president of engineering, Steve Westcott, Design/Build sales engineer, and Brian Glynn, P.E. Through its understanding of peak rate costing, they design systems that provide precise temperature control and help customers shed huge numbers of kilowatt usage.

"The highest demand rates are, of course, during the day, so we do our best to shed daily equipment running time as much as possible," Frank explains. If meat grinders need to run, you use demand meters to ensure the corresponding refrigeration unit will shut down for that area for a short period of time. When the demand cost is 30% of the electric bill, and you knock off 20% or 30% of demand, you've reduced 10% of their bill. It's an economic sale. You must demonstrate the savings. They won't do it just to 'go green"

Bill Way points to electronic controls as the biggest leap forward in the refrigeration business that he's seen in 40 years. And he should know, having worked on the original Andover systems of the 1980s, and many others since.

"Electronic controls are so accurate, you can design the system to do anything you want it to do, from reading pressures and temperatures, to sending alarms to pagers," Way says.

"They're the 'perfect' service tools. I can diagnose 50% of the problems on a site before the technician ever goes to the job."

Brian Glynn, P.E., most enjoys the relationship building that starts with customers as friends, which makes helping them that much more worthwhile. "You've got a personal relationship as a cornerstone of a project, and you add to that the financial benefits that come from upgrading their equipment," he says. "And I build it as if it were going into my home."

Wayne Lehr, vice president of engineering, has served the company for 34 years. He's more into the HVAC side of things, but has helped with his fair share of low temperature ice plants, DDC controls, and chiller projects. He likes being close to the action, and working with technicians and customers.

"I find that technicians have insight you can never gain by sitting in the office. We hire quality people who are easy to talk with. We have good rapport here."

Wind it Up and Let it Go
Bill Glynn started at Hughes in 1971 as an administrative assistant, and has worn just about every hat in the place. He's responsible for overseeing daily project fulfillment — from keeping maintenance promises, to time and material service, to the most complex construction jobs.

Glynn says the best part of his day is watching from a distance as the work always gets done, and he gives full credit to the entire Hughes team. "We've taken a great deal of time to assemble a staff that I think is the best in the industry," he says. The most fulfilling moments for me are helping to put together a game plan, doing the prep work, and watching it happen. These people have tremendous dedication, and the personal pride to want to do it right. They don't need me to make the end result the best that it can be. It makes my job easier when we can exchange information and work in a common way to solve problems."

Exceptional Training
Hughes's field technicians are among the industry's best-trained service professionals. New technicians enter the United Association's five-year apprenticeship program, which includes classroom learning with paid employment and practical field experience. It's an ideal combination of refrigeration and HVAC theory with practical hands-on learning.

Manufacturers' technical training is also provided, and up to 80% of Hughes technicians will take advantage of opportunities to learn from trainers from Sporlan, Kramer, Heatcraft, DuPont, and other major manufacturers.

Hughes Environmental Engineering has shown a strong commitment to improving its sales and marketing expertise, through involvement in industry associations and professional service organizations. As a member of the Linc Group, from 1994 to 2004, the team became a vastly improved sales organization, with an enhanced approach to pricing, sales and marketing, human resource management, and marketing. They joined the Excellence Alliance in 2000, and the Mechanical Service Contractors Association (MSCA) and the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of New Jersey in 2001. Brian Hughes currently serves on the MSCA national board of directors, and Frank serves on the board of MCA New Jersey. They also belong to ACCA. In 2004, the Hughes company became members of the Service Professionals Group, an international association of independent, commercial mechanical service providers.

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Through a combination of MSCA nationally, the UA locally, the SP Group, and its peer group review team —in place for more than 30 years — that they have a plan to give employees what they need for their individual development and the development of the company.

On the "green" side of things, both Brian Hughes and Brian Glynn are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Accredited Professionals.

The company's integrity is seen and appreciated by industry distributors, who realize the importance of doing the right thing, all the time. One of those distributors is ABCO Refrigeration Supply Corp., Long Island City, NY. Hughes Environmental Engineering has been an active customer and valued channel partner of ABCO Refrigeration Supply Corp. for almost 60 years.

"The Hughes organization is as passionate about running a great business as it is about its engineering and mechanical capabilities," says Michael Senter, ABCO chief executive officer. Senter adds that Hughes Environmental Engineering's commitment to excellence on each and every project or service call is the single characteristic that makes Hughes an outstanding contractor.

"This combination provides the Hughes organization with the resources to train and educate its team members on a regular basis, as well as to plan for the leadership of the organization not only today, but also for many years to come," Senter says. "Frank Hughes often says, with a shy, but knowing, smile, 'I'm a peddler, but I also am an astute bookkeeper.' This combination of commitment to excellence in the field and in the office provides the solid foundation for excellence not only under Frank'’s current leadership, but also under the leadership of his son, Brian, whose commitment to excellence is both his heritage and his passion."

The Service Annuity
Hughes Environmental Engineering is very adept at converting refrigeration installation projects into service contracts.

"We look for customers who are dependent on high quality service, whether it's a production need or precise air conditions," Frank Hughes explains. "We make a point of soliciting service, and expect every new job to become a service client for the next 20 years."

Hughes says service builds and strengthens the bridge to strong partnerships. "Service is what retains the customer. It's not something you can count on to expand your business 20% each year. In fact, the bigger you get, the lower your growth rate will be. At the end of the day, the service business is an annuity."

New service business for both HVAC and refrigeration is the responsibility of the Hughes service sales team — Susan Lord, Robert Tiemers, and Annie Divine. Their process involves identifying needs and finding a program to extend equipment life and reduce energy use and operating costs. Above all, they look for prospects who are dissatisfied with their current service provider, or who have had a positive experience with the Hughes company and somehow lost contact.

"We usually conduct a 20-question survey related to existing service practices. Key questions are those that reveal problems with service that will generate more questions or reveal other concerns, Lord says. "Persistence and perseverance are keys to our success."

"We find out fairly quickly if there's an opportunity. If they're happy with their current contractor, all we can hope to do is leave a good impression, and leave on a positive note. Hopefully they'll remember us," Tiemers adds.

Then Comes Service Excellence
Bill Glynn says Service Manager Jeff Tyahla is probably the best troubleshooter he's ever seen, and is great at tracking down solutions. After a service contract is signed, Tyahla and his team of 45 technicians devote every minute of their day to ensuring all service is performed on time, as promised. His key duties are coordinating service as it relates to assigning technicians, troubleshooting, and customer interaction. To him, success comes from doing the job efficiently, and never giving up till a problem is solved, and thanking the team for great work.

"I want to be supportive of the people out there. I appreciate what they do, and treat them —and customers — the way I'd want to be treated. If we make a mistake, we correct it. We never try to hide from it," Tyahla says. He also serves as the main contact for the company's five "Team Leaders," who are the company's most experienced field technicians. If they have a question that needs a fast answer, Jeff takes the call and tracks down the solution. It's a critical part of helping technicians navigate a vast amount of equipment information.

"A refrigeration technician needs to understand refrigerant flow as well or better than an air conditioning technician," he says. "For example, we do a lot of low temp blast freezers and hot gas defrost, or spiral blast freezers at -20F. We work on pharmaceutical refrigeration systems with cascade or compound machines. Therefore, you have to be a little bit sharper when you get into these complex systems."

Balancing Customer Needs with Company Growth
Customers are Hughes Environmental Engineering's top priority, even before experimenting with new ideas.

"Sometimes we dream about doing new things, like possibly adding to our service offerings. But it all comes back to doing what we do best — taking care of the needs of our customers. We're kind of good at it, so we'll stick with it for now," Brian says. "We try to stay on the cutting edge without being on the bleeding edge. We don't try new things just because they're new. We stay plugged in with refrigeration and HVAC industry resources and associations, primarily to bring best practices back to the mother ship."

He says he looks forward to further improvements in the industry's employment base, as technical and management talent moves toward careers in HVACR.

"I'm excited about the huge numbers of talented people interested in our industry," he says. "It's no secret that the automotive and financial sectors in particular have taken a huge employment hit, but many of those people are willing to bring their talents to our sector. Let's welcome them. There's some great talent headed our way. Technically, the dramatic changes in refrigerant protocols are reshaping the low-temperature design and service business, and we’re just getting started."

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What is a Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year?
The Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year represents an elite group: a forward-thinking class of commercial refrigeration contractors who are dynamic and professional in every respect, and who constantly seek new ways to improve business through quality refrigeration system design, installation, and service, and the highest level of customer service. These contractors strive for recognition by providing superior products and services. As energy conservation, remote monitoring, and more precise temperatures for food preservation become key priorities for many customers, these contractors are ready with cost-effective solutions. They watch for changing market conditions and respond quickly to new opportunities, even in the most challenging of times.

Hughes Environmental Engineering, Inc., Montvale, NJ, exemplifies the qualities and commitment to success that we witnessed in this year's candidates. We congratulate Hughes Environmental Engineering, Inc. — The 2010 Contracting Business Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year —for its determination to prosper amid today’s challenging economic conditions.

Photos by Gene Gouss Photography, Suffern, NY

First Class All the Way
Mark Lebovitz, president, Romark Logistics, Elizabeth, NJ — a nationwide operator of cold storage warehouses, first began working with Hughes Environmental Engineering more than 15 years ago, when he operated what at the time was another family business, East Coast Warehouse & Distribution Corp.

Hughes's work for Romark has included converting a cold room from 40F to 34F, humidity control projects, space retrofits, and cooler installations. Most recently, they designed and installed temperature and humidity controls for a 100,000 sq. ft. storage area.

Lebovitz praises Hughes Environmental Engineering’s attention to detail and their determination to find the root cause of an issue.

"They never throw parts or band-aids at problems, or try something to 'see what happens,'" he says. "They provide a good level of comfort by being honest and reliable. Sometimes that's hard to find. They've done nothing but first-class work for us. They work safe, smart, and clean."

HUGHES ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING, INC. AT A GLANCE
Founded in 1935 as Electric Products, by Richard Hughes and Frank W. Hughes
Service area: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Philadelphia.
Employees: 73 (45 are technicians)
2010 sales estimate: $18 million ($9 million is commercial refrigeration)
Services: Commercial refrigeration, with an emphasis on low temperature systems and the use of integrated controls technologies; rooftop unit replacements; chillers; HVAC/boiler replacements; ventilation.

Notable refrigeration customers:

  • New Fulton Fish Market
  • Hunts Point Cooperative Market
  • Hunts Point Meat Market
  • Rand Diversified
  • Baldor Foods
  • Leading pharmaceutical manufacturers.
  •  

Key personnel:

  • Frank Hughes, president
  • Brian Hughes, vice president, sales
  • Bill Glynn, executive vice president
  • Wayne Lehr, vice president, engineering
  • Bryan Smith, controller
  • Jeff Tyahla, service manager/general manager
  • Justin Gibb, operations manager
  • Maria deFigueiredo, contracts administrator
  • Susan Lord, service sales manager
  • Robert Tiemers, service sales consultant
  • Annie Divine, service sales consultant
  • Brian Glynn, P.E., sales engineer
  • Steve Westcott, sales engineer
  • Ed Parlin, sales engineer
  • Tom Reilly, senior project manager
  • Scott Barber, project manager
  • Lew Hefter, project manager
  • Zeke Delmonico, warehouse/parts manager
  • Bill Way, automation/controls manager
  • Eileen Weber, service coordinator/manager
  • Michelle Zielinski, service coordinator
  • Cory Benvenuto, service coordinator