By Gerry Wiegmann

Almost all successful contractors know their core competency: in other words, what they do well. In our industry, in addition to general business skills, there are four main pillars on which to build a successful company: technology, productivity, relationships, and service.

The technology pillar includes real strength in engineering, and construction concepts. Contractors who focus on the technology side of the business generally have great engineers, well-trained controls technicians, and a strong design background that propels them to focus on this side of their business.

Contractors who build their business around productivity manage their field labor by the hour or the day (not the job) and measure everything. They preplan every job, interface with the general contractor’s schedule, and man-load the job by tasks, units, and quantities. They pre-fabricate everything they can, and subassemblies are delivered to the field on time. The company’s focus is on making the field crews as productive as possible by using apprentices, pre-apprentices, materials handlers, tradesmen or Teamsters to get each task handled by the lowest cost, most efficient personnel available.

The most productive contractors usually concentrate on plan-and-spec work, and their focus on every detail obviates any potential extra cost. Planning the job in advance gives them time to prepare change orders and get them approved before the fabrication deadline.

Relationship contractors focus on the human side of the business. They might be mediocre at other skills, but they have friends. They’re connected in their communities, and they know their customer’s wives and families. They know about the job coming down the line because a friend told them about it, and may negotiate the job before it ever hits the street. They use their relationships to put them in a position to be successful.

The last pillar of many successful mechanical contractors is service. Service drives their business. They have the best techs, diligently train them, and manage them efficiently. This kind of contractor requires a personable, efficient dispatcher who returns calls promptly and communicates with the customer all the way. The service techs have good communication skills and help sell new service work. The service division is responsible for system performance and maintenance, and can make systems work for customers. The service division is very profitable for the company and feeds the construction division work.

Most successful contractors have one or more core competencies. Many times, where we originated in the business continues to be our competency. For example, an engineer turned contractor focuses on technology, a salesman focuses on relationships, a sheet metal worker or pipe fitter focuses on productivity, and a service tech focuses on his service business.

When we at Wiegmann Associates do some brutally honest self-examination, we grade ourselves as: Technology A, Service B-, Relationships B, and Productivity C+. But all of our core competencies are improving. We’ve joined The Unified Group, a group of service contractors headquartered in Chicago, and we’ve gone from an overall D to an overall B- in just a few short years. We’ve joined a peer group of sheet metal contractors through the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), and that group is very productivity focused. Additionally, we recently went outside the company and acquired a small but efficient piping contractor.

Our initial core competency of technology has been strengthened by recent talent acquisitions and a change in project management methodology. First, we brought on board some very bright and motivated engineers who had construction backgrounds. An engineer is now assigned to a project at the outset and is responsible for the performance of the system through the warranty period. After the engineer completes the design, he writes the control sequence, approves the control code, and is on site for start-up. If any glitches occur, it’s the engineer’s responsibility to guide the correction. This “cradle-to-grave” approach, with continuous feedback, will groom great engineers.

Lastly, you shouldn’t sell what you can’t service. Our marketing, sales, and relationship-building activities need to coincide with our growth in capabilities. In the next few years, with the guidance of our world-class peer group and the acquisition of top-notch field talent, we’ll make great advances.

In summary, every contractor needs to do some honest self-examination and rate his or her company’s core competencies. Then, be prepared to go outside your company to acquire the expertise to expand your core competencies. Join peer groups or industry organizations so you can learn from others to strengthen your weak areas, and share the knowledge of your strengths. This will benefit your company and the HVAC industry overall. n

Gerry Wiegmann is president of Wiegmann Associates, a $36 million commercial HVAC contracting firm in St. Charles, MO. He can be reached at 636/757-2003.