From a distance, one HVAC company looks just like the next. It's when you open the door and start walking the aisles that you know if you're visiting a well-managed company, or one that's hanging on the ropes.

The well-managed company is organized, and oozes professionalism. Other than ringing phones or chatter from the dispatch area, a steady calm prevails, because people know their jobs, and are off doing them, and doing them well.

And for that, you can thank the manager. Whoever is in charge of keeping that company up and running, the HVAC industry says, "thank you." People like you help keep customers happy, technicians busy, bills paid, and collections on time. But, surprise — you don't have to "do it all."

Dewey Jenkins, president, Morris-Jenkins Heating & Air Conditioning, Charlotte, NC — the ContractingBusiness.com 2009 Residential Contractor of the Year, has some decided opinions about manager excellence. That's because he's got a great manager in Anne Gannon. And, her efforts have helped the company survive and thrive over the past couple of years without a single layoff due to lack of work. That's leadership.

"During the past downturn, in 2009, Anne was outstanding in keeping the company focused on what customers needed and wanted. Then, she looked at every single expense and cut where we could. But, we had no layoffs. That was superb on her part," he says.

How does a manager get to the point of being able to lead the troops through a fire storm without a scratch? What does it take to be the best?

It Starts with Courage
"All great mangers must possess the courage to do the difficult things, otherwise, they won't be respected as managers," Jenkins says. Those more challenging moments might include firing an employee, or making a procedural change within a department that's set in its ways.

"The good manager finds the purpose in the change, explains it logically, and has the courage to stand with it," Jenkins says. "That courage can inspire a team to trust their manager more each day."

With the myriad components that make up an HVAC enterprise — hiring, training, service, sales, installations, inventory, billing, collections, and more — it's essential that a manager have the focus required to cut through the clutter and recognize the few things that are of utmost importance.

"A manager is bombarded with information and different stimuli. If you try to respond to everything, you lose your effectiveness," Jenkins says. "You have to sift through and focus on the few things that make most difference."

Anne Gannon recently celebrated 10 years with the Morris-Jenkins company. Her previous work experience was seven years as operations manager for a Charlotte computer firm. She joined Dewey and the Morris-Jenkins team with plenty of managerial experience, but none in the male-dominated world of HVAC. Jenkins saw her potential, and brought her on board as a manager trainee.

"I was fortunate to come to a company that would give me — as a woman, and as someone with no experience in this industry — an opportunity," Gannon recalls. "I came to the company when it was small and growing very fast, which gave me an opportunity to work in every department. Later, as I reached higher levels, I was a good resource for my people, because I could say 'I know what you're talking about.'

It Goes Back to the Team
Gannon credits her success to her coworkers.

"I'm successful because I'm surrounded by people who do a great job and make me look good. At Morris-Jenkins, we strive to hire the most talented individuals, and place them in positions that match their natural strengths. When someone is doing a job they enjoy and are good at it, they perform at an exceptional level. When I was new to management, I felt as if nothing was done well unless I did it myself," Gannon says. "It took me years to break that habit.

"When you empower your people to do their jobs, amazing things happen. I found that, not only did they do their jobs well, but, more often than not, they did it much better than I could have done. Good management was, is, and always will be, getting the job done through others. The challenge to managers is to let go, trust, and hold your people accountable."

Gannon's approach to departmental meetings is also simple: set objectives, and a time frame for their completion.

"I provide whatever direction they need, and then I get out of their way, and let them do their jobs," she says.

What's the best way for a manager to change a procedure? She says it starts with obtaining employee "buy-in" to the change.

"To accomplish this, first you observe, explain what you're trying to accomplish, and ask the people who are doing the job for their input on the best way to accomplish the objective," Gannon says. "Invariably, the people doing the work have the best ideas on how to implement the change. When it's their idea, the buy-in is immediate. Even when you make an upopular procedural change where you don't have immediate buy-in, the employees are appreciative that you solicited their feedback."

Lots of BAD Ideas
Anne Gannon's most recent moment of managerial excellence came in 2009, a year many an HVAC manager would like to forget. The economic tailspin was upon us, and it was time to take stock of each and every penny. Gannon led the Morris-Jenkins team on a plan which would prevent a single layoff.

"It was a group effort, where everyone played their part," she says. But first, employees were briefed in advance of what a tough year it would be.

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"We asked them to place special emphasis on customer needs and wants. We empowered all of our employees to do whatever was necessary, to not just satisfy the customer's needs, but to wildly exceed their expectations. We became a 'yes, we can' organization," Gannon says.

Cost cutting was a prime directive, with the exception of salaries or benefits, and anything that would have adverse affect on customer service. Then, she made cost-cutting fun.

"We introduced a 'Buck-A-Day' (BAD) program, where you could submit a BAD idea that had to save the company just $1 per day. The BAD program became a great morale booster. It became commonplace to be asked if you had a 'BAD' idea today, or you were told that your idea was just so 'BAD,' which meant that it was really good. Ideas included changing the company's coffee supplier (a $382 savings) to changing phone plans, which saved $60,000.

"Overall, we saved several hundred thousand dollars, and had tremendous fun doing it," Gannon says.

When the Big Dog Can Step Back
Russ Donnici, president, Mechanical Air Service, San Jose, CA, places utmost trust in three persons: his son, Matt Donnici, vice president, construction; his son-in-law Scott Larson, vice president, service; and his daughter, Danielle Larson, vice president, finance. Their abilities to keep things running smoothly at this leading residential/commercial HVAC firm have helped Russ step to the background and assume an advisory role. (Mechanical Air Service won a ContractingBusiness.com Quality Home Comfort Award in 2008: http://bit.ly/masqhca.)

Donnici says Matt, Scott, and Danielle have absolute integrity, honesty, competency, and good decision-making skills. Their talents have helped made it easier for Russ to reduce his role in the company easier. He's a coach, to be sure, but he's letting the younger folks pass the baton around without micro-managing the handoff.

"A company’s founders play an important role in the business, however, if there's to be a transition of management, the founders can overshadow the second generation management team simply by being there," he says.

Matt Donnici manages bidding and construction and tenant improvement work, and he also has some operational duties.

Scott Larson is responsible for Mechanical's service activities, estimating follow-up work, and equipment changeouts that come through the service department. He also works together with Matt Donnici as needed, to assist him in estimating projects and as a project manager.

Danielle Larson handles internal office related operational issues, financials, and marketing. Among her recent accomplishments, she developed a comprehensive marketing plan for Mechanical Air Service.

"Papa Bear" Russ Donnici advises on special projects, helps with management, and provides some technical support to the service business. He'll train technicians to engineer the more difficult or unique projects, as needed. He'll lend an ear to weekly financial reviews, marketing discussions, and conversations that concern the company's overall vision and future. He's also instituted a way to ensure his mangers learn to make the big decisions: any issues brought up by the team must also include at least two recommendations on how to solve them.

If you're the top manager in your organization, congratulations! You've earned it, and are making a positive difference in the lives of your team. If you aspire to greatness, do all you can to improve your managerial skills, by observing, questioning, and reading as much as you can on the subject. And, good luck. The HVACR industry needs more people like you.