Clarksville, TN has a history of ambitious women. It’s known for being home to the First Woman’s Bank, which opened in 1919, said to be the only bank in America to ever be owned and operated solely by women. Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals was born here, as was Pat Summitt, former head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team. There must be something in the water in Clarksville because it continues to produce successful women. One in particular — Alana Ward, owner and president of Baggett Heating & Cooling — is Contracting Business.com’s 2012 HVACR Woman of the Year.
Alana Ward didn’t start out seeking a career in the HVACR business. She was a political science major in college and thought that she might go to law school when she graduated. After working at the U.S. Attorney’s office while still in school, she decided that wasn’t the path for her. Her father, who owned Baggett Heating & Cooling at the time, needed a bookkeeper the summer after Ward graduated.
“My dad offered for me to work for him over the summer and take a break after school. He said he’d let his bookkeeper go and all those records and books were a mess. I was pretty organized, so it was something that I could help out with. I decided to do it for the summer, then I’d figure out where I was going to go from there.”
Although Ward was successful in organizing the office and bookkeeping, she thought she’d pursue a career at the Opryland Hotel and Conference center in Nashville when the summer ended in September, 2001. She lost out on the Opryland Hotel, because they had a hiring freeze after the 9/11 attacks. It was after those events that her father offered her the position as general manager.
“My dad was semi-retired at the time and had a general manager running the company, who wasn’t doing a very good job. I was only 23 years old, but my dad offered for me to take over and be the general manager.” She took on the challenge.
Ward had to wear many hats in the years that followed first taking over the company. “I went from bookkeeper to general manager. Through that progression and through the years following, I’ve been the dispatcher, the bookkeeper, the sales person, the human resources person, and I’ve cleaned the office. You name it, I’ve done it, with the exception of actually doing the service work or installations.”
Doing It Right
Even though Ward didn’t have a technical background and didn’t attend a trade school, she learned the HVAC business by surrounding herself with the right people and by asking a lot of questions. Above everything else, her goal is getting the job done right for each customer. “It’s a slow process but I’m very conscious of getting the job done right. That’s paramount to most anything else that we do,” Ward explains.
One of Ward’s goals as an HVAC business owner is to raise the level of professionalism in the industry. That starts with the hiring process. “We’ve all but quit hiring experienced people because I’m finding that many experienced people have bad experience,” Ward explains. “You can’t convince someone that they’ve been doing the wrong thing for 20 years, and you especially can’t convince them if that news is coming from a woman who’s only been in the industry for 10 years.”
Ward explains that a technician can’t just pick up a set of gauges and a jug of refrigerant and go to work. “It’s technical and it’s very scientific. It takes a special person to do this, not just some person off the street. We hire very good, smart, hard working people. We want people who take the industry seriously.”
“We’re having success with people who are hard working, have positive attitudes and are willing to learn,” She says.
Another of Ward’s goals is to take control of the company’s finances. “My attitude about the financial side of the business has changed. I’m not going to borrow money, and I’m going to think long and hard about every dime that goes out the door,” she asserts.
Pride in Work
To improve sales, Ward had to make sure that she knew enough about the technical side of the industry to know how to solve each customer’s unique needs. “I’ve gone from literally knowing nothing about this industry, to now being at the point where I can communicate with homeowners how we can solve their problems. I tell my customers all the time that the contractor they choose to install their system is the most important choice they’ll make in the installation process. I explain that a 15 SEER heat pump is only going to remain a 15 SEER heat pump if it’s installed the right way.”
Ward continues, “Learning the technical side of the business and being able to communicate the importance of the process to a homeowner that knows nothing about air conditioning, are two skills that I’ve developed over the years that I’m most proud of.”
Former college classmates have come to rely on Ward for advice with their own HVAC systems. “Nothing makes me prouder than to have sorority sisters call me up and ask if I can come work on their system, or advise them as to what they need or what shape their existing system is in. I know the answers, and I can help get them to the end result that they desire,” she says.
It’s a Family Affair
Ward isn’t afraid to bring work home, and in some cases bring home to work. Her husband Chad, is a captain with American Eagle airlines but when he’s home, he’s installing air conditioners. “I feel like we have a ‘one-two punch’,” Ward explains. “When I’m selling or doing the administrative part of the job, Chad can be out in the field making sure the jobs are done correctly, and that our technicians are being trained properly. It’s been stressful on our family at times, but we’re making progress, reaching our goals and moving in the right direction. It’s a short-term inconvenience for a long-term success story.”
Alana says knowing when to step back and rely on others is key in getting a balance between her work life and home life. “We’ve been pretty successful in knowing when to go full speed and when to pull back and take a break. Having phenomenal teammates in my organization that are dependable helps when we need some family time. We’ve got really great people behind us that make our company truly unique.”
Ward believes that part of her success in the HVAC industry is from having someone in the industry that she can talk to for advice, or when times get tough. “I have a mentor, David Allen, who I talk to literally every day. I could never begin to repay him for the advice, guidance and leadership that’s he’s given to me. My advice to anyone starting their own company or trying to run a company is to get a mentor in the industry that you can talk to.”
Allen, owner of Allen’s Air Conditioning in Tuscumbia, AL, talks about how Ward has grown through the years.
“Alana has more desire to want to do the job right than anyone I’ve ever met,” Allen says. “Whatever it takes to do the job right, she wants to do it that way. I’ve told her to stay focused on the positive things and not to get down. Her sales ability has really come a long way. It’s really great.”
Ward hopes to return the favor someday by being a mentor and helping other contractors who are struggling to get by. “Someday someone will call me and I’ll have the answers and the guidance to give them. Ultimately, that’s how I return that favor.”
Ward’s sales skills have continued to grow over her 11 years of running the company. “Every time a homeowner looks at me and asks — “what would you do if you were me?” — that shows me that they trust me and believe that our team will do a good job for them. When I sell a system and hear those words, it’s something I really love, because this is about making the customer happy.”
Ward’s love for the HVAC industry and commitment to building a strong, successful company radiates in the work her team produces. At a time when the workforce in the HVAC business is aging, and it’s becoming more difficult to find younger technicians and business owners, Ward is blazing a trail and leaving her mark on the industry. And, at only 33 years old, with 11 years of running a company, she’s really only getting started. ContractingBusiness.com magazine is proud to present Alana Ward with the 2012 HVACR Woman of the Year award.