The hot and humid weather of the Louisiana summers can wreak havoc on HVACR systems. Fortunately for homeowners and contractors, Acme Refrigeration is an HVACR wholesale supplier with 16 branches around the state. For 65 years, Acme Refrigeration has served the needs of HVACR contractors — whether they are working with new construction, retrofitting a unit or looking for hard-to-find replacement parts.

Based in Baton Rouge, LA, Acme Refrigeration is a family-owned enterprise. Adrian E. Kaiser Sr. started the business and his grandson, Adrian E. (Manny) Kaiser III, today serves as president, with his father, Adrian E. Kaiser Jr. serving as chairman of the board. Other family members play active roles in the business: Chuck Kaiser, Manny's brother, is vice president of Operations; Susan Kaiser Treigle, Manny's sister, is the credit manager; Manny's youngest sister, Lisa Kaiser Kenaley, is the IT manager; and cousin Jay Kaiser is vice president of Sales and Marketing.

Adrian Kaiser Sr. got into the refrigeration business through his ice cream business: Kaiser's Velvet Ice Cream in Natchez, MS. Back in those days, he had to be both the ice cream maker and the one who made sure the refrigeration worked. Because he became skilled in refrigeration, he realized that there were more opportunities to supply the parts and pieces for refrigeration units. After selling the ice cream business, Kaiser moved to Baton Rouge and opened Acme Refrigeration.

About six months later, Kaiser found a building to house his fledgling business. He quickly developed a reputation as the person to see if you needed refrigeration parts or supplies. Within a couple of years, Adrian Jr. joined the business. Years later, Adrian Jr.'s brother, John, joined the business following a stint in the Air Force, and he opened Acme's first branch in Natchez back in 1964.

With the growing prevalence of air conditioning throughout the United States, and with a particular need for it in the Deep South, the Kaisers concentrated their efforts in this area. As Acme's reputation for knowledgeable service people and an extensive inventory grew, the business generated more and more loyal customers. Acme expanded its branches throughout southern Lousiana. While there were one or two acquisitions, according to Kaiser, most of the growth has been organic.

The branches are all contained within a three-hour drive of Acme's Baton Rouge headquarters. “But don't count us out on going further from home,” Kaiser says, noting that Acme has a subsidiary company in Trinidad. Kaiser Supply also has an Acme Refrigeration branch operating in the Greater New Orleans area. Because there was another business called Acme Refrigeration Supplies in that area, Kaiser says they named that location after the family.

Today, Acme counts about 2,000 to 3,000 HVACR contractors as customers with about 80 percent of its sales in the residential market. “Acme has always concentrated on all three areas of the business: residential, commercial and industrial. We have also tried to specialize in both new construction and replacement/retrofit,” Kaiser says. “Another important aspect of our business is that we have always been a full-line wholesaler that specializes in being able to get those hard-to-find, special-order- type items quickly.”

At the heart of Acme's business is its sales counters — this is where Acme's reputation for superior customer service is on full display. Kaiser says everyone at Acme understands that the counter service is the main connection to its customers. “It can make or break your business,” adds Jay Kaiser. Acme also has a staff of seasoned veterans who make up the outside sales team to call on customers. All branch locations deliver directly to the contractors.

Follow-up and making sure the orders are correct and on time are the best ways to ensure customer loyalty, according to Jay Kaiser. “With 15 locations throughout most of Louisiana, we can provide the immediate access or delivery quick and free-of-charge,” he says. Of course, marketing programs with opportunities for hunting and fishing excursions, trips to NASCAR races and fun-in-the-sun getaways help create even deeper ties to Acme. Special offers throughout the year also give Acme salespeople opportunities to call on customers or encourage customers to call them.

Acme pays particular attention to developing and maintaining its equipment dealer base. “If the contractor is buying his equipment from you, more than likely he's purchasing the majority of his supplies from you also,” Jay Kaiser says. This is particularly important in a competitive market like Louisiana. “If they're not calling us, we start calling them just to stay in touch.”

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It shouldn't be a surprise that Acme's branches focus on the sales counter. They recognize that their contractors are busy — they want to get in, get their orders and get back to work. “They're set up to allow for self-service by the contractors,” Manny Kaiser says. Regional managers oversee four to six branch locations, which ensure that each branch manager has help with the overall operation. Regional managers also help make sure that the Acme Refrigeration philosophies are part of each location's culture.

With Acme Refrigeration's dedicated training center at its headquarters in Baton Rouge, employees have numerous opportunities to participate in training and continuing education opportunities. While Acme Refrigeration takes advantage of training offered by manufacturers, employees are also encouraged to take the education courses through HARDI. “We not only pay for the course but also recognize them among their peers and bonus them $100 for each course they complete,” Jay Kaiser says.

The three regional managers also keep their eyes and ears open for what's happening in the industry and maintain active lines of communications with the branches that they oversee. HARDI remains a vital source of information for the regional managers as well as upper management and branch employees. “HARDI has been a great venue for us to really get to know our vendors,” Jay Kaiser adds. “Its Performance Analysis Report is very informative for our upper management, and HARDI has provided a great means for the distributor and manufacturer to partner and develop better relationships.”

Kaiser remarks that the air-conditioning business has changed dramatically over the years as technology has made HVACR systems much more efficient and advanced. While customer and employee training remains an important part of Acme Refrigeration, he says training alone can't keep up with the new technology. “Because of this, we are seeing that no matter how much training you offer to your customer base, you need someone whom customers can call to ask about a situation,” he says.

That person at Acme Refrigeration is a full-time technical service advisor, a recent addition to the business who solidifies the distributor's commitment to the technical side of HVACR. “We actually have been doing the technical service advisor function for years, but not with one person in that position,” he says. Having a dedicated full-time service advisor will drive more customers through Acme's doors because they know there is one person who can answer the technical and often complex questions.

To meet the needs of its customers, the average branch stocks between 5,000 and 6,000 items. Since 1999, the branches have been on the Mincron Hardgood Distribution software system, which allows the business to keep its stores stocked, based upon past demand.

Kaiser is particularly proud of Acme's perpetual inventory system, which checks for product accuracy throughout the year — a task that can be difficult in the middle of the summer when inventory turns over continuously. By mid-November, auditors perform inventory spot checks — random samplings of inventory items at each location. “If we do not attain a certain precision of accuracy, we must count everything in that location over a weekend,” he says. Kaiser is quick to point out that they have not done a weekend inventory count in more than 20 years, unless there was a change in managers and the new manager wanted a complete count.

Acme has also invested in new technologies and outsourced certain tasks such as invoice/statement printing and mailing as well as some other back office functions. Kaiser also counts its laser printing at all locations, imaging, bar coding and off-site backup for its computer systems among the ways that it maintains an efficient and lean operation. “There is more to do, especially in the area of imaging to eliminate paper and bar coding to ensure greater accuracy of our inventory system,” he says. “It takes time and money, but we'll get there.”

As with all wholesale distributors, inventory turns are an important part of the business. Jay Kaiser says this is a “priority, but not our philosophy.” Because manufacturers don't carry the inventory that they once did, Acme overstocks certain items to ensure that they have them in stock for their customers. “This is particularly true with the equipment manufacturers,” he says. “We don't have the leverage to put pressure on the manufacturers like the regional and national distributors, but we also don't have the accountants mandating inventory turns and levels.”

That's one of the advantages of being a smaller, family-owned business, the Kaisers say. They can make decisions that they know will have a positive impact on customers without having to first pass it through corporate bean counters who don't understand HVACR. In fact, all employees have access to any of the owners and upper management, who take a hands-on approach to managing, with Kaiser and the vice presidents of operations and sales in daily contact with the branches.

This proactive approach to the business also enabled Acme Refrigeration to better prepare for the recession. Louisiana has traditionally entered economic downturns several months after the rest of the country, Jay Kaiser explains, and this allowed Acme to lower its overhead. “We had another good year in 2009 and have invested heavily in R-22 condensing units to capitalize on the shortage in 2010.”

Acme Refrigeration also has the benefit of employees who have been with the business for a long time and know HVACR, their markets and, most importantly, what customers want. Manny Kaiser also credits quality customers who have been loyal to the business over the years.

“What am I most proud of when I look at Acme? I proudly say, our people!” Manny Kaiser says. “The people who come to work every day at Acme Refrigeration are just good folks who are well-known in their communities as hard-working suppliers to the HVACR trade.” Many Acme employees have been with the business for more than 20 years and have worked their way up over the years. “Retaining good to great employees has always been a hallmark of Acme and has definitely contributed greatly to our still being here and healthy after 65 years.”


Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at michael.maynard@lycos.com.

Best Practice

Definition: To be known as THE supply house to call when a mechanic needs something after regular working hours, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Significance: Acme knows from experience that when you take care of a customer any time of the day or night, there is a good chance that customer will remember the effort and become a loyal, repeat customer. Many times, this involves a compressor or motor for a residential system, but there are other times when the incident involves one of the many chemical plants that line the Mississippi River in our area. At those times, it could be a ton of refrigerant or some other aspect of the cooling process that is used in the plants. This is very critical because when a process is down, it can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour in lost production.

Procedure: All locations of Acme have CALL OUT numbers that we publish and post on the front doors. At any time of the day or night, a customer who needs service can call. It is our goal to get back to the caller within 15 minutes. Typically, Acme personnel meet customers at the store to fill their needs. However, there have been times when we have called out hot shot providers to deliver, and there have also been instances where Acme personnel has had to deliver to the customer to take care of the situation.

Other considerations: Acme policy is to charge a CALL OUT that is competitive with other supply houses in each market. If we do not have what the customer needs, no charge applies. Also, if the CALL OUT is before 5 p.m. on a weekday, where we have closed early (for example, because of bad weather), no charge applies.

Acme Refrigeration at a Glance

President & CEO: A.E. “Manny” Kaiser, III
Vice Presidents: Chuck Kaiser, operations Jay Kaiser, sales & marketing
Headquarters: Baton Rouge, LA
Operations: 15 stores in LA
Employees: 100
Annual Sales: $38 million
Major Product Lines: Rheem, Dupont, Comfortmaker, White Rodgers, Honeywell, Selkirk, Flanders Precisionaire, Penn, Robershaw, Motors & Armatures, Atco, Nu Calgon, Friedrich, Florida Heat Pump, Allstyle, ADP, Climate Master, A. O. Smith, Yellow Jacket, LG, Weatherking, TCS, Metal Fab, General Electric, Tecumseh, Oasis, Scotsman, Joval, EWC, Heatcraft, Certainteed, Russell, Cuno, Malco, Klein, Hardcast, Fieldpiece, Johnson Controls
Website: www.acmeref.com
Year Founded: 1945