When you're on your way into work tomorrow, look at the faces of your fellow commuters on the road — many of them look like they'd rather be going in for a root canal than going to work. Troy Meachum, president of ACR Supply Co., calls this the "death march," and he has made it his mission to ensure that his employees come to work each day happy, inspired and motivated to serve.

"I want them to be challenged, enjoy what they do and be fulfilled," he says. For Meachum, these are more than just words. ACR Supply makes this commitment to each of its employees at its eight locations throughout North Carolina: You are part of the ACR family. ACR Supply will help its people and encourage them to grow personally and professionally. In return, ACR Supply expects each associate to contribute to the culture and growth of the company through focused and measurable goals. Can this work? Since the company began this approach in 1997, it has grown from three to eight locations, and revenues have gone from $4 million to an estimated $25 million this year.

Troy Meachum's father, L.C. Meachum, started ACR Supply in 1977. Having worked for the HVAC supplier Hasco Inc. since 1956, the elder Meachum was ready to go into business for himself and opened ACR Supply in Durham, NC, on "next to nothing," recalls Troy, who was 16 years old at the time. L.C. Meachum brought with him Lee Blakely, a co-worker who later became ACR Supply's vice president.

Meachum and Blakely decided early in the life of the business that they would not sell HVAC equipment. Instead, they focused on five market areas: commercial refrigeration, commercial controls, commercial air filtration, residential HVAC parts and supplies, and hydronics. About 75 percent of ACR Supply's business is commercial.

Three years after L.C. Meachum opened ACR Supply, Troy joined his father in the business and opened the company's first branch in 1984. In the early 1990s, Troy came back to the Durham store and was appointed general manager by his father.

Before coming back to Durham, however, Troy Meachum's life had dramatically changed, and it would change the mission of ACR Supply. "I became a Christian in 1988, and I gave my life to the Lord," he says. "I began to really understand that my job was more than just a job. The people that were a part of the ACR family were a very big responsibility, and each of them were counting on me to do the right thing. For some reason, God has chosen to put me as a steward over this company and I can't express to you how much of a blessing it has been."

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As ACR Supply continued to grow in the 1990s, the Meachums recognized that they needed to have more structure. The Meachums sat down with Blakely in 1997 and agreed that they needed to develop a comprehensive plan around this growth. What they came up with was a strategic plan, a vision statement, to guide the company and a broader mission statement about what the company and its employees aspired to be.

The first vision statement that came out of that planning meeting was that ACR Supply would be the leading HVAC wholesale distributor in Central North Carolina by 2000. Achieving the goal set by this first vision statement took a culture shift, Meachum acknowledges. "It took some building and planning, intentionally trying to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats," he says.

"We were determined at that time to build a work culture where people would get up in the morning and really want to go to work and enjoy what they do every day. A place where, when they retire, they can say that their life was better off because they were a part of the ACR family. That sounds easy, but it's been very hard."

Not every team member was willing to contribute to such a work environment. Meachum says he had conversations with numerous associates about their futures with the company. "We would sit down together and define what was broke or not working (gossip, negativity, tardiness, etc. …) and lay out clear a plan to fix it (coaching, mentoring, education, etc. …) and define very clearly what the future needed to look like. We'll do everything we can to help you grow," Meachum says of the conversations. "But if we can't get there in this time frame even though I care deeply about you, you can't stay. Following through with this commitment to culture had a profound and immediate impact on our company."

ACR Supply accomplished the first vision statement and now updates it every three to four years. Its current vision statement is to have representation in every major market in North Carolina by December 2013. Meachum says the company is on track to achieve this goal.

Its mission statement is more about the culture of the company than specific goals. It reads: Our purpose is to glorify God through our commitment to honesty, integrity, dependability and professionalism while providing a healthy work environment and a secure future for every family.

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Accomplishing this mission is something that is ongoing for both Meachum and every person who works at ACR Supply. If the company is going to have an inclusive culture, then they are intimately involved in the shaping and building of that culture. "We involve everybody in the process," he says. "Every year, each associate at ACR Supply takes part in a culture (employee satisfaction) survey that helps to determine how engaged they are in the business and areas where we as a company may be falling short."

As a Christian, Meachum says he looks at his people not as employees but as individuals with families. "My father and I have always understood that we will have to answer someday for the way that we treated our people," he says. "Somebody's in charge of all this, and it ain't us." As he began to look at his job as a mission and ministry rather than just bottom-line results, he began to invest in their lives.

During the past five years, ACR Supply has contracted with Corporate Chaplains of America (www.chaplain.org) to work with each of its associates. It's a ministry that comes along side of each of its employees who may be struggling spiritually, emotionally or dealing with a crisis in their lives. Meachum points to statistics that show most Americans don't have a home church. The chaplains work in confidence with ACR Supply employees to help them get through any issues they may be facing. Meachum recalls that an employee passed away suddenly over the summer, and a chaplain was there to help the team and the employee's family deal with this loss. The chaplain conducted the funeral service, and it so profoundly affected two attendees at the funeral that they decided to accept Christ. "That's the stuff that matters for eternity,"Meachum says.

ACR Supply also provides its employees with other services that can help them personally, such as a 13-week personal financial planning course called Financial Peace University by Dave Ramsey. Meachum calls it "life changing." Employees tell Meachum with pride the day that they became debt free or finally paid off their home mortgage. "We're constantly looking for ways to help our people grow personally, professionally, financially and spiritually," he says.

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Investing in the lives of his people is the “best-kept secret in business today,” Meachum says. "Stay focused on the people, and the numbers will take care of themselves." He recognizes that not all business leaders will agree with this sentiment, but it's worked for Meachum and his people, and it's helped to grow the business.

Like the annual culture survey that involves every employee, Meachum also involves all of his people in the business. That means letting them set their sales goals and strategic business goals. Meachum's approach is that if your people own the goals, then they're more likely to achieve them. To that end, the managers who run ACR Supply's store locations have the moniker of “business unit leaders” and not "branch managers. "A branch is a piece of wood," Meachum says. "We want them to know that they're running a business."

Starting this year, the company will be launching its "Operational Excellence" initiative. Each business unit will have a scorecard and will work toward a standard of excellence in numerous areas, which include sales, financial and operational goals as well as cleanliness standards. For the stores that meet these standards, each team member will receive an ACR Supply leather jacket at the annual employee/spouse Christmas banquet in Myrtle Beach, SC.

With this in mind, every department and store location develops a business plan and specific goals about what success looks like. Every year, there are different objectives. In 2010, it was achieving operational, physical and fiscal fitness. This year, it's about remaining focused on the customer and the customer's needs. Next year, the focus is around "heart" — community, wellness, community chaplaincy and making a difference in the lives of customers. "A real customer care department is truly caring for, praying for and being there for our customers,"Meachum says.

In 2013, ACR Supply will begin a pay-for-performance program. Instead of being paid for showing up to work, employees will be evaluated on their individual performance — from how they contribute to the overall profitability of the company as well as how they contribute to the culture of the organization, a 360-degree peer review process, a departmental review and overall profitability.

Meachum says his leadership team ("I'm blessed with the greatest leadership team in the world.") is working tirelessly along with a pay-for-performance committee made up of representatives from across the company to get this plan right the first time. He says people are glad for the clear direction. "In every aspect of our business, our people like to know that the company's leadership team actually cares enough to involve them in the planning process," Meachum says. "They like to know that you have a plan and that you're going somewhere and that you have a vision and a direction."

As for ACR Supply's vision to be in every major market in North Carolina by 2013, Meachum says it's all about being able to forge closer relationships with its manufacturing partners. The company is committed to controlled growth, however. "We want to make sure that we're financially stable," he says. "We're keeping our eye on the ball."

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To make sure that they're doing business with the right vendors, ACR Supply conducts an annual evaluation of its top 25 vendor partners. "It's very comprehensive," he says. It includes constructive feedback about what they're doing right and areas for improvement. The top five vendors receive recognition at an annual banquet with an award and time with ACR's business unit leaders, account reps and members of the procurement team — a great way to build the relationships and plan for growth in the coming year.

To reach customers, Meachum says Kevin Parsley, ACR Supply's sales director has developed a comprehensive monthly marketing calendar targeting specific markets that involves a mix of sales materials, on-hold messaging, looping PowerPoint presentations for inside sales showroom monitors, along with Web advertising at www.acrsupply.com. This program has helped to significantly increase sales over the past two years, Meachum says.

Working together as a team — a family — has created a culture that makes ACR Supply stand out. As Meachum readily acknowledges, ACR Supply sells products that other wholesale distributors sell. But customers who work with ACR Supply know that they're getting something special. Not only will ACR Supply source whatever product it is that a customer needs, but they are personally committed to their customers — and it shows in how they approach their jobs. It's not words on a plaque that hangs in the lobby. It's part of the ACR Supply culture.


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

Best Practice

Creating a work culture where people get up in the morning and truly want to come to work.

Definition and Example: Everybody wants to be a part of a work culture where they enjoy what they do. They want to have the satisfaction of being a part of something bigger than themselves. They don't want to do the death march to work everyday like you see every morning on the highway. Even though almost everyone I have ever met in the marketplace desires to be a part of this kind of work culture, we have found over the years that not everyone wants to contribute to it. We hold our team accountable to contribute to it everyday. We regularly tell every ACR family member that their contribution to culture and profitability of the company is vital for our future success.

Significance: At ACR, we are trying to create a work culture where the day that you retire, you can look back and say your life was better off because you were a part of the ACR family making a difference!

Benefits: Meaningful work! Positive and productive work environment.

Procedure: Everybody contributes to our guiding principles and beliefs daily! (see Figure 1, page 18)

People involved: As you have heard, a fish always begins to stink at the head, so it all starts with leadership. But with that being said, everyone is involved in creating this work culture on a daily basis.

Timing: It's everything.

Cost: Time. Investing in the lives of our people can be very time consuming. It is much more difficult to lead than to be a dictator. Anyone can threaten and/or scream. It takes influential and authentic leadership to create a caring and accountable work culture.

Other considerations: Working with and leading people is and can be one of the most rewarding things you will do in your life.

Contact: Troy Meachum troy.meachum@acrsupply.com