When the first-of-its-kind, intelligent control of a communicating HVAC system hit the market last year, one might have assumed that this kind of innovation came from one of the giants in the industry. As it turns out, EWC Controls Inc., Englishtown, NJ, developed and produced the UT-3000 Zone Control System. They may not be one of the biggest players in HVAC, but EWC Controls has proven for more than 50 years that this family-owned business can compete with the best in the industry.
EWC Controls uses its small size (they employ 53) and the fact that it makes its products in New Jersey as a competitive advantage. “I think most people like to support a business that is family owned and is here in the United States,” says Mike Reilly, executive vice president. “That, plus the length of time that we've been in business, is a strong selling point.”
EWC Controls' roots are not in HVAC but in power transformers for military and commercial use. Formed in 1961 as EWC Inc., the company's transformers are located on smart guided missile systems, helicopters, airplanes, the Space Shuttle and other applications. As EWC grew, its owners decided to expand its capabilities into HVAC, which led to the formation of EWC Controls in 1988. The two businesses operate separately, but Reilly says its military pedigree has played a critical role on the controls side in developing streamlined operations and process flows and creating quality controls with little room for error.
Today, the business provides a variety of comfort solutions for HVAC applications, and it has developed a number of market-leading products that wholesalers and contractors rely on for their customers. The first communicating HVAC system is the latest example of the innovation from EWC Controls. Called the Ultra-Talk 3000, or UT-3000, it can talk to any other device on the ClimateTalk™ open protocol or any 24 volt 2 heat/1 cool gas/electric system or 2 heat/1 cool conventional or dual fuel heat pump. “You don't have to program it. It will automatically self-configure itself,” Reilly says. “We're extremely proud of it.”
Reilly says developing the UT-3000 took longer than its other products because its engineers had to write and verify the code. If one thinks it takes an army of R&D engineers — and the budget that goes along with it — to develop such products, then just look at what EWC Controls has accomplished. “They rose to the challenge by leaps and bounds,” Reilly says of his product development team. “They saw the trend coming and they were committed to making this a viable product.”
He says the initial sales of the UT-3000 have been extremely strong. Such plug-and-play systems that talk with one another are fast becoming the standard in the industry, Reilly notes. Consumers now expect simplicity in their systems — whether it is their cars, their tablet computers or their HVAC systems. “They can push a button and have access to everything and anything,” Reilly says. “They're going to expect that same plug and play with every feature in their house.”
On the installation and service side, the new technology actually makes it easier for contractors, Reilly says. “Usually it's going to be a three- or four-wire connection.” The real learning is more about understanding the product than the hands-on work. Or as Reilly puts it, “More of a conceptual training than hard-wire training.”
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EWC Controls also has had a number of firsts with zone dampers. It is the only zoning manufacturer to offer a zone damper, standard with 18 inch pounds of torque. Reilly notes that it is four to five times stronger than any other product on the market. EWC Controls was also the first manufacturer, in 2000, to introduce directional LEDs on dampers to assist installers.
EWC Controls' firsts over the years are part of its steady pattern of growth. You won't find spikes of growth followed by downward spirals in the company's history. “Our philosophy is that we don't need to be a $100 million or $200 million company. We want growth, but we want sustained growth and we want manageable growth,” Reilly says. “Our concept is slow and steady.”
This has allowed EWC Controls to follow through on its commitments to current customers as it adds new ones. For example, EWC Controls commits itself to shipping products within one day. “If it ships two days out, we're asking questions,” he says. The company never wants to grow so quickly that it leaves any customers waiting for an order or getting an incorrect order.
A seven-person management team consisting of its chief engineer, quality manager, plant manager, procurement manager, president, CEO and Reilly guides EWC Controls. These bimonthly meetings allow the team to go through every facet of the business — from operations to customer service — to ensure there are no outstanding issues.
Reilly is proud that its average length of employment is 17½ years and more than half of the employees have been there for more than 20 years. Reilly has been with the company for 18 years, joining as a buyer in the purchasing department and working his way up from there. Employees stay with EWC Controls because it's a company that cares about them. “Every company should be treating their employees as their No. 1 asset, which is what we do here,” he says. Flexible time schedules are particularly important for today's employees, who may have to tend to sick children or elderly parents. “We treat everybody like family,” he says, noting that this holds true for the outside reps as well.
Reilly says the three keys to EWC Controls' success are technical support, customer service and product training. Employees are also empowered to make decisions when they're working with a customer. While larger companies may have to get back to a customer on an issue or technical problem, EWC Controls' employees can assess the situation and make a decision that is in the best interest of the customer. “We feel that we can provide better customer service and support, and that will make it very easy for the wholesaler to call us again.”
Often, it can be the simple things that make a difference. A customer may call and ask for some catalogs to be sent to a certain branch. While some manufacturers may get around to sending them out, you can count on EWC Controls to make good on its promise that day. “Customer service is often about doing the little things, and that's what we emphasize,” he says.
The training classes from EWC Controls are one of its strengths. When you're a small company, product education and training has to be one of the key strategies in getting in front of customers. “If our regional managers and manufacturer's reps can be out there training constantly and educating people, then we're going to win the battle,” Reilly says.
The business employs about 50 manufacturer's reps around the country and seven regional managers who work directly for EWC Controls.
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This approach builds loyalty by providing customers with the right information at the right time. But it's also a way to hear directly from their customers about what they're seeing and experiencing in their day-to-day jobs. “We'll take that information and start talking about it,” Reilly says. “A lot of our market research comes from this.”
Reilly says EWC Controls is committed to the two-step distribution process. It directs all of its marketing efforts to wholesalers and contractors. The company plays an active role at regional industry meetings as a way to stay in touch with its customers and hear the issues that are on their minds.
Like all manufacturers, EWC Controls wants to make sure that its wholesaler customers are stocking enough product and that they are doing a thorough job educating their distributors and contractors on its products. As a small manufacturer, however, EWC Controls has the ability to work more closely with its customers to address the wholesalers' issues. For example, EWC Controls offers a number of programs for wholesalers so that there's little risk in placing orders. These include programs like rebalancing, guaranteed sales and buybacks. “We try to make it as easy as possible to do business with us,” Reilly says. “It's easy and risk free.”
Reilly understands the pressures that wholesale distributors face as margins continue to shrink. One trend that he says could catch on among wholesalers is providing more front office services to their contractor customers. Not only does this provide a value-add to the customer, but it creates stronger ties with one another. These would include such services as invoicing, marketing and perhaps even collections. “The wholesalers are going to need to start providing more services to their customers, and it's not just product services,” he says. “I think if the wholesaler can provide that for the contractors, the contractors will get locked in because of that service.”
Producing its products at its New Jersey facility and sourcing as many of its supplies as possible from the local area helps to ensure that products are high quality and are shipped by the following day. Reilly says EWC Controls has firsthand experience about products they produced overseas. Its power transmission business once operated plants in Haiti, Mexico and Taiwan so production would be cheaper and reach locations faster. They shut down the operations because of quality issues and brought the work back stateside, Reilly says.
Producing its goods at home is more in keeping with the company's overall philosophy and ensures that customers will be satisfied with every aspect of EWC Controls. “We want to make sure that we do everything we possibly can to not lose a customer,” Reilly says. “We want to give them a product that they can go out and sell and provide them with the best customer and technical service. We have the ability to react quickly and do things that some of the bigger guys can't do.”
Michael Maynard is a business writer based in Providence, RI. He writes frequently on HVACR, construction and architecture issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Secret Shopper” This is the EWC Controls way of maintaining customer service and customer retention. It's not a new concept, nor is it a new idea, but if our staff feels that every phone call and every customer interaction is being graded and critiqued, their performance is going to be the best they can provide. The pride in their effort is evident every day. We encourage our staff to provide fast, efficient and accurate information while empowering them to make decisions on their own to improve the customer experience.
Definition and Example: EWC Controls views our customer service as “second-to-none.” There is no one that can provide the level of service that we provide. We define the “Secret Shopper” mentality as the most important tool we have against our competition. If we can make our customer's life easier, then they will have no reason to go anywhere else. Customer service is usually looked at as a department or a function. At EWC Controls, we view it as a customer retention tool. In one of the buying groups that we belong to, five of the last six years EWC Controls was voted in the Top 10 out of all vendors, for customer service levels. We have only been members in the group for six years, and the first year was for only six months.
Significance: EWC Controls has been in business for more than 50 years. In order to remain in business for another 50 years and beyond, we need to make the customers' experience with our company easy. We have to do what we can to make the interaction process as “painless” as possible. Customer service is the key role in providing that process. The idea that every customer is grading your interaction is a significant force to encourage our support staff to provide exceptional service. If we can make every customer feel as though they are our only customer, we will succeed.
Benefits: EWC Controls employs more than 50 people with an average length of employment of 17 years. Exceptional customer service has a two-fold benefit. The first is that our customers receive the quality service they deserve, and that keeps them coming back to EWC Controls. The second is that the more our customers keep coming back to us, the more likely we are to reach our Centennial Celebration and increase our average length of employment. The goal for exceptional service is both an internal and external benefit.
Procedure: Do whatever it takes to satisfy our customer.
People involved: Everyone is involved in this endeavor. From management to production staff, everyone focuses on the end goal of exceeding the customers' expectations every time. Whether we are taking a phone call, making a sales presentation or conducting a training class for our customers, every point of contact is just as important as the other. Customer service is the responsibility of all our employees.
Timing: Great customer service is a 24/7 function; there are no “break times.” EWC Controls has been tops in our industry for customer service since day one. For over 50 years now, we have perfected the process and implemented the culture throughout the company.
Cost: Providing great customer service is “priceless.” As a company that strives to be the best at everything we do, there is no restriction on costs associated with quality improvements to our processes. Some of the best improvements we have made and implemented were the least costly. The rewards for great customer service far exceed the cost.
Other considerations: It would not be possible for EWC Controls to provide award-winning customer service if it were not for our employees. They are the ones that keep our customers coming back, they are the ones that receive the accolades, they are the ones that have kept EWC Controls in business for more than 50 years. Without their wonderful support and determination, EWC Controls would be just another average company, and that we are not.