Photography by Cheryl Holbrook, Newnan, GA.
It is a source of great satisfaction for the business owner when he can point to significant achievements on the road to success. Each achievement serves as a milestone, is a reward for past efforts, and provides hope and encouragement for future victories.
There have been many milestones along the way for Steve Tibbetts, founder and president of T&O Refrigeration, located in Fayetteville, GA. Together, all of T&O’s successes signify a journey of high excellence in the challenging and ever-changing world of supermarket refrigeration.
Tibbetts has persevered as a successful refrigeration contractor through a dogged commitment to honesty, persistence, quality workmanship, technician education, and treating people right, on all sides of the fence, from the customer to the employee, and the vendor.
Steve Tibbetts has always had a knack for doing things the “right” way. First, he studied all he could while working at his uncle’s ice-making plant and attending night school through Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES). He earned his license, and in 1978, found a job with the in-house service team of Kroger’s Atlanta division.
'Under-Promise / Over-Deliver'
— A Steve Tibbetts Motto
It was a great challenge, and things are done completely different today, but he sees the value in his early baptism under fire.
“I was more or less a ‘trainee’ which, in those days, meant they just threw you to the wolves. It forced you to learn quickly because it was either sink or swim,” he says. After about seven years, he was picked to oversee Kroger’s new in-house construction department.
“At the time, a man named Ron Hoffman ran the Atlanta Kroger region of 300 stores. Ron was one of the best men I have ever worked for. He believed in his people, and he saw something in me. Three years later, when I decided to go into business, I asked him if I could bid on Kroger work, and he said yes.”
Tibbetts was selected to be the refrigeration contractor for several Kroger projects. “Without that, it would have been very tough to jump right into supermarkets. Ron gave me an opportunity I’ll never be able to repay,” he shared.
Landing those Kroger projects was the stroke of luck Steve needed to jumpstart his business, and provide a financial cushion during the late 80’s and early 90’s economic slowdown.
“Back then there wasn’t much thought put into supermarket installs. R-12 and R502 were such forgiving gases that no matter how the job was installed it worked. I knew that if we could install systems with superior quality we’d have all the work we wanted,” Tibbetts says. Since those early days, quality has always been his mantra and this, he believes, is the driving factor behind his continued success.
High Profile Clientele
T&O Refrigeration has grown to become one of the largest independently owned refrigeration contracting companies in the Southeast. Sixty-five employees strong, T&O’s service and installation customers include Publix, Kroger, SuperValu, Save-A-Lot, The Fresh Market, Costco, Food Lion, Walmart, and Sprouts, among others. They opened a second branch office in Nashville in 2002, and they hold licenses in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. While the majority of their business remains in Georgia and Tennessee, they are gradually expanding across the South.
The company has enjoyed increasing sales every year since 1992. In 2013 the revenue topped $12 million, and in 2014 they are projected to hit $13 million.
Planning for Success & Aiming High
Tibbetts didn’t establish T&O Refrigeration hoping to just “get by.” From the very start, Steve and his wife Denese fully intended for T&O to be a major player in the region, with specific growth targets year-upon-year.
“Once we committed to it, we were determined to make it work. We were going to see it through because we knew we could develop this into a successful business" says Denese.
“We really didn’t ever consider quitting. Steve had such a good reputation at Kroger that we knew their work was available to us if we could get our price right. That got us started and we were able to use the money we made in the beginning wisely in order to build our business. “
Denese had administrative experience gained through a job with the federal government. While Steve handled the technical details, she set up an office and gradually introduced best practices that provided a firm financial footing. “We were small and could have done things the old way a bit longer,” Denese says, “but we thought about growth, and to grow you have to have some procedures, policies, and organization. That’s what I brought to the table.”
“She was as particular about getting things right in the office as I was about getting things right in the field. She wanted correct spelling and correct balances down to the penny!” Steve says.
Things got tougher around 1990, as installation jobs were drying up. “Kroger was going through a hostile takeover, and shut all their construction down for a while. It was one of those ‘perfect storms.’ That’s when I realized, in order to be consistently successful in this industry, we needed to have a service component."
"That slow time gave me time to learn the business side of things instead of just handling the technical part of it," he recalls. "It also gave me time to focus on getting our service department up and running."
They earned their stripes by servicing stores for Cub Foods in the early nineties and then they landed their biggest service customer. “When Publix moved to Georgia, they contracted out their service, and we were in a good position to fill their needs. A lot of it was good timing.” After landing its first installation for Publix in 1992, they were able to start servicing the stores that they installed for Publix, and eventually, the service department grew to be a consistently profitable arm of T&O. Today, T&O services approximately 175 supermarkets across the Southeast.
Tibbetts also learned the value being focused on a few main geographical service areas, instead of trying to expand too quickly.
“Being a regionally-based player is a key to our success. When we first opened our Nashville branch, it was a struggle. But now we have found some good people who have been with us for several years. It takes a while to plant those roots when you're expanding into other markets. When people try to expand too quickly, it can lead to their downfall."
T&O became licensed in South Carolina in 1993, opened a Tennessee office in 2002, and became licensed in Alabama in 2003. Their most recent expansion was into North Carolina in 2013, where they are currently installing a new store.
T&O reached its latest milestone just one month ago, by installing the first carbon dioxide (CO2) transcritical system below the Mason-Dixon line. "It's the first of its kind in the area and we are very proud to be a leader when it comes to new technology." The Hillphoenix system is operating at Sprouts Farmers Market in Dunwoody, GA. T&O is the authorized Hillphoenix dealer for the state of Georgia.
Tibbetts believes the biggest challenge to further implementation of CO2 systems will be in finding technicians who are able work on it. Training will be essential.
Managers Stay in Touch
Tibbetts and his managers aren’t crazy overseers, but they do stay in contact with field teams daily.
“Our managers work in the field with technicians. I believe that’s a big reason for our success. They stay in tune with what’s happening in the field and with customers.”
Three service managers cover Georgia and Alabama. Phil Pittman covers North Georgia, Fred Johnson covers South Georgia and Lane Tibbetts covers Alabama. Branch manager, Jayson Goff covers Tennessee. Each service manager is responsible for a group of technicians divided geographically. Construction manager Charles White oversees all new store builds and remodel projects. Office manager Phyl Marie Weister tends to the administrative side of the business. The five technical managers report directly to Steve.
A Heart for Employees
Steve and Denese Tibbetts are perhaps the most caring husband-wife team in the business. They’ve come to the financial aid of employees in times of need, and will offer them advice when asked.
“I let my people know what I expect from them. They know that I expect a lot, but they also know that I have their back,” Tibbetts says. “I want our employees to be successful, and will do all I can to help them.”
“We just want people to grow as individuals and to help them better themselves,” Denese adds. Towards that goal of helping, T&O provides excellent wages and benefits, including a 5% match on the 401K plan and family health coverage at no cost to the employee.
T&O Refrigeration’s reputation precedes them, and its narrow focus of expertise has sustained its success.
“Our reputation is our marketing,” Tibbetts says. “We only work on supermarkets, and have worked for most of the major chains in our area. We don’t try to do everything. We do what we know, and what we’re good at.”
Experienced in Secondary Systems
T&O has installed secondary glycol systems in a number of supermarkets. "We installed one of the first secondary systems for low temp and medium temp in the Southeast. It’s still running, but it has a lot of challenges because it’s very complicated. It’s hard to find technicians with the skills to service these types of systems, especially in outlying areas."
T&O teams have also installed a variety of rack and single system refrigeration units, but Tibbetts is most impressed by the size and economy of distributed systems. He prefers distributed systems because they are easy to maintain and require less refrigerant to run.
Field Training & OEM Help
Most of T&O technician training is accomplished with the help of major manufacturers. Tibbetts has never resisted new technology, but wants his team to be up to speed before taking it on.
“We’ve always taken on new technology, and thrive on being the first in our area to complete new projects,” he says proudly. “We do a lot of testing of products and new technology for Emerson. We make sure all of our technicians have been through Copeland compressor training and Emerson controller training. In fact, a number of our technicians are certified by North American Technician Excellence (NATE).”
And rather than throw his new technicians “to the wolves” like he experienced, they are partnered with seasoned technicians for training. Managers are in the field constantly working with less-experienced technicians. “Each of our managers have a minimum of 20 years’ experience.”
Old School Guy Appreciates the New
He’s an old-school guy, but Tibbetts knows it would be foolish to stay entrenched in the past. Therefore, T&O adapts to new ideas, technologies, and processes as needed. A new service format is an example. In the past, technicians were assigned a territory, and were expected to catch service calls and complete preventive maintenance on their own. They’re now assigned a partner.
“One week, a tech catches service calls for his area, plus his partner’s area, while the partner completes his PMs,” he explains. “They switch roles the following week. This enables each tech to complete their PMs with minimum interruption and has resulted in overall reduced service calls and has reduced our store leak rate substantially. I’m proud to say our leak rate is single digits.”
All technicians now carry iPhones, which has improved communication and given techs access to email and Internet support.
The company is also upgrading computer hardware and business software (SAMPro, by Data Basics) and is going paperless in August. “This should improve efficiency in many ways. It will allow us to provide more meaningful and timely information to our customers,” Tibbetts explains.
The team at T&O is constantly exploring ways to work better and to improve service. “Everybody is in customer service. Everything we do is customer service,” Tibbetts says. “Our customers give us clear expectations. We have a close working relationship with them, and receive constant feedback. I’m accessible to all of our customers at all times.”
Steve believes T&O's competitive advantage is found in its level of service and installation quality and also the commitment of its employees. "The number one reason for our success is our employees. We have several employees who have been with us for over ten years and a few who have been here over twenty. That's not something you see much these days but it's definitely a key to our success."
He also points to having empathy for the customer as being another component of success. "We offer a level of trust, and a partnership with our customers. We build relationships, and it seems to work. I tell all of our vendors the same thing: I’m not going to change suppliers for a 2% price difference, but if it's 5 or 6%, I might. I feel our customers will do the same. If our prices are a little bit higher, we'll get the work because they know they are getting a level of quality that is unsurpassed in the area. I also think they like having access to me, as the owner. If they have a problem, they know they can come straight to me and it will be resolved. With 65 employees, we're going to make some mistakes. But when we make one, we admit it, take care of it, move on from there, and try not to make the same mistake twice."
He's Walked In Their Shoes
Steve Tibbetts has a knack for managing people that extends beyond good pay.
He’s walked in the technician’s shoes, and they know it. That level of understanding is priceless.
“When we first started the service department, I was in the on call rotation with everyone else. I think they respect answering to a guy that’s done the same thing they are doing. I’ve never asked them to do anything I haven’t done. I started up every store installation for 15 years. I ran as much pipe as they did, and ran service calls at night,” he says.
Looking ahead, Steve Tibbetts can probably expect a few more milestones in the near future. He’s not against entering new markets if that’s what it takes to grow, as long as he can provide customers with the same quality of work.
“We have more business now than we’ve ever had and I believe this is because we show up every day and do what we say we’re going to do."
Thank you Steve, and the entire team at T&O Refrigeration, for your commitment to excellence, quality and education in commercial supermarket refrigeration. You are the ContractingBusiness.com 2014 Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year.
T&O Refrigeration At-a-Glance
Founded in 1987
Headquarters: Fayetteville, GA
Founder/President: Steve Tibbetts
Vice-President: Lane Tibbetts
Chief Administrative Officer: Denese Tibbetts
Branch Manager: Jayson Goff
Construction Manager – Charles White
Service Manager – Phil Pittman
Service Manager – Fred Johnson
Office Manager: Phyl Marie Weister
Dispatcher: Laurie Ledbetter
Accountant: Stan Brown
Expertise: Supermarket refrigeration systems
Customers: Kroger, Publix, Costco, Sav-A-Lot, Food Lion, Sprouts, SuperValu,
The Fresh Market, Walmart