By Terry McIver, Senior Editor

For three generations, the people of AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. have been the company’s greatest asset. Shown here are the management team and Bronx office employees. “The people that are here have a strong work ethic, and a sense of pride in themselves,” says president Donald Steffen.
The AAA Refrigeration Service leadership team. Front row, left to right: Bob Isola, Bob Barsalou. Middle row: Charlie Meisinger, Donald Steffen. Back row: Jennifer Steffen, Tim Dehardt, Dan Steffen. Not pictured: Ron Dehardt.

It didn’t take long after my arrival at AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc., Bronx, NY, to realize the company has something special going on.

  • Not only does AAA have a 72-year history of excellence
  • Not only is it a third generation family business
  • Not only is it intensely devoted to technician training and development, and new refrigeration technology
  • Not only is it perhaps the most customer service-oriented refrigeration company I’d ever seen, but the people at AAA are very quiet about their success.

But thankfully, we “found” them, and we feel we must tell their story, especially since AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. has been named Contracting Business magazine’s 2008 Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year.

AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. is the HVACR industry’s version of ‘the quiet company.” There’s no chest thumping, no blaring trumpets announcing every little accomplishment. For AAA, excellent customer service and daily victories are just business as usual.

As their motto states: “Everyday You Get Our Best.”

From Generation to Generation
Of course, we’ve known about AAA for years, and have spoken to company president Donald Steffen on more than one occasion. Upon learning that AAA had been chosen to receive the award, he was pleased, and humbled.

“We’ve done this without fanfare for 72 years. To be selected as a nominee was a major shock,” Steffen wrote via e-mail. “To end up being the winner leaves us pretty speechless. We truly appreciate the honor bestowed upon our Team.”

You’ll notice that it’s Team, with a capital T. That’s the AAA way: everyone checks their ego at the door, and puts on a mantle of teamwork and customer service.

AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. was founded in 1937 by Donald Steffen’s uncles, Ernest and Ed Steffen. His father Myron joined AAA upon his return from World War II, along with Charlie Isola and Chuck Meisinger. Charlie Isola’s son Robert joined later, and has since retired. Today, Robert’s son Bob Isola serves as vice president of construction, and Chuck Meisinger’s son Charlie oversees the New York office, and serves as director of training.

Donald Steffen jumped on board in 1968. His son Dan, and daughter Jennifer have assumed important roles related to the company’s information technology and business development.

AAA Refrigeration Service’s primary business in the late 1930s consisted of bar & grill businesses and entertainment venues. Following World War II, the company expanded into supermarkets and warehouse refrigeration service and installation, areas that have since become AAA’s primary service niche. Growth has been slow and deliberate, according to a business plan that calls for 3 to 5% growth each year after inflation.

Meeting the Challenges of Multiple Regions

Dan Steffen joined AAA after 14 years on the supermarket side. Jennifer Steffen has been with AAA for 16 years. They were never pressured into joining the family business, but eventually, they both realized it was the place to be.
The Bronx HQ office team: Kendall Ellerbe, accounts payable (front), billing clerk John Blanyar, and Jill Heyward, construction billing clerk. Tina Diaz, accounts receivable manager, and Elena Curran, controller, appear front row/center in photo on opposite page.

AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. employs more than 100 people — including 80 technicians — over a sizable service area. Its Bronx office serves the five boroughs of New York City. Three outlying offices provide service to Westchester County, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Customers include the 60-acre Hunts Point Market in the Bronx— the world’s largest food distribution center — and other warehouses and supermarkets throughout the geographical area.

AAA’s gradual expansion into regions beyond New York City has been based on technician relocation and store referrals.

“Some of our technicians have moved to new areas, and we don’t want to lose them; so we look for work in the areas they move to,” Steffen explains.

“The other reason is, our customers will open a new store in a new area, and are unable to find contractors they’re comfortable with. We still have to go through a bid process, but once we’re in, we’re constantly proving to the customer the value of our service.”

AAA’s 80 service vans serve as roving billboards, and are its primary advertising “vehicles.” Then, it all comes down to first impressions, delivery, and follow through.

“We believe that the quality of the service you provide is directly associated with what people think of you. If you provide bad service or good service, they think of you accordingly,” Steffen says, and adds that most of AAA’s philosophy rests upon solid, down-to-basics business management theory that has withstood the test of time.

AAA also excels in the ultimate test every refrigeration company must pass consistently: the test that relates to speedy response time when an emergency call comes in.

“We’ve always had the philosophy that customers want one number to call, and they have a comfort level in knowing that we’ll respond quickly,” Steffen says. “Refrigeration service is very much about being an integral part of a working team. If the air conditioning fails in a building on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m., the customer may not see a technician until the next day. If we were to do that, the ice cream would be melted in two hours. Our responsibility is immediate. We must meet a more demanding need.”

Training Never Stops

Training director Charlie Meisinger, right, consults with Al Lewis, supervisor of AAA’s Connecticut division.
Dan Steffen, right, with Ron Sarasin, vice president of service for AAA’s Connecticut ofice.

Beyond excellent service, AAA is linked to many of its customers by the common bonds of training and education. AAA may not be the retailer’s sole source of information, but AAA is always an important, lasting link in the chain.

“The food industry is made up of large chains and independents that belong to a buying group. And both the chains and independents who belong to these buying groups have their own source of information and education,” Steffen explains, “which means they’ll provide much of the training and education for their employees. Whether it’s Stop & Shop, A&P, Bozzuto’s, Wal-Mart, or somebody else, they’ll bring in the store operator and give him or her as much information as they can handle. We’re a support group for many things they already know.”

To support its best management practices with field technician know-how, AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. is intensely devoted to technician education and training. Ongoing education keeps technicians aware of manufacturers’ changes and control settings in both old and new equipment.

Each year, AAA brings a new group of apprentice technicians into the fold, to begin their lifetime of learning the AAA way.

“This year, we have 12 to 14 apprentices coming in twice a month on Saturday,” Steffen explains. “We rotate supervisors, based on the curriculum for the week. One of the major classes we’ve developed was a six to eight-week class related to electrical panels. They wire the panels all the way through and test it. The instruction involved a good amount of soldering training, which is something we’ve found the schools aren’t teaching. And recently, they piped in an evaporator and condenser on the roof, which was a four to five-hour commitment.”

AAA’s technician training includes monthly visits by manufacturers to cover a variety of topics, such as R-410A retrofits by Dupont, troubleshooting rooftop equipment by York, or the latest in compressor technology from Emerson.

“We also bring in safety experts to cover various safety topics, and we take our junior technicians to a store (with the store’s permission) to teach proper preventive maintenance,” Meisinger says. “They also attend evening vendor seminars. Training is constant, and costs some money, but if you don’t invest in education, you’ll have a bad product out there. Good education means you have a quality product on the road, and the systems get repaired properly.”

Nunzi Zillitto manages AAA’s door repair team, which handles walk-in and reach-in door repairs, as well as case lighting repairs.

AAA’s commitment to technician training is rooted in a few key realities. First of all, AAA prefers to train technicians according to its own proven methods of service and installation instruction. Second, there happens to be a limited number of commercial contractors in the region who specialize in supermarket and warehouse refrigeration. Finally, available vocational instruction only scratches the surface of commercial refrigeration training.

“The schools don’t teach supermarket and warehouse refrigeration, so there’s not a great deal of support there,” Steffen says. “And, because there are fewer refrigeration companies that are able to offer top-notch apprentice training, young technicians are poorly outfitted for real-world applications.”

“We prefer a student who has been taught the basics, with good character and work ethic, and we’ll do the rest,” says Bob Isola. “You can quickly see whether or not this is what they want to do. We’ll teach them whatever they need to know, as long as they have the ambition and desire to work.”

AAA insists that technician training continue, especially since it’s more readily available to companies that ask for it.

Steffen believes communication related to training has improved between equipment manufacturers and contractors. “The OEMs aren’t restricting themselves to a small group of enlisted contractors; they’re going to anyone who asks, because, ultimately, their equipment, and how it operates, is a direct reflection on the servicing contractor,” Steffen says.