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
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 followthrough.

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.

“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
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.

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

“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.”

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.”

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

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.

“The smarter they become, the better off they’ll be. As far as costs associated with training, I say, if you think training’s expensive, try ignorance.”

NJ Office a Recent Success
AAA Refrigeration Service’s New Jersey office is in its third year of operation. Manager Ron Dehardt and his son Tim joined AAA three years ago, specifically to run the New Jersey branch. The office started with two technicians, and has grown to 15.

“We didn’t want to be the biggest company in the region, only the best,” Tim Dehardt says. “We started by hiring quality technicians. We had to find young, eager apprentices who were willing to work. Then, the customers started coming to us.”

Tim Dehardt appreciates AAA commitment to technician development. He knows that’s the only way to ensure proper system maintenance.

“Companies today must take it upon themselves to train technicians, and bring them up through the industry,” Dehardt says. “You’re not going to be able to just throw them in a van to do a sales call.”

Maintenance Guarantees Efficiency
AAA believes equipment won’t operate beyond the level of quality at which it’s installed and serviced.

“Preventive maintenance is the key,” says Charlie Meisinger. “It reduces the number of ‘crisis calls’ we receive, and puts the technician in the stores regularly. They check each store’s equipment at least once a month, especially if it’s a store with frequent problems, such as refrigerant leaks, which is the biggest challenge we face. With the cost of refrigerant rising, we visit stores regularly, as part of a maintenance plan, and check for leaks.”

A framed quotation in a conference room proclaims another AAA motto: “Quality is never an accident, but is always the result of intelligent effort.”

For AAA, “intelligent effort” has one goal, as stated by Bob Barsalou, manager of the Connecticut office:

“We define quality service by what it produces: full cases, ready to be merchandized. If the store has empty, out of commission cases, our customers can’t sell their products.”

Moderate Growth is Manageable
As far as AAA’s growth forecasting, Steffen says he’s happy with moderate sales increases each year. That’s a sign of another key attribute you find at work at AAA: patience.

“If growth is too quick, the supporting systems might not be able to hold it up,” Steffen says. “If you grow vertically, and you don’t have the strength to support yourself down below, sooner or later you’re going to fall over. We take our time. If that means we don’t grow in any one year, so be it.”

Outservicing the Competition
Before joining AAA, Donald Steffen’s son Dan spent 14 years overseeing construction, maintenance, and service for D’Agostino Supermarkets in Manhattan. Today, he helps with sales, new business acquisitions, and diversification, and continues to gain a solid understanding of the overall business operation. He says his retail experience helped him understand the business from the customer’s perspective.

Dispatcher Ed Breihof speaks with a field technician. Brooklyn/Queens zone supervisor Edgar Desarden stands by.
AAA’s purchasing department team: Gus Tetro (seated), Larry Nelson, left, and Billy Schweigert.

“During my 14 years as a refrigeration customer, I came to understand the various needs customers have,” Dan says. “Today, drawing on that experience helps me bond with retail customers. I put myself in their shoes, try to understand their needs and grow the relationships, and I bring more of the business knowledge to the relationship.”

Dan’s retail experience also helped him appreciate the importance of accurate job costing.

“One of the greatest challenges we face is that not all of our competitors understand their pricing structure, or the cost of doing business,” Dan says. “When contractors toss out low bid numbers, and customers accept those prices, they’re not aware that such a low bid makes the project unprofitable for everyone involved, and drags the value of the services down to levels which are not cost effective.”

“That ultimately hurts the customer, because his equipment ultimately is abused by poor maintenance,” Donald Steffen adds. “A supermarket without refrigeration is nothing more than a dry goods store, so you need to have the refrigeration equipment running efficiently. When you make that type of investment, you’d like to make it for many years. And if you have someone working on the system who doesn’t understand what service is all about, the life expectancy of that equipment can decline in a hurry.”

AAA’s offices are, of course, fully computerized. The Bronx office personnel are capable of monitoring or adjusting most refrigeration computers by using a variety of energy management controls, including Computer Process Controls (CPC), ECI by Danfoss, and Com-trol controllers by T.A.C.

Jennifer Steffen, AAA’s information technology manager, oversees technology issues for the Bronx, Connecticut and Rhode Island offices. Her responsibilities include working with consultants to manage the computer systems, including the Foresight MXP/Service Management System for front office, which enables AAA to view customer service histories and store conditions in real time, and gives customers instant access to their store information.

“Many of our larger customers rely on the Internet to find out what preventive maintenance has been performed. Instead of calling the dispatcher, they can view it on their own, at any time,” Jennifer explains. “If a customer wants to view a store’s operating history for a particular time period, we can deliver it to them in 60 seconds. We do lots of detail work, in order that we can provide our customers with easy access to information.”

Jennifer says her father was always quiet about his accomplishments, despite having played such a major role in building up the company to where it is today.

“My father never spoke about AAA as ‘our company’ or ‘his company,’ and I give him a lot of credit for that,” she says.

“We never really knew what dad did or that he had the control that he did. His ‘boss’ was always somewhere else, the owner of a store.”

Jennifer cherishes the family that is AAA Refrigeration Service.

“Everyone has their quirks and personalities, but when push comes to shove, everyone pitches in and gets it done together,” she says.

Common Tactics Keep It All Together
With such a wide-ranging service area, how does AAA keep track of it all?

“AAA’s orderly operation is all due to a sharing of information,” Donald Steffen says matter-of-factly.

“There’s no one person here who is more important than the others. If you go to our offices in Connecticut or Rhode Island, you’ll see that they’re mirror images of the New York office. We have teams of people in place who are monitoring and teaching. At AAA, we believe that good people, working toward a common goal, can accomplish anything they set out to do. In this spirit, we set our goal to be the very best at serving the needs of our customers. Every action we take is made with this in mind.”

AAA Refrigeration Service has been a partner of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and their employees contribute to the community in a variety of ways, such as coaching Little League baseball, soccer, or lacrosse, the things active parents do with their children.

“That involvement is not a specific cast they’ve taken on, but by teaching soccer or lacrosse, they’re giving back to the community,” Steffen says.

“AAA Refrigeration is the people who work here. It’s not the name on the building. We could change the name tomorrow, but the people wouldn’t change. Giving back to the community in this way is doing what you believe in.”

Professionally, AAA participates in events by the Food Management Institute, and attends local meetings of the Independent Grocers Association.

Defining Moments Based on Loyalty

Donald Steffen believes refrigeration service is about being an integral part of a working team.

Companies often point to defining moments in their histories, moments that established them as leaders in their fields. Donald Steffen believes that, for AAA Refrigeration Service, those moments have been marked over time, as the second and third generations of leadership entered the business. “The fact that we have many second and third generation employees, people whose families worked here first, defines what we’re all about,” Steffen says.

“People coming in from the outside see that this is not a company with large turnover. In everything you read about business cycles, it’s easy to go from the first generation to the second. Reaching the third generation of management is usually impossible.

“Loyalty is a dying art. And some businesses have created that, by not teaching, not caring, not doing the right things,” Steffen says. “Employees think it will be better someplace else, so they jump from job to job. However, if you put in the effort to build up your employees, they’ll become smarter. As they become smarter, they’ll recognize what they’ve got. As long as you treat people the way you would like to be treated, usually it works out well.”

Technology changes. Many businesses expand, others fail. The lasting contributions to any organization are the ones the people bring with them: a desire to help and be part of a team.

In return, the best employers — such as AAA Refrigeration Service, Inc. — are those who cherish the people who make it all possible.