For this edition of RST Contractor Insights, Contracting Business.com spoke with Eric and Vivian Smith of JES Restaurant Equipment Sales & Service/JES Restaurant Equipment Supply, Greenwood, SC.
Eric Smith entered the commercial refrigeration industry with a clear goal in mind: to improve the state of preventive maintenance in and around Greenwood, SC. He found it to be a goal that would only be achieved one customer at a time. It would require patience, persistence, and dependable, trustworthy employees. Since its beginnings, JES has made steady progress in reaching that goal. It's also kept in step with the times, by taking advantage of the benefits of social media and Internet commerce capabilities.
Smith started in restaurant equipment service in 1998, as a part-time service mechanic. Two years later, he founded JES Equipment Sales & Service, with $8,000 and one service vehicle. It was a Ford 350, painted metallic orange. He wanted a vehicle that would get noticed.
"I looked like I knew what I was doing, even if I didn't always know what I was doing," he recalls. "But, I presented a very good image. And, with my personality and the image I was presenting, people were more than happy to give me a try," Smith says.
Change in Plans
Smith, 49, had been working for 21 years as a superintendent of a textile plant. But when new management came on board, he could sense that a change was coming. The new owners had a less than ideal approach to employee relations.
"The management philosophy changed with the new ownership," he recalls. "They treated people like a number. I put up with that till I couldn't put up with it any longer."
It was a two-year wait. During that unsettling time, a restaurateur friend had asked Smith if he would help her maintain the equipment in her four restaurants. It was a challenging offer, but Smith was ready for a chance at a new beginning. For two years, he serviced the restaurant equipment part-time, during his off hours from the textile plant.
Filling a Maintenance Vacuum
Smith noticed early on that the local restaurant community knew little about the value of preventive maintenance.
"In the industrial world, if you spend $100,000 for a piece of machinery, you're going to maintain it. Restaurant people had never fathomed that. They would spend $3,000 for a reach-in refrigerator, turn it on, and just let it run," he says.
Seeing a greater opportunity, Smith established the business on selling restaurant equipment preventive maintenance contracts, which would of course generate repeat business. He obtained a degree in HVAC from Piedmont Technical College, and nurtured the business, from two, to five, to 20 customers and more.
Two years later, confident that he could succeed, Smith quit the job at the textile plant. He hired his first technician in 2001, and JES (Smith’s initials) was off and running. Service kept them hopping, but as the business developed, they encountered more and more rundown equipment that wasn't worth repairing. It motivated the Smiths to form JES Restaurant Equipment. That global business sells everything from ice machines and coolers, to fryers and slicers.
"The business evolved on its own. We saw a need, met that need, and tried to make a dollar on it," he says. And, they had dependability and integrity on their side.
Today, JES is a $1.5 million service company, with six trucks and six well-trained technicians. JES services commercial refrigeration and light commercial HVAC systems, with restaurants as its bread-and-butter niche.
JES technicians serve upstate South Carolina. When it’s the middle of July and 95F, the service phone rings off the hook with calls from restaurants and other commercial facilities with refrigeration problems — many of which Smith says could have been prevented, he asserts. That's when the message of preventive maintenance is best communicated.
"The key to helping customer profits go further is to limit repairs, by providing regular attention to equipment," he says.
Smith manages service and installation projects, while his wife, Vivian, has taken charge of the company's online equipment sales. She's built it up to be a valuable destination for JES restaurant customers.
"Eric and I wanted to have a quality website from the very beginning of the business," she says. "We realized times are changing, and more social networking will help you pick up more customers in the future."
Visit jesrestaurantequipment.com, and you'll find a site that's jam-packed with restaurant equipment of every kind, with links to replacement parts and blogs. A restaurant equipment blog contains information for customers on the importance of preventive maintenance, and articles on various featured products. The "Now Ya' Cookin'" blog is a social media site with company news, customer feedback about products and services, and tasty recipes from a company employee, "Chef" Phil Clark.
Solving The Employee Puzzle
As perceptive as he was in noticing the need for equipment PMs in the region, Smith was also aware that the biggest challenge to running a business would be in finding and retaining a solid base of quality employees.
"The biggest problem in this or any other business is not that you don't have the tools or knowledge to do the job. It's in finding the people that you need to do the job," Smith says. "If anybody can ever solve that problem, then we've got it made as contractors and businesspersons. Each person is different, and you've got to be smart enough to get the most that you can out of people on a case-by-case basis."
Hard Work, Plain and Simple
Smith credits his success to bare-knuckled hard work, and honesty. He works a minimum of 12 hours a day, and strives to provide the ultimate in customer care.
"They know we look at their equipment as if it's our own," he says. "We make follow up calls after a repair, and if there's a problem, we respond to it as fast as we can to make sure they're okay."
What's missing today, he says, is the personal touch.
"Everyone's gotten away from personal contact. People are in too much of a hurry to send emails. I never want to have a big company. I can't see myself doing that. The personal touch has made me successful."
Eric Smith is confident that there will always be work for quality technicians who want to learn and grow in a career filled with opportunity. The trick will be in finding them.
Checking & Cleaning Door Gaskets
Refrigerator door gaskets probably don't come to mind every day unless they're falling off. The seal between the door and the cabinet provides a barrier that keeps the warmer outside air from entering the cooler air inside. If a gasket has gone bad (is cracked, dry-rotted, etc.) and isn't creating a tight seal around the door and cabinet body, then the compressor is running more and costing customers a lot more in energy dollars.
There are a couple things you can do to see if the door gaskets on your customers' commercial refrigeration units need to be replaced.
Dollar Bill Test — Open the door to the refrigerator, and place a dollar bill where it will be between the gasket and cabinet frame and close the door. Did the bill fall out, or is it easily removed? If the answer is yes, then you need to replace the worn gasket. You should try this in several places around the door to ensure you're getting a tight seal all the way around.
Visual Inspection — By looking at the gasket you should be able to spot any cracks in the gasket, or large gaps between the door and the cabinet. If you see any gaps or cracks, you need to replace the gasket. A visual inspection may also find mold or mildew building up on the gasket. That's pretty gross, and it's also bad for the gasket. Mold and mildew may seem harmless, but over time they will eat away at the the gasket.
Tell your refrigeration customers that they can fight mold and mildew with a simple bleach and water solution. Dilute a small amount of Clorox® in water, and use a soft cloth or sponge to apply the solution to the moldy gasket. The mold will fade away gradually. Then, they can clean the gasket thoroughly to remove any remaining mildew and bleach solution. — JES Restaurant Equipment, Greenwood, SC