When you first enter the Estes Heating and Air Conditioning building, you find yourself in a plush reception area equipped with a smiling receptionist who greets you as you walk through the front door. Framed photos of past generations hang proudly on the walls. The corridors are covered with motivational posters, awards and plaques; all proof of a job well done.

Don't let the cushy interior fool you; this building houses some of the hardest working and most successful HVAC professionals in Metro Atlanta.

Getting Started

Nap Estes started the company in 1949, the same year his son Tommy, the current president, was born. The original location of the business was in Nap's home in a town formerly known as Mountain View.

During the 1950s, the business concentrated on installing central heating systems in both new and existing houses, and replacing floor furnaces.

Estes was mainly an installation company and at first only serviced systems it installed. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, adding central air conditioning to residential homes became the industry craze. Nap Estes had the foresight to move away from the residential new construction side of the business and concentrate on residential replacements and add-on air conditioning. Also during this time, the company installed central heating and air conditioning in hundreds of apartments and commercial buildings.

By the mid 1960s Estes had become one of the leading heating and air conditioning companies in Atlanta, with more than 40 employees.

Tommy Estes began learning the business by installing add-on air conditioning systems for his dad on the weekends. In 1971, Tommy graduated from West Georgia College with a degree in marketing, and started working for the company full time.

New Beginnings

Soon after Tommy started working full time, the decision was made to shift the company's focus to service and replacement of both residential and commercial systems, with a renewed focus on customer service.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the company enjoyed tremendous growth — doubling in volume and increasing its customer base. Once again, the company changed with the times and incorporated maintenance agreements into its business.

Today, thousands of homeowners in Metro Atlanta have a maintenance agreement from Estes Heating and Air Conditioning. When Nap stepped down in 1986, Tommy took over as company president.

Generations of Leaders

A key component that sets Estes apart from other HVAC companies is the quality of its people and the structure of its organization.

“My dad was a hard nosed ‘my way or the highway’ type,” Tommy says. “Fortunately, that's not my style, because it wouldn't work today. Our management style is relaxed, and we take a ‘work hard, play hard’ approach. We spend more time at work than at home, and it should be enjoyable.”

Tommy's son Brian is vice president and is being groomed to follow in Tommy's footsteps as the leader of the company.

“Only two people in the company report directly to me,” Tommy says. “The rest of the company reports to those two.” The two who report to Tommy are Brian and General Manager John Waldorf.

“We have excellent managers who buy into the culture of Estes and each one is serious about dealing with our customers and employees while helping us reach our goals,” Tommy says. “They know what we expect and I have confidence in them to get the job done.”

Estes is a relatively young company — all of the managers are under the age of 42 — with the values of a third-generation, family-owned business. Over the past five years, many of the “old timers” have retired, leaving the company with what Tommy believes is the best mix of experience and youth.

“We have a cohesive team that works extremely well together.” Tommy boasts.

To stay focused, the management team meets each month, and is constantly interacting with Tommy.

“I meet with Brian and John often, to get updates on the different departments, but I try not to override the managers,” he says. “The great thing about our team is that they're willing to help each other.”

Top Notch, Top Quality

In 2009 , service technicians increased total revenue by 79% over 2008, with the same number of service technicians both years; service agreements were up 17%; the company installed 25% more than it did in 2008 with the same number of installers and salesmen sold 23% more than in 2008.

That kind of record year would not have been possible if the technicians at Estes didn't have proper training.

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"Estes has an extensive training facility which we call Estes University. It includes several working heating and air systems," Tommy says. "We're constantly training new hires and existing service technicians and installers."

Nearly 90% of Estes' technicians are NATE certified. Glyn Strickland, the company's technical service manager, leads the in-house training and is a certified NATE proctor. Installation Manager Josh Messer, holds regular training sessions with the installers.

For the last two years, Estes has received the Training Excellence Award from their Carrier distributor, Mingledorff's, for devoting the highest number of hours to training than any of their other dealers. They've also recently received the prestigious President's Award from Carrier. The company regularly has vendors and equipment representatives train in their training room, and the Comfort Institute does all of its Southeast training at the Estes training facility.

A professional trainer comes in twice per year to do extensive phone and customer service training. In addition, a sales trainer spends an entire week with the salesmen and service technicians to refine their customer service skills and sales techniques.

"The degree of quality begins with the initial phone call to Estes," Tommy says. "It must be handled professionally. After the appointment and the sale are made and the installation is complete, we want the customer to be 100% satisfied with their entire experience with Estes. If one part of the process is messed up, the customer's perception of a quality job is skewed."

The goal at Estes is do it right the first time (DIRTFT). Estes advertises and offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee. The company has a designated technician — who has been with Estes for more than 30 years — visit each new installation to be sure they meet Estes' quality standards.

"Our employees know that Estes stands for quality, and I truly believe they do their best to represent us well," Tommy says. "We encourage excellence, while striving to give our customers 100% satisfaction."

Estes aggressively advertises on television, radio, billboards and online — Estes is the only company with a yellow Labrador retriever named Bo as the "spokesman."

"Our marketing approach centers around the entire company, not a specific division," Tommy says. "Most of our marketing is what I call 'institutional' in nature, meaning we promote Estes, not a specific brand. The most common thing we advertise involves encouraging people to have their heating and air serviced."

Tommy says the main reason the company advertises is to keep Estes top of mind when needed.

The company markets its services consistently in both good times and bad, always stressing that Estes is "family-owned and -operated, serving Metro Atlanta since 1949."

Giving Back

The generosity of Estes' employees reaches far beyond quality installations and maintenance of HVAC equipment.

"In 2009 we participated in a Make-a-Wish foundation project by installing a heat pump in a newly constructed playroom for a 16-year-old brain cancer patient," Waldorf says. "The labor was donated by the installation team and was overseen by an Estes sales manager."

The team at Estes also launched a campaign to purchase a handicap accessible van for a 10-year-old boy born with severe cerebral palsy. Through personal donations from co-workers, Estes was able to help purchase the van and present it to the mother of the child the week before Christmas. The generosity was so great that Estes was able to cover the insurance and fuel for the vehicle, and give the mother a Christmas meal and gifts for herself.

The employees also adopted several families for Christmas, to ensure they had gifts and food. On top of that, they purchased and donated gifts for more than 20 children living in a local home for children without parents.

Estes recently learned it's one of 16 companies — and the only HVAC company — out of 125 applicants in Georgia to receive a $500,000 Federal grant from Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority to install energy efficient improvements in residential homes with a focus on low-to middle income, elderly and disabled homeowners.

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It's no wonder Tommy doesn't have to recruit good workers — people are constantly seeking out Estes for employment.

"Our culture is different," Tommy says. "We have people coming to us to get away from a bad situation, where they're not appreciated and not allowed to make a good income. At Estes they have that opportunity."

What Is The Contractor Of The Year?

The Contractor of the Year represents an elite group, a forward thinking class of hvac contractors who are dynamic and professional in every aspect, and who constantly seek new ways to improve business through quality contracting and maintaining the highest level of customer service.

These contractors strive for recognition by providing superior products and services. They watch for changing market conditions and respond quickly to new opportunities, even in the most challenging of times. They are tenacious - demanding the best from themselves and their people - unafraid to take calculated risks and try new things.

The rising number of contracting companies displaying this high level of professionalism makes our decision increasingly difficult each year. For 2010, Estes Heating and Air Conditioning, Atlanta, GA, exemplifies the qualities and commitment to success that we witnessed in many of this year's candidates. We congratulate Estes for their determination to prosper amid today's challenging economic conditions.

Time For a Change

One of the Estes team's most influential management meetings took place in December of 2008.

"Despite a decent 2008, we could sense our people were starting to buy into the whole 'worst recession ever' mentality that was being propagated throughout the media," Waldorf says. "We instilled a change of culture that began with a manager's meeting."

At that meeting, the company rolled out the new culture and challenged all the managers to instill it in their respective departments.

Key points and culture change developed from that meeting included:

  • Put the right people in the right job. Allow them to run their department and hold them accountable.

  • Win 1 + Win 2 = Win 3. Number 1 stands for the customer, 2 is the co-worker, and 3 is the company. Every decision should be a win for the customer, coworkers and the company. “Every decision at Estes must meet this criteria.” Waldorf said, “If it doesn't, we'll hold you accountable, and we ask that you hold us accountable too.”

  • Every meeting should focus on positives. All negatives will be held behind closed doors.

  • Better communication — the managers committed to better communication of expectations, goals and results. They committed to a monthly communications meeting where the managers give a monthly state of the company presentation.

  • Maintenance agreements should be the single most important aspect of the company. A lucrative incentive plan was included for anyone who contributes to the company's growth.

All departments were given a list of objectives that would change the company's culture.

The service department was given three primary objectives:

  • Perform superior maintenance

  • Perform a superior diagnostic

  • Inform and educate the customer.

The service department also committed to a monthly training calendar. Week one consists of technical training. Week two is the company communications meeting. Week three is customer service training, with a focus on informing and educating the customer. Week four is a monthly review, where the company celebrates successes and hands out bonuses.

The installation department's objectives included:

  • Implement a quality control program that consists of before and after photos, and fill out a quality assurance checklist at every installation.

  • Before and after photos will be displayed at the company communications meetings and and Install of the Month will be awarded by popular vote.

  • Installation jobs are to be tracked for callbacks or recalls. If none occur, the installation crew is awarded a bonus.

Following these guidelines for the past year has had big payoffs for the management and employees of Estes.

"All of this cumulated into an increase in company gross revenues of 23% in 2009 over 2008." Waldorf says.