Keeping Things Cool
Estes Heating and Air Conditoning sets a climate for success through customer care and quality work
With more than 1,100 registered air conditioning contractors in the Jacksonville, Florida, area, Wayne Estes makes sure his company, Estes Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., stands out from the crowd. It’s about more than providing quality HVAC service and products; it’s about doing it right, doing it honestly, and communicating that to the customer.
“It’s nice to make money and provide a service, but I stress to my employees that any one of our customers can pick up their phone and call the other guy, so it’s our job to give these people the best service that they can find,” Wayne says. “If we don’t do that we will lose our customer base. There are people out there every day trying to take your customers away by convincing them they can do the work better and cheaper; so when we go in someone’s house, you make sure they have AC and they’re satisfied with the service. If we convey that, the customer knows they are important.”
Wayne founded his HVAC firm in December 1992. Over the years, his company has provided installation and repair for heating and air conditioning units. More than 12 years ago, the company added commercial refrigeration projects to its services, including repair of walk-in freezers, walk-in coolers and commercial refrigeration units. It also does commercial refrigeration installation.
Wayne worked for several companies in Jacksonville before deciding to start his own business. He quickly had more work than he could handle, so eight months into operation, he brought in his brother, Richard Estes, as a partner with a 49% interest in the company.
“He worked with me for 15 years,” Wayne recalls. “In the early years, we did mostly residential projects, providing service and repairs. After a few years, we got into some new construction, and at one point we had 18 employees doing light commercial and residential. We were doing well and then the bottom fell out with the recession, and by 2008, we were down to five employees.”
Even before the recession, Wayne says he operated the firm frugally and has always only taken a small salary. “I’m not the kind of employer who pulls all the money out of the company, so we were fortunate to have a cushion. For the last few years, we’ve been able to keep about eight months of reserve in a separate account so if there is a slowdown and we have no income, we can weather the storm,” he says. “I’ve never had to take money out of my personal account to put into the company. I may have personally missed a few paychecks, but my guys have never missed a paycheck. It was pretty tight for a while.”
Wayne says he has brought the staff numbers back up to 11, which is a good fit for the firm. “This is pretty much where we will stay because it seems to work for us well,” he says.
By 2012, Richard retired and Wayne bought him out to become the sole owner. Since then, Wayne says the firm has expanded operations and seen the refrigeration side of the business take off. The firm is about 50-50 on residential and commercial business with refrigeration making up about one-quarter of the commercial business, he says.
“That has become a niche market for us because it is a little less competitive than air conditioning, where there is an HVAC business on every corner,” Wayne quips.
Wayne discovered that many restaurants weren’t doing routine maintenance and were spending a large amount on replacing equipment. “We found that many restaurants were spending thousands of dollars because kitchen equipment is run hard all day long and seldom shut off. By not cleaning condenser coils and other routine practices, they were replacing compressors that could have lasted longer if they were maintained,” he says.
The Loop Pizza Grill brought Estes in 12 years ago to establish a maintenance program, Wayne says. The Loop reduced its heating, air conditioning and refrigeration expenses by 25% for the four stores Estes serviced. Now, Estes handles 12 locations for The Loop and has worked on three locations for the chain on ground-up construction. “They saw the value in maintenance,” he says. Estes also has a contract with Metro Diner.
Estes had a two-year project at Jacksonville University that involved installation of a 400-ton chiller as well as all of the underground water piping. The project—totaling more than $2.5 million—is the company’s biggest project to date. But, Estes says he’d rather pursue smaller jobs because that project dominated much of the team’s time and made it more difficult to take care of other clients. “My bread and butter is still my residential clients who have been with me for years,” he adds.
The firm also handles the maintenance for each of the nine Duval County Tax Collector branch offices in Jacksonville, Wayne says. “We don’t do a lot of huge commercial jobs but operate as more of a light commercial outfit. We fit better with the strip malls, smaller stores and retail spaces. Right around 10,000 square feet and under is our sweet spot.”
Something else Wayne says helps the firm stand out is the sale of high-end HVAC systems. “We’ve always prided ourselves in selling quality equipment and not chasing low-price deals. With these high-efficiency systems, we use metal ductwork rather than the flexible ductwork that others use,” he explains.
Estes is in the midst of a six-year strategic plan to increase the firm’s gross sales by $1.5 million annually without additional staff or investments, Wayne says. “We are tweaking the way we operate the business by fine-tuning processes, having materials in stock, cutting back on callbacks, and simply learning how to be more efficient at what we do.”
The Golden Rule
Wayne takes care of his employees just like family (and, some are family). He has five employees working in the field along with three apprentices and two in the office. His son, Chris, joined the firm out of high school and works in the office as a jack-of-all-trades. “He is a certified HVAC tech and is great with customers,” Wayne says.
“I’ve thrown him in the fire with just about everything he could encounter. He’s a pretty good asset having grown up in the trade,” Wayne says. “He’s one of the most well-rounded HVAC guys in Jacksonville. He’s been introduced to everything from big commercial jobs to working under people’s houses.”
Wayne’s other son, Trevor, is working for the company while going to college to study mechanical engineering. Wayne hopes that will be another offering to add to the firm’s services.
Estes pays for employee medical insurance and, depending upon the length of employment with him, each staffer gets a year-end bonus as part of the company’s profit-sharing opportunities. “There are incentives for the team to take care of the company,” he adds. “Most of our techs drive a company vehicle home, so they have built-in transportation to and from work. We also pay commissions if they bring jobs in, so there are always opportunities for them to make extra money.”
The main goal, Wayne says, is employee retention. “I want longevity; I don’t like turnover. I want my customers to see the same faces each time they call us. The best way to do that is to create a company culture that entices employees to stay. “Everyone comes in each morning and has a cup of coffee at the conference table, and if there is anything that needs to be discussed, we do it then. Usually, everyone is just cracking jokes. It is a family-type of environment where everyone is happy with their work,” he says.
“Honesty and integrity are our biggest assets. We’ve had some customers for 27 years. If we come out and tell you that you need a new AC unit, you can be assured that it really is shot. Some companies will try to sell you a new one after six or seven years; I won’t do that. I have more than 20 customers in town we take care of for no charge because they’re elderly with no family and no means; I don’t think anyone should be without AC today.”
Wayne’s charity doesn’t stop there. He’s served on the board of directors for the Jacksonville Alcoholics Benevolent Association, Inc., also called The JABA Club, for the past 26 years. The JABA Club’s mission is to help alcoholics and addicts achieve and maintain sobriety. Estes also takes care of the HVAC for the organization and helps with various fundraisers and events. The firm also contributes to Gateway, which provides addiction treatment for adults and adolescents in the Northeast Florida region.
“Beyond the quality of our work, something I never want to lose is integrity,” he says. “Our customers know we are there for them.”