By John R. Hall

For HVAC contractors seeking ways to improve their business model, the HVAC trade is fortunate enough to have several associations which were created to educate business owners and employees via in-person and online training, face-to-face networking, and idea sharing. Many contractors have credited their success to membership in these associations.

“We are all about helping our members compete and win in the market,” said Greg Niemi, outgoing president and CEO of Nexstar Inc. “We believe the independent contractor is in the best position to do this, and we work every day to make sure they have the knowledge and the tools so they are at a competitive disadvantage to no one.”

In this article, The NEWS will share information on some of these associations and how each can play a vital role in the growth of HVAC contracting businesses.

The List
The list includes descriptions by representatives — in their own words — of each association or group:

• The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA): “ACCA is the nation’s largest association of indoor environmental systems professionals,” said Kevin Holland, senior vice president of business operations and membership. “We offer innovative training and real-world education to help contractors perform quality work, run a profitable business, and beat the competition.”

• AirTime 500®: “Airtime 500 is part of Direct Energy®, North America’s largest energy and services provider with over 6,000 employees across the U.S.A. and Canada and a division of global giant Centrica plc,” said Rebecca Cassel, president of Contractor Success Group. “We are committed to being a ‘best practice organization,’ offering our members systems, procedures, software, marketing, training, and buying power to help them thrive in today’s HVAC market place.”

• “ is an online business fitness education Center and the first in the industry to have perfected the most cost effective 7-Step method of HVAC business change management,” said Wendell Bedell, HVAC business fitness coach.

• Nexstar Inc.: “Nexstar is the best darn business development and training organization for independent plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical contractors and others and we are 100 percent committed to the independent who desires to remain independent,” said Niemi.

• Quality Service Contractors (QSC): “QSC is an enhanced service group of the PHCC — National Association and focuses on the plumbing and HVAC service and repair sector of the industry,” said Charlie Wallace, vice president and COO. “QSC is non-profit so all the funding generated stays with the group to produce meaningful education and business tools for its members.”

• Service Experts/HVAC Learning Solutions: “HVAC Learning Solutions serves Lennox dealers,” said Mike Moore, director of training. “We provide sales, technical, and business training. The training is delivered online and instructor-led.”

• The Unified Group: “The Unified Group is an association of 55-plus commercial HVAC companies across the country,” said Allison Rogers, sales/marketing coordinator. “We started in 1998 with the idea to find the best, independently-owned HVAC contractors in each market to create a group where we could be independent, but not alone.”

The Benefits of Membership
Each organization has its own unique characteristics, which provide benefits to their membership. Having strength in numbers is an obvious benefit because members can learn from each other and associations can communicate effectively via electronic means and through large regional and national meetings. Individual members are also encouraged to interact with each other to share best business practices.

“ACCA allows for access to leading experts for answers to your general questions, about technical issues or employee management issues,” said Holland. “Other benefits include peer connection and information sharing through online groups and networks, downloadable libraries of technical documents, business forms, marketing flyers, etc., and aggressive outreach and advocacy before federal and state governments on behalf of the contracting industry.”

Cassel talked about some of AirTime 500’s original ideas. “We make over 360 trademarks and three exclusive patents available to our membership, including Straight Forward Pricing,” she said. “We are constantly striving to be on the cutting edge in the industry. We draw from the vast experience of our team, our members’ input, and our own retail locations to continuously develop, test, and refine new programs and innovations.

“The benefit of joining Nexstar is competitive advantage and more sales and profits,” said Jack Tester, incoming president and CEO. “We employ the best business coaching bench in the industry. We have the industry’s best training programs for every position in the company. Our operational systems are proven to work. If you need it we have it, and if we don’t have it we will develop it. Members are always getting new techniques to stay ahead of their competition.”

Bedell said that the Business Fitness Education Center is “solely designed for step-by-step growth and will recession-proof any residential or commercial contracting business in the HVAC industry. Each of the six retail HVAC residential and commercial service departments and their associated job training is available online 24/7, ready at their convenience.”

Wallace said that QSC offers a number of programs including a maintenance agreement program with implementation strategies, round-the-clock networking, twice-a-year meetings, and a 24/7 website, to name just a few. “The newest program is ServiceSkills online video customer service training,” he said. “Members with broadband access to the Internet and multimedia PCs can now view high quality video chapters, measure retention with online quizzes, view post-quiz feedback, print key point reminders, and earn certificates of completion.”

Rodgers said that one of the key benefits to membership in The Unified Group is exclusivity. “Unified Group membership is geographically exclusive, meaning that no one in our association competes,” she said. “Members know they can freely share any information and even business opportunities because there will never be a competitor in the room.”

If You had to Choose One Thing
It may be a daunting task to ask each association what their best program is because there are so many, but The NEWS asked anyway and here are the answers.

Holland had a difficult time narrowing his choice to one. “For some it’s the ACCA MIX® Group program that puts non-competing contractors in touch with each other for oversight and management guidance,” he said. “For others it is the advocacy programs and our work with state, local, and the federal governments.”

It’s all about the people at AirTime 500, according to Cassel. “Our most important asset is our people — our management team and employees are industry leaders and innovators,” she said. “And we consistently get applause from our members on our Success Academy® where our tools and trainers teach owners and employees the key skills they need to succeed.”

Tester said it is all about the training. “Nexstar has outstanding live and online training for every position in the typical company,” he said. “You hire a new salesperson or service manager, and you can quickly get them up to speed on how to perform their job at the highest level. It is turnkey. That saves a huge amount of time and energy for our member companies. If you don’t have great people with the right training, you will not be successful.”

Wallace leans toward the importance of coaching. “Our key feature is the QSC business coaching,” he said. “This is an opportunity for members to get personal, one-on-one coaching from an industry expert — someone that has been there and done what they are trying to do. This comes at a terrific discount when accessed through their membership with our organization.”

Moore said that getting good at sales is a big key to success. “The single most important program for Service Experts contractors are the sales generation and sales management classes,” he said. “The ability to relate to consumers, clearly defining their needs, and determining the proper solution is more critical than ever.”

Rodgers once again stressed the importance of exclusivity and the ability for Unified Group members to interact. “The ability for your entire organization to share best practices in a competitor-free zone is the area where our members get the most value,” she said. “We are not just an owners’ group. Our member companies’ salespeople, dispatchers, technicians, etc. are able to connect with and learn from others who do what they do. We’ve seen our members send a new salesperson to visit a member who is strong in PM sales to see how they do things, revamp their marketing by pulling from what other members have utilized, locate impossible-to-find parts and manuals by posting on the email tool, and so much more.”

Targeting the Audience
All of these best programs and benefits work well for members, but who are the ones that each association targets its membership strategy towards?

“We are interested in contractors who have begun to realize that to increase profit, they need to diversify, streamline their operations, and recruit and maintain a highly-educated workforce,” said Holland. “These contractors are working to create or grow solid businesses, and want to share ideas with other terrific professionals.”

Cassel said that today’s economic climate makes it even more important for any contractor to become a prospective member. “Our tools can help strengthen just about any HVAC company, regardless of location, size, or competition,”she said. “These days, with the tough economic climate, we’re increasingly hearing from and helping owners caught in the economic and consumer confidence downturn.”

Niemi said that his association works hard for contractors of all sizes. “We have member contractors of every different shape, size, and trade,” he said. “Our sweet spot is residential service and replacement contractors in the plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical trades.”

Tester added, “There are a bunch of independent contractors who are just going through the motions. They work hard, but really don’t have a passion for what they do or understand the value they can create for their customers, their employees, and themselves through their business. They need to regain the passion for their business.”

Rogers said her association is looking for specific markets. “We look for commercial HVAC companies who believe in the value of sharing best practices and ideas with others,” he said. “Currently we are looking for companies in San Antonio, Virginia Beach, New York City, Louisiana, and Las Vegas.”

The Future of Associations
The current economy may provide the impetus that any HVAC contractor would need to join an industry association. But what if times were good and contractors were very successful? Would there still be a need for membership? The answer is an emphatic “yes” from these associations, who see membership numbers continuing to grow — or at least remain stable.

“ACCA has continued to grow during the economic downturn,” said Holland. “We have nearly doubled our corporate membership since 2002 and continue to increase membership every year.”

Cassel sees this time as a transition period. “North America’s retail and service industry is in flux right now,” she said. “More and more entrepreneurs are getting connected with buying groups, support and membership organizations, or franchises. HVAC is, and will continue to be, on the same path.”

“Currently it is steady,” said Wallace. “I believe that this will change to growing as the economy improves. Contractors have cut out all the fat within their companies in order to survive the past couple of years. I believe they will want to join an organization that will help their business grow and prosper.”

Tester sees a bright future for group membership. “As long as we work hard to maintain a competitive advantage, we will be in great shape,” he said. “I see no industry or economic development in the future that will take this advantage away. I am very optimistic.”

“There will always be the need for an organization that allows you to share best practices and learn from other best-in-class contractors, all in a non-competitive environment,” said Rodgers.