Profile: Jeff Covington, Clean Air Technologies, Richmond, VA
Smart business-building advice from a customer service-oriented HVAC pro whose company is thriving
Recently, we sat down with Jeff Covington, president of Clean Air Technologies in Richmond, VA. His growing HVAC company specializes in the latest technologies and air quality control systems. Here, Covington shares some of what he's learned as he's built his business. He shares even more with our own plumbing and HVAC expert, Richard Trethewey, during our second Pro2Pro Livestream.
Tell us about Clean Air Technologies. The name implies that your business goes beyond traditional HVAC systems.
For years, the focus in our industry has been on comfort control. But air quality has become an issue as more homeowners are experiencing chronic allergies or prolonged sickness. We wanted to find a niche for our market share and asked ourselves, "What can we do for homeowners other than making sure their homes are set to 72 degrees?" That's when we started diving into air flow.
Older homes aren't built as tight as new homes, and you can get a lot of cross-contamination from a crawl space or leaky windows. So, air quality became more of an emphasis for us because A) it's more services we can offer homeowners and B) it lets us show customers that we can ensure their homes are not only nice and comfy, but healthy, too.
Are there any new products that you are particularly excited about?
For improving indoor air quality, the APCO (Advanced Photocatalytic Oxidation) unit gets installed in the ductwork of your HVAC system. It's a carbon technology that sanitizes the air and surface areas of your home to combat the common cold, influenza, E. coli, etc. It also electrostatically charges dust particles and makes them clump together so that larger dust particles go through the filtration system. When we install these new units, we tell homeowners that for the first month, they'll actually notice a lot more dust. But it's not creating more dust—it's just making it more visible, which means their filter will pick it up even better.
How do you go about introducing air quality control to customers?
If we see signs of a problem while on service calls about systems that aren't performing well or are broken down, we'll ask the homeowners if they've been experiencing allergies, asthma triggers, sinus problems. We take air and surface samples, and if we see biological growth, we determine if it's related to the HVAC system. Maybe it's pulling in too much humidity, or there could be an underlying problem inside the structure itself. The goal is to identify what it is and what's causing it so that we can come up with a solution and eliminate it.
We recently partnered with a doctor's office; if they have patients experiencing allergies or sickness for a lengthy period of time, the doctor will recommend the homeowner have us go out and perform an air quality test.
Speaking of referrals, you're a HomeServe service provider. How has that relationship impacted your business?
They are a very large portion of our business. We started with HomeServe about a year ago doing heating and air conditioning only. They actually helped us create a plumbing division. I'd say we experienced about a 30% growth in this first year. We're expecting more next year. For 2019, we're probably looking along the lines of $4-$5 million in revenue, and HomeServe will account for 40%-50% of that.
So, you must have hired additional employees...
Yes, we have. Currently we have 17 employees. When we started with HomeServe, we had 4 trucks on the road and now we have 10. We're thinking for 2019 we could be adding 5 more.
And how do you find working with HomeServe?
It's been a wonderful partnership. We've worked with other home warranty businesses in the past that weren't great. They didn't care about quality and customer service like HomeServe. Whoever had the lowest hourly rate was the one that got the most work.
HomeServe is very contractor-oriented. They're proactive. We'll meet with our territory manager once a month to review numbers and make sure that everything is not only working on their end to be profitable, but on our end, as well.
What’s been your path to success?
I started in heating and air conditioning as a teenager working summers for a family friend. The initial plan out of high school was to go to college. But I decided to take year off and worked full time in the heating and air field. I learned quickly, moved up the ladder and was earning a really good paycheck. I was intrigued by the business side, but I was seeing that the bottom line mattered more to the companies I was working for than customer service, which I didn't agree with.
So I started thinking, "Okay, I have a lot of good ideas; my main focus will be customer service. With that, money will come." And in the early 2000s, I went ahead and took that leap of faith. I saved up some money, bought my first van, got my contractor and insurance licenses, and went out on my own. I did very well and was generating about $4.5 million a year by 2008.
But that was not a good year. The market crashed, and because a lot of my business was new construction and commercial, many of my clients went bankrupt. I had to shut down my business and sell off the assets. So, I went back to school to earn my business degree to learn even more about the business side. By the time I had I achieved that, the market had gotten better.
About five years ago, I created Clean Air Technologies. My 24 years in the business—starting as a helper, then working in sales and management, then coupling a business degree with all that—has really set this company up for success. I learned a lot from failure and from success. Once I started Clean Air Technologies, I knew that we wanted this to be a $20-$50 million-a-year company, so I had to surround myself with the right people and build the right team to help drive that kind of revenue.
When HomeServe was presented to us, it was perfect timing. At that point, I had the right team to tell HomeServe, "We can 110% take this on, and take very good care both of HomeServe as our customer and HomeServe's customers as our customers."
Is the skilled worker gap affecting your ability to hire good employees?
It's an issue that contractors in every industry are running into. We're excited about a program that HomeServe has set up to bring veterans into the workforce. We just got presented with our first interviewee and we're going to reach out to him today.
We're also working closely with two colleges that have HVAC programs. They are going to start sending us their graduates' resumes so we can start recruiting them. They're getting good classroom training, and we'll give them field training and customer service training so we can mold and develop them into top-notch technicians.
With so much innovation in your industry, how do you stay up to speed?
Our vendors hold training classes right in our conference room for specific equipment. They even go into sales training so that we're not pushy when we bring new ideas to homeowners. Our HomeServe service manager is one of the best technicians I've ever seen, and he does a lot of classroom training with our guys to keep them up to speed on how to install and/or service these products.
What is the best advice that you would give to someone that wants to grow their business like you have?
The best advice I can give is this: Have the right systems, processes, and procedures in place when growing your business. It's not just about the amount of revenue you make, it's about having the right processes and procedures in place to handle that growth. That's how you can grow a successful business.