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December 2010
Uncommon Sense
By Carol Gifford

     This is not your typical small business. Its sector is HVAC but its managers aren’t a bunch of male engineers and techs. Its specialty is IT, but there aren’t a lot of geeks. It’s housed in a former single-family home in Charlotte.

     Step inside and you quickly recognize this is more than just a converted home to office. It is a planned work place. There are no cubicles. The wide-open space is painted lavender, chartreuse and white, and includes a countertop with workstations and a center worktable. Flowers top the fireplace mantle.

     AirTight Mechanical, Inc. runs on an inverted pyramid structure—front-line employees sit on the top with all issues funneling to the proper person and Greg as the president at the bottom ensuring proper balance. The company prides itself on its work conscience, communication skills, 24/7 service and training.

     “We’re not a cookie-cutter company,” says Greg Crumpton, who founded AirTight with his wife and partner, Connie, in Charlotte in 1999. “We look at our work as a privilege; we understand our responsibility to the customer and in the workplace. We’re here to do something unique and we get it done with the help of all our folks.”

 

Uncommon Wisdom

     Crumpton, who envisioned both the name and principles of the company years before it was founded, says his company has “a funky culture and a personality.” After working for other HVAC companies, he made a move from Atlanta to Charlotte and decided to open his own company—and do things differently.

     “We know that customers must succeed for AirTight to be successful,” Crumpton explains. “We practice ‘uncommon sense.’ We make a conscious decision to learn and understand the customer’s business. This is our mindset: Understand your client and work hard to anticipate and satisfy their needs.”

     AirTight provides HVAC service on a 24/7 basis as well as UPS (uninterruptable power supplies) support of electrical systems to commercial and industrial mission critical site and comfort cooling markets.

     Licensed in the Carolinas and Georgia, most AirTight service, maintenance and repair customers are located within a 100-mile radius of the city. Of its 1,000-plus customer base, 90 percent is repeat business. With an increasing focus on mission critical service to IT data centers and mechanical systems, its reach has expanded to Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

     The company services data centers, banks, motor sport and health care facilities along with new construction projects. AirTight’s expertise is diagnosing equipment failure and problems, assessing and working on different systems and brands and getting equipment back online quickly and safely —while staying in constant communication with its clients.

     With annual revenues in excess of $5 million, AirTight has grown more than 10 percent each year. Crumpton has chosen to reinvest the money in the company from day one. AirTight was selected as one of the top Fast 50 in Charlotte for 2010 by the Charlotte Business Journal.

     “We have felt and still feel the economic downturn but we worked with our customers to make modifications when necessary,” says Crumpton. “Last year we collected 99.2 percent of every dollar invoiced.”

     Matt Yavorcik, director of building services for NASCAR Media Group’s uptown location, says, “We started working with AirTight during our construction up-fit when we were challenged with disassembling several CRAC systems to get them to physically fit into our NASCAR Plaza building. Our general contractor RT Dooley chose AirTight as the contractor of choice through their prime mechanical partner that was responsible for the job.”

     Since then, Yavorcik has contracted with AirTight for two years for mission critical 24/7 response and preventive maintenance for the studio HVAC units, Liebert CRAC units, APC UPS as well as for Infrared Thermal Imagery.

 

Read, Learn and Share

     AirTight has 29 employees, including Denny Baumgart, vice president of technical services, who started with the company, and long time leader Shonda Ruland, vice president of operations.

     “We don’t accept ‘no’ as an answer; there are always alternatives to getting it done,” says Ruland. “I teach my team to ask: Why are you doing it this way? What do you need and when do you need it?

     “We live in an ever-changing industry and I believe in a read, learn and share mindset. Once you learn something new, I expect you to share it,” says Crumpton, who practices what he preaches by tweeting book titles he’s reading and new information he’s learned. He sends out company-wide e-mails and encourages his employees to do the same.

     “It’s very obvious up front that Greg’s company is different,” says Butch Armstrong, a Charlotte consultant who works in mission critical arena, mainly in the construction and maintenance of large companies and buildings. “Many other companies just try to perpetuate an income, but I’ve known Greg for over 10 years and he, his team and his company, have just been exceptional.”

     Armstrong worked with AirTight when a 100-ton system, that utilized a special compressor that was only manufactured overseas and in Canada, failed and needed immediate attention. Within an hour of calling AirTight, Armstrong says Crumpton located a replacement compressor in the Midwest that he had shipped overnight. Crumpton continued to track the compressor and give Armstrong regular updates until the unit was delivered, installed and the end-user was satisfied.

     Another time Armstrong was working on the construction of a large uptown Charlotte office building.

     “Really, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. I called on Greg and he was able to make the problems go away,” says Armstrong. “Everybody in his company has the same mindset. He sends me his guys, who are supported by an equally talented team in the office. I know they’re well-trained and they know all the procedures.”

     “That’s the AirTight mindset,” says Ruland.

     “It’s a total rewiring of the work environment. We call it boot camp. Once you start it, it continues and takes over in your life outside the office,” she says.

     “It begins by recognizing the need and the ability to go one step further in everything we do. It means”, Ruland says, “don’t be a surface scratcher, but allow yourself to appreciate, respect, support what we do and offer that support to others.”

     “Our motto is whenever, wherever,” says Ruland. “We’re not confined by our roles or limited by our job descriptions or titles. AirTight’s open work environment allows the team to get a better understanding of all areas of the business.”

 

What Needs to Be Done

     One weekend, Ruland drove a truck full of compressors from Atlanta to get a job wrapped up.

     “It needed to be done and I was the one who could do it,” she says.

     One time Crumpton got a phone call from an employee in the field in Orlando. The employee, a long-time foreman, had had an accident on-the-job and thought he had broken two fingers. He called in to say that he had duct-taped the fingers together and planned to stay on the job and supervise his crew and seek medical help at the end of his shift.

     Crumpton says, “I told him he should leave right away to go to the hospital, but he said he needed to be there to get the job to a specific point that day. That kind of work ethic and mindset are what we seek and what we try to foster in all of our people.”

Superb communications fuels AirTight’s success.

     AirTight employees are on-call 24/7. All calls are answered by a live person, even in the middle of the night. In the summer, hot weather necessitates the scheduling of both primary and secondary on-call technicians.

     “Our work involves mission critical equipment, so we can receive calls any time. An IT professional could call at 3 a.m. because an alarm is going off in his facility; we answer the phone and get someone to start helping his situation immediately. By 8 a.m., we’ll be back in touch with our client to review what’s been done and keep them updated,” says Ruland.

     “We understand people’s bleeding points,” says Ruland. “Our job is to make sure their equipment is up and running; to give them peace of mind.”

     “AirTight has excellent first-responder capabilities—it’s not uncommon for AirTight staff to be the first on the scene,” confirms Ray Caponi from Peak 10, owners and operators of data centers in Charlotte as well as throughout the Southeast, with 24/7 support and resources. AirTight and Peak 10 have partnered for the past 10 years.

 

Best-in-Class

     “AirTight made me a true believer last summer,” affirms Yovarcik “We were filming the ‘Inside NASCAR on ShowTime’ show in Studio 43 in the NASCAR Hall of Fame complex.

     “It was one of the hottest days of the summer and we were having cooling issues that were preventing a successful show,” he explains. “We notified AirTight and they had a qualified technician onsite within the hour and resolved the issue quickly so we could complete the filming to everyone’s comfort and satisfaction.

     “The difference is communication. They are in constant communication with me and my staff. I am always aware when they are scheduled to arrive. They are always on time. They check-in and out when on site; they are professionally dressed and they always clean-up after themselves. I don’t need to directly supervise when they are here because they send technicians familiar with our facility, who understand how to work without disrupting ongoing business activities.”

     “We are firm believers in education for all employees,” says Crumpton, who spends about $250,000 annually on training. “It’s a significant investment that pays for itself over time. We didn’t cut back on training just because people were scared about the economy. We know we will be called on to perform and we must and will be ready.”

     Manufacturer’s service groups are often trained only on specific units or components, making it difficult for them to work on the “entire system.” If a company has a problem and it’s not easy to tell which component might be causing the issue, Crumpton says AirTight is often called when manufacturers cannot handle the work, solve the systemic issue or just need an unbiased assessment.

     AirTight technicians are very knowledgeable and proactive in their preventive maintenance work, says Yovarcik.

     “More than once, they have noticed some patterns in the logged alarms in some of our units and presented viable, inexpensive solutions that helped the units run more efficiently and provide more consistent uniform cooling,” says Yovarcik.

     Competitors are not a focus, says Crumpton, because, “We want to stand alone on top of our industry and in support of our friendly electrical contractors.

     “We’re in a race. If we can see someone else’s tail lights then we’re not doing our job. We need to know that we’re out in front, leading everyone else. It’s a noticeable difference.”

     “AirTight employs highly-skilled craftsmen and support staff who just ‘get it,’” says Peak 10’s Caponi. “Their mentality peels away a layer of stress from an operations perspective and allows us to focus on our core business.”

     All Peak 10’s mission-critical cooling service and repair work in Charlotte, as well as project management services related to equipment upgrades and infrastructure replacement, are performed by AirTight. AirTight supports Peak 10 throughout their geographic footprint as situations dictate.

     “AirTight is an industry leader, providing best-in-class service and expert execution at all levels of their business,” says Caponi.

 

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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