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May 2006
Family Firm Finds Charlotte’s Comfort Zone
By Casey Jacobus

Air conditioning probably began when the first man moved inside a cool, dark cave to escape the summer heat. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans hung wet mats over the doors to their dwellings. When the wind blew through the mats, the evaporation of the water cooled the air. In India, the raja used this same method to cool their royal palaces.

Leonardo de Vinci, the great Italian artist and scientist, built the first mechanical fan in 1500. The English developed a rotary fan to ventilate the coal mines in 1553. In the mid-1800s, John Gorrie, an American, invented a cold-air machine to cool hospital rooms.

Through the years, man has continued to search for ways to stay cool in the summer. However, the history of modern air conditioning belongs to the 20th century. In 1902, Willis Carrier, a research engineer who many consider the father of air conditioning, designed the first scientific system to clean, circulate and control the temperature and humidity of the air. Carrier patented his device, “An apparatus for Treating Air,” in 1906.

Southern textile mills were among the first users of Carrier’s new system and Stuart W. Cramer, a textile engineer from Charlotte, was the first to coin the term “air conditioning.” Factories were the first focus of air conditioning, followed by office buildings and schools. In 1915, Carrier and six friends scraped together $32,600 and formed Carrier Engineering Company. In 1922, the company developed and began manufacturing a refrigeration machine, or centrifugal chiller, which was one of the first practical methods of air conditioning large spaces.

“Comfort cooling” as the Carrier Company called it, made its debut in 1924 at the J.L. Hudson Department Store in Detroit, Michigan. Shoppers at the store’s basement bargain sales were fainting from the heat so three Carrier centrifugal chillers were installed. Sales boomed. The interest in cooling air spread from the department stores to the movie theaters, where summer customers went to escape the heat for a few hours.

Carrier developed the first residential air conditioner in 1928, but the idea didn’t catch on until after World War II, when resources were no longer required for the war effort. In 1945, Charlotte businessman F.H. Ross, Sr. and C.N. Witmer, an engineer with the Carrier Corporation, formed one of Charlotte’s first heating and air conditioning companies, Ross & Witmer, Inc.

“The story goes that they met on a golf course,” says Danny Phillips, now CEO of Ross & Witmer. “Frank Ross saw a need in Charlotte for a heating and air conditioning company. Witmer was working for Carrier in Atlanta, but Ross talked him into moving to Charlotte. Witmer was to run the business while Ross put up the money.”

The new company opened its office on the 500 block of South Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte. Originally, the company was both a Carrier heating/air conditioning distributor and a mechanical contractor. Ross and Witmer shared the same goal: to expertly install high quality products made by a leading manufacturer.

Ross & Witmer, Inc. maintains that founding business concept today. The company now has over 70 employees and a sizable truck fleet; it also has a well-earned reputation for in-depth industry knowledge. “We are committed to being the most efficient, best quality provider of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning products and service in our industry,” says Phillips.

 

Turning up the heat

Ralph Phillips, Danny’s father, went to work with Ross & Witmer early on. Ralph became the second largest stock owner and, when Witmer died without any heirs, the corporation passed into his hands. Danny grew up in and around the business. The family lived close enough for him to ride his bike to the office. When he was 12 or 13, he earned money by sweeping and cleaning up the warehouse. Throughout high school and college, he worked at the family business during summers and holidays.

After graduating from UNCC in 1969 and doing a stint in the army, Danny joined Ralph full-time at Ross & Witmer. The residential market for air-conditioning was really speeding up and builders were putting central air in new homes.

At the time Danny joined the business, Sears and Roebuck was Ross & Witmer’s largest competitor in the residential market. The big national company was able to offer credit, while Ross & Witmer was a cash-only company.

Ross & Witmer also survived the oil crisis of the early ’70s when the industrial market was hit hard. “For a time, I thought we might go from selling furnaces to wood stoves,” says Phillips.

A flood in 1972 damaged the company’s offices on Morehead Street. The company lost a lot of vehicles and inventory. Phillips says it was uncertain whether the company would survive.

However, Ross & Witmer rebuilt and moved to its current location on Rozzells Ferry Road. Over the years since then, the company has grown to meet the needs of the Charlotte market. At the same time, it has never lost sight of its original goal to deliver high quality products and services in a timely and courteous manner.

Today, while many other companies specialize in commercial or residential installation or service, Ross & Witmer does it all. Its heating, cooling, ventilation and humidification installations service everything from tenant remodel/upfits to offices, retail stores, warehouses, manufacturing plants, churches and educational facilities.

Several general contractors rely on the firm’s expertise as a mechanical contractor to assist in the construction of their projects. On the residential side, Ross & Witmer has installed systems in everything from historic homes to new houses. Not only is the company up-to-date with the latest digital, automated control technology, it is one of the few contractors in the area who service and install hot water and steam home heating systems.

Ross & Witmer has been involved with some unique projects in the Charlotte area. The company was responsible for the temperature and humidity controls for the current Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit at Discovery Place. It has worked on many homes listed on the National Historic Register, including the old Cameron Morrison mansion. It has done work on the traffic control center for the city and on the airport control tower at the airport. The firm is also certified as a LEED contractor to work on environmentally friendly or “green” projects, like the Sanctuary at Lake Wylie.

In addition to installing and servicing industrial, commercial, and residential heating, ventilating and air conditioning products, Ross & Witmer fabricates and installs its own sheet metal air distribution, exhaust and ventilation systems. By doing so, it is able to guarantee that its custom design work can be implemented precisely to the client’s specifications. Providing in-house fabrication and erection crews is the foundation for on-time, within budget, quality-controlled project completion.

Ross & Witmer is now a third generation-owned company. Like his father, Clay Phillips grew up doing odd jobs around the office. He, too, worked summers during his high school and college years. As soon as he graduated from Mars Hill in 1995, he came to work full-time at the family firm.

 

Cooling the competition

According to Danny Phillips, the heating and air conditioning industry has changed more in the past 10 years than anytime previously in its history. This is because of the federal regulations regarding the reclaiming of refrigeration that came along in the early ’90s as well as the energy codes, which require more energy efficiency. Technology has also greatly changed the equipment itself, which has become more aesthetically pleasing as well as more advanced. Competition has also increased.

However, Ross & Witmer occupies a secure berth in the Charlotte market. It has built up a solid reputation over the years for customer friendly and trustworthy service. It withstood a period five or six years ago when the industry went through a big consolidation movement.

Since then many of Ross &Witmer’s competitors faded away, but Ross & Witmer grew stronger. Its growing customer base is solid and includes many clients who return again and again. Both Danny and Clay are committed, as were their father and grandfather, to the highest ethical business standards.

Bill Crawford, of Wilmar Leasing, has been doing business with Ross & Witmer for over 30 years. Just as Crawford first did business with Ralph Phillips, his son David is now doing business with Clay Phillips.

“Because our business is so leveraged, character is a huge part of who we do business with,” says Bill Crawford, “and you couldn’t ask for a family with more integrity.”

The biggest challenge Ross & Witmer faces today is finding qualified technicians. “Not many young people want to go into a business where they’re working on hot roofs or crawling around in attics with bugs and spiders,” says Phillips. “Nonetheless, it is a wonderful opportunity for people looking for security.”

Ross & Witmer meets the challenge by hiring people with mechanical aptitude and then reimbursing them for taking community college courses related to the industry. It also provides in-house training. The company aspires to have every employee achieve NATE, or North American Technical Excellence, certification.

In addition to providing competitive wages and benefits, Ross & Witmer encourages its employees to stick with the company. It has a policy of “promoting from within,” providing opportunities for employees to move up. The Phillips also encourage a low-key, family-style work environment. Both Danny and Clay are involved with their employees’ lives, sending birthday cards and flowers for special occasions. As a result, they have a number of fathers, sons and brothers who work for Ross & Witmer. One recently retired technician had worked for the firm his entire working life.

As for the future of Ross & Witmer, Phillips doesn’t foresee any changes down the road. “We’ll continue to do the same kinds of work with the same quality and customer satisfaction and we’ll continue to be a viable business in the Charlotte market,” he asserts. “Not a lot of hype, not a flash-in-the pan, just a good solid family-owned company.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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