Current Issue

Previous Issues
Subscriptions About Us Advertiser Biz Directory Contact Us Links
January 2008
Mission: Critical
By Carol Gifford

     Bob Dunlap runs a thriving HVAC construction and service business but he also has a burning desire to help mission critical clients around the country. Specifically, his mission is to build his company, W.T. Nichols Mechanical, into a well-rounded, expert service and construction company to compete with any in the country.

     “I am an entrepreneur at heart,” says Dunlap, president and CEO of the Matthews-based mechanical services company. “It’s a different breed but I thrive on it. The more complicated it is, the more I like it. I want to learn about it and master it. Success is the only option for me.”

     Bob Dunlap runs a thriving HVAC construction and service business but he also has a burning desire to help mission critical clients around the country. Specifically, his mission is to build his company, W.T. Nichols Mechanical, into a well-rounded, expert service and construction company to compete with any in the country.

     “I am an entrepreneur at heart,” says Dunlap, president and CEO of the Matthews-based mechanical services company. “It’s a different breed but I thrive on it. The more complicated it is, the more I like it. I want to learn about it and master it. Success is the only option for me.”

     After starting and selling a successful flooring business in Florida and working for a national financial services company, Dunlap returned to Charlotte in 2000 and vows to never move again.

     “I was born in Charlotte. I grew up outside of Manhattan, but returned to Charlotte to attend UNC, where I got a degree in economics,” says Dunlap, 41, who lives with his wife and two children in North Charlotte. “I’m a North Carolinian by choice. I love the Charlotte area. I like being in the South where there are no hidden agendas and the people are upfront and open.”

     Dunlap acquired W.T. Nichols Mechanical in June 2005 and has grown it impressively over the past two and a half years.

     “I bought a company with three employees and one $150,000 job,” Dunlap says. “By the end of 2005, revenue was $650,000. By 2006, it had climbed to $6.5 million. In 2007, we project we will have reached $10 million, and by the end of 2008, I hope we will reach $15 to $20 million.”

     The company’s growth, according to Dunlap, comes from both construction and service work billings. The company’s main market is a 60-mile radius of Charlotte, including South Carolina, and Dunlap says commercial construction in that radius is still strong. He has 72 employees in the Matthews office and an additional six employees work in a sister company, Fort Mill Duct Fab in South Carolina, producing duct work and metal fabrication.

     Charlotte is one of the top markets in the country, it’s a booming commercial area,” says Dunlap. “Any projected business slowdown is mainly in the residential market. Commercial building is still very strong here.”

     Even if an economic slowdown occurs, Dunlap thinks the Charlotte commercial economy is likely to lag a year or so behind national statistics.

     “There is almost always a few years’ lag time because of the time it takes to get a commercial project up and running due to zoning and other construction requirements,” Dunlap says. “Our peak time in construction is always after the peak economic time, so we’re still working on the projects from the boom time of 2003-04.

     “We expect 2008 will be fine,” continues Dunlap. “I don’t foresee a commercial construction slowdown here until 2010 or 2011, and that is when our service department should pick up.”

 

Growing Up a Business

     Dunlap says his young business is learning how to compete aggressively with competitors in its field and he plans for it to become a market leader in mission critical service and construction.

     “On a scale of A to E, we now compete on the A level in our service department and C level in our construction division with other competitors. In another three to five years, we’ll be moving up to the A level for our construction business, expanding our service business nationwide, and be on track to compete with all the top companies,” he says proudly.

     Dunlap says the first few years of running a new company are like starting from scratch. As the company grows its work force, it becomes more professional.

     “You begin as a small, family business and over time become more professional. As we added more employees, we had to develop policies, handbooks and processes.”

     “Our employees now even have laptops in their trucks. We also have a lot more equipment. We have 43 vehicles, 50 to 60 cell phones and network connection cards for laptop computers—along with a lot of new bills to pay each month,” he smiles wryly.

Developing a core competency in service is essential to growing his company, according to Dunlap.

     “I didn’t even know about service when I bought the company in 2005,” says Dunlap, who has since learned much about this critical component. “Service is the key—we really want to expand this part of the business.”

     “Right now, we do about $800,000 of business each month and service accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of that amount, but I’d like to grow it to 60 to 70 percent of our business in the next 24 months,” explains Dunlap. “It’s crucial to have construction work to build the service department, but the service end of the business is where we want to go.”

     “The company’s success, now and in the future, is dependent on its employees,” he says, but finding good employees is not easy and staffing his new service department has been even tougher. “Construction employees are easier to find than service technicians,” he says, “because installing equipment is easier than servicing thousands of different models.”

     “Building a work force has been painful. For every 10 employees you hire, you may get one that sticks around,” says Dunlap. “Success is never a straight line to the end; you may have to zigzag, and a couple of times, at that.”

      “Good service employees need a minimum of 10 years of experience to be able to diagnose a problem and fix it,” according to Dunlap. “Guys who work in service are very different than construction workers. They are very technical individuals with a bent toward engineering. Some of them have a four-year degree in HVAC.”

     Service work, states Dunlap, is like “a tree with many different limbs.” Service technicians need to know about hundreds of models of heating and cooling systems and many components of system operations such as controls, parts, and computers.

Dunlap encourages employees in his company to advance and consider entering the service field. He offers them the opportunity to take HVAC classes at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC).

     “If they receive an A or B in a CPCC course, we’ll pay for it,” says Dunlap enthusiastically. “I love to promote employees within our organization.”

     About half of W.T. Nichols’ competitors do not have service departments or they offer them at a separate location, Dunlap states. He sees the growing number of commercial businesses around Charlotte as service business opportunities for his company.

     “We set up preventative service agreements with existing businesses and this is a very important part of our business model. All these newly-constructed buildings in Charlotte have to be maintained. It’s like car maintenance work that you fix before it breaks down. We go out two to four times a year and change filters, look at connections and see if something is wearing out,” says Dunlap.

     Companies like Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville and Cardinal Health, State Farm Insurance, Dole and Western Union in Charlotte are just a few of the local businesses that have service contracts with W.T. Nichols Mechanical and the number of service contracts, Dunlap says, continues to grow.

     “Building our service contract customer base is extremely important to making our company stronger,” says Dunlap. “Service should do better during a recession when customers often want to fix what they have instead of making major changes.”

 

Service is Critical

     Mission Critical Solutions is a service offered by W.T. Nichols Mechanical’s service department and the most important growth area for the company according to Dunlap.

     In February 2006, Dunlap recruited Larry Riggsby, a nationally-known expert in the field, to head the Mission Critical Solutions service, or critical site services for computer service areas of companies.

     Developing Mission Critical Solutions was a strategic move that took a year and a half to accomplish, says Dunlap, because of the huge entry barriers to the field and the time needed to acquire the necessary background and expertise. Finding technicians who were prepared to work around the clock, training them and obtaining certification took some time as well. Scheduling service jobs is also very different from that done for the construction end of the company.

     “In critical site servicing, spending a week at a job site is a long time. In construction, the typical job lasts three to four months,” Dunlap notes.

     After Dunlap recruited Riggsby to head the team, the company joined national, regional and local associations supporting the data center industry, and began participating in activities. Company employees go to trade shows to meet computer hardware and rack sellers and Riggsby is contributing articles to magazines and offering training courses.

     “Large computer server areas in companies need to be kept at the proper temperature to maintain the equipment,” says Dunlap, pointing out how even laptops give off a tremendous amount of heat. “Racks of computer servers have to be kept in a cooled room and attended to around the clock. We offer service and other solutions to computer centers such as hot spot problem solving, design coordination, and ongoing maintenance.

     “With Larry’s expertise, we developed a 24-hour on-call service center for computer and data centers,” says Dunlap. “Within two hours of receiving a phone call for help, we’ll be there.

     “It’s almost like a firehouse where the firemen slide down the pole and rush to the scene. It doesn’t matter if it’s a holiday or 3:00 a.m. If we get a call from a computer center, we have certified technicians who are able to respond immediately. For example, we have some clients that could lose $1 million an hour if their computers go down.”

     Most of the company’s mission critical solutions work is concentrated in the Southeast, but the company is ready to take on jobs nationwide and has serviced businesses in Manhattan, N.Y., and Wayne, N.J., as well as locations closer to home in Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Charleston, S.C. One large customer is Sprint’s 12 locations in the Southeast.

     “Right now we drive or take a commercial flight, if time permits,” says Dunlap. “I have a vision that our company will purchase a twin-prop plane just so we could get out to distressed clients right away.”

     “I attribute our success to the people in the organization,” Dunlap says. “I’m not an expert in the heating and air conditioning field but I’ve learned from listening to people like Larry Riggsby, going out to jobs with employees, and from trial and error. I look for the best people in the industry and try to hire them.”

     “In the next 24 months, our mission critical solutions service department should be 60 to 70 percent of our work. Our ideal client is one where, if the heating or cooling were to malfunction, their business would be negatively affected by the minute.”

     Dunlap is glowing: “With construction going strong and the service department exploding, Charlotte is the perfect place to grow our business.”

 

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
More ->
Web Design, Online Marketing, Web Hosting
© 2000 - Galles Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Products named on this Web site are trade names or trademarks of their respective companies. The opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of Greater Charlotte Biz or Galles Communications Group, Inc.