DENVER — Nexstar Network founder Frank Blau’s “Traveling College of Knowledge” recently set up shop at Applewood Plumbing Heating & Electric here, where 52 member-contractors gathered to learn from CONTRACTOR’s 2009 Contractor of the Year. Owners John Ward and his son Josh, and their staff, opened the business to their peers to find success through education and sharing via a Nexstar peer group meeting.

“This is the core of who Nexstar is as an organization,” said John Ward as he greeted guests. “There are a lot of smart people here and we’re going to help each other be successful.”

According to Luis Furtado, general manager of Bosco Plumbing, Brampton, Ontario, he has attended 12 peer group meetings, and after each one he went back to his business and implemented two strategies that came from “aha moments.”

A work in progress

After a brief welcome, John and Josh Ward introduced their CFO, Carter Freeman, who reviewed the company’s current income statement for guests. Freeman talked through a record sales month, due to high temperatures, resulting in an average sale of $1,015.

“It’s always a work in progress,” said Freeman. “Call conversion to work orders is the biggest negative variance we have, so we constantly analyze what’s going on in the call center. We realize the best strategy is to say ‘yes’ to every service call.”

“It’s very detailed and all tied to budget goals every month,” said Nexstar’s coaching manager, Jack Tester. “They only spend time on significant variances and they focus on where the money is.”

Bruce Solomon, owner of Bruce Solomon Plumbing, Heating & Air, Reisterstown, Md., asked the Applewood management team what they’ve learned from pre-recession to recession.

John Ward said, “We started out doing tons of outbound calling, but it cost too much, so we started sending clean and check calls to our techs with the highest conversion rates instead — and that turned into money.”

Service Manager Mike Taylor added, “We focus on overall sales rather than hours sold and we’re working smarter.”

Freeman also chimed in and said, “We do the math in everything we do.”

That math begins in the daily huddle where Applewood department heads deliver reports on what happened yesterday, where they are today and what is needed by the end of the day to reach their goal. This particular day, the goal was 38 HVAC calls by 9:30 a.m.

“We only have seven,” said Taylor.

Mike Cottle, a Nexstar member from Garden Grove, Calif., replied, “Well, it’s supposed to get hot today!” Then the group of peers helped strategize.

Once Applewood closed the peer group chapter on finances, it was time to tour the facilities, beginning in the warehouse where fleet and safety manager, Russ Smith,llhing m can of Brampton, Ontario Canada said, “Neat, clean, and orderly — no junk is our command from Star Fleet Headquarters, and it’s a key to our success. We pick it up from the supplier and take it straight to the job site.”

One member asked Applewood marketing director, Paula Washenberger, a question about her annual marketing plan and she offered to e-mail the plan to him. Mark Presgrave of My Plumber, Manassas, Va., said this behavior is not unusual within the organization.

“Encouraged by fellow members, I added HVAC service to my business three years ago,” said Presgrave. “I consulted with two fellow members who mentored me and gave me the information I needed to make it a plug-and-play situation.”

Creating strategies

Contractors fired questions at John and Josh Ward throughout the event and they answered every one, revealing how much they mark up a furnace to how long they’ll invest in a technician that isn’t performing at maximum ability. Then, in the final session, the tables turned and the group was assigned the task of helping Applewood identify their strengths and areas for opportunity. The Wards left the room and the process began.

Small groups worked on creating ideas and strategies for Applewood. The peer group agreed that Applewood could find added success by seizing additional sales opportunities. Currently, their technicians are their sales team. The group recommended to continue to excel in the future Applewood will have to stray from what has always worked in the past. They strongly suggested the Wards hire sales people and someone to train them. They also vowed to keep sending peer pressure their way to make it happen.

Kenny Chapman, owner of Peterson Plumbing in Grand Junction, Colo., said, “It’s not about beating peers up. It’s about helping them succeed. The information and recommendations we got from the peer group meeting we hosted kept us healthy through difficult times in 2009.”

The peer group meeting came to a close with a circle of contractors looking ahead to a year from now when they call John and Josh Ward to share success inspired by this event.

One member said, “We did 10 million this year because of your mentoring” and John Pankraz, who came to Denver to learn from the Wards said, “Leadership really does start at the top.”

“Being around great people helps make me greater,” said Debbi Waldenberg of Central Heating & Cooling, Kalispell, Mont., when she was asked to sum up the event.

Kari Logan is a strategic partner to Nexstar Network, a business development and best practices organization that provides business training, systems and support to independent home service providers in the plumbing, electrical and HVAC trades. For more information, visit www.NexstarNetwork.com.

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