27 May 2021

Trade Talk | How to Build a Successful HVAC and Plumbing Business


In this episode of Trade Talk, Tommy Cue speaks with Ben Jackson and Dale Jackson from Jackson Services about how they've built a successful HVAC and plumbing business. They talk about going from an appliance company to HVAC and more, why they took their offerings down to one supplier, expanding from HVAC only to include plumbing, community involvement, and more. Their motto is to figure out what you do well and then do it.



Connect with Tommy, Ben and Dale:

Host: Tommy Cue, JB Warranties

Guests: Ben Jackson and Dale Jackson, Jackson Services


Read the transcript:

Tommy Cue: All right. Good morning. Tommy Cue with JB Warranties here with another edition of JB Warranties Trade Talk. I'm fortunate enough today to be able to be joined with Jackson Services out of LaGrange, Georgia. Dale and Ben, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Dale Jackson: Thank you.

Ben Jackson: Thank you, Tom. Appreciate you having us on.

Tommy Cue: You guys have been a pretty good partner now for several years for us, and we sure appreciate the business. What we do is we want to try to highlight some companies, very successful companies around the country and kind of tell your story. I love to hear the succession line of companies, how they've grown, and I know you're a very old company, even though you guys don't look that old. So tell me a little bit about Jackson Services, if you will guys.

Ben Jackson: So our company, Tommy, was started in 1973 by our fathers. Dale's father was Ted Jackson and my father was Glen Jackson. Brothers. And they wanted to have a chance to do their own business. Not that they had a dream to be a big business empire, but they wanted to do their own thing. So they started out doing appliance repair and TV antennas and things of that nature, and they rapidly determined that there was no money there. They started that process and realized that that wasn't going to be what they wanted.

Ben Jackson: They started refrigeration work, and that was better than the appliance repair and whatnot, but it required them to work all hours of the day on dairy farms and that kind of stuff, that when they call you when they have refrigeration issues, they need you. And they realized that wasn't what they wanted to do either. It was good, steady work, but it wasn't what they wanted as a future, and they realized, "We've got to do something different." So I'll let Dale pick up and kind of continue. We'll go back and forth.

Dale Jackson: Yeah. So about that time in the late 70s, that's when we first started getting into air conditioning in homes and doing duct work and stuff like that. We started out a GE line was what we were carrying, and through that process of GE, transitioning from that to Trane, we started ... So we've been a Trane dealer ever since the very first Trane unit. The Trane of today, anyway.

Tommy Cue: Yep.

Dale Jackson: So we've been a comfort specialist since they rolled that program out in the late 90s, as we began to kind of grow into more of the air conditioning and heating only market here in Georgia. There for a short while, we were a Carrier dealer for about a decade back in the early 2000s. And anyway, we've kind of circled back around to exclusively a Trane dealer at this point.

Tommy Cue: The Trane comfort specialist, they're the, call it the elite of the elite, and there's only maybe 1,000 or 1,500 of them across the United States. That product, that's what you guys sell. If it's not a Trane system, you probably don't even offer the product to the consumer. Is that right?

Dale Jackson: Occasionally if we have a one-off piece of equipment, we'll get it from another manufacturer, but I think that's something that plays into our culture. And it doesn't really have anything to do with Trane, even though we are certainly loyal to Trane and we like Trane, but it was really more about having multiple lines of equipment in our office. And we saw that especially with the considerable size that we have, we saw that it's began to kind of tear our company apart, which is kind of weird to think about.

Tommy Cue: Yeah.

Dale Jackson: But we saw so many. We had Carrier and then we had Trane, and we had service techs that liked Carrier and service techs that liked Trane, and salesmen that liked Trane and salesmen that liked Carrier, and then they started badmouthing the other. And so it really became an issue, and that's the reason why we really wanted to consolidate that and to rebuild that culture, but also it makes it a lot easier if you only have to learn everything there is to know about one line of equipment.

Tommy Cue: True. A lot to be said. We deal with thousands of contractors on all of our platforms, and for the most part, they're loyal to a brand, but they'll get something else if the consumer needs it. The other thing that I like about Jackson Services is maybe your core business or the majority of your business is residential HVAC, but you've diversified your company. You now have other aspects of Jackson Services. You do some commercial, is that right? And even large commercial, what scale of commercial do you go up to?

Dale Jackson: Well, right now, we're in the process this week of quoting a job at its own site at the Kia plant here in West Point. So that project's about a $6, $7 million project.

Tommy Cue: Nice. So from the residential to the commercial, and then you get in the plumbing space as well, is that right?

Ben Jackson: Yeah. So a few years back ... well, I guess it's been more than a few years now. It's been probably five or six years ago. Dale actually started kind of just a dialogue back and forth with a local plumber here in town, and just started talking to him about if he ever had any interest in selling his business or merging with us at some point in time. And he really wasn't that interested at the time, but we never let it die and we just kept readdressing it in the future. Just us thinking we need to diversify and add services that we have to offer.

Ben Jackson: And so, fast forward a few years and he kind of circled back, the local plumber did, circled back to us and said, "Hey, I'm interested in talking again." So we just said, "Well, we'll talk. There's no harm in talking. It doesn't cost anything to talk." So we began a dialogue of, "What would it look like if we joined forces?" And so I guess this summer will be three years ago is when we finalized the deal to take over his operation, and it's been a neat road. There's been some ups and downs, but we're in a good place now with it. When we took over the plumbing operation, he was doing both install or he called it [crosstalk 00:06:59].

Dale Jackson: New construction.

Ben Jackson: New construction type stuff.

Tommy Cue: Yeah.

Ben Jackson: And service. And we just determined that through a process of-

Dale Jackson: No, after me forcing Ben to do plumbing install and losing a whole bunch of money, then I finally agreed with him and we quit doing install, and we actually started making money.

Ben Jackson: Yeah. So now it's really going well. But we've just learned, and that's one of the things, I think kind of a credit to our dads, is that they knew what they could do well, and they did it on repeat.

Tommy Cue: Yep.

Ben Jackson: So a really good business model for us, and I think sometimes when you start growing and whatnot, sometimes you might go a little too fast, and I think we got caught up in that. And so we realized, "Hey, let's figure out where we can do well, and then let's do it." And so we found out that Alex, the gentleman that runs our plumbing division, he can do service plumbing well. Not so good on the install side. It's not a slight on him, we just couldn't do it. We weren't geared up for that. We weren't set up. Our structure was not for that.

Tommy Cue: Well, you also want to protect your reputation, right? What you want to do, you want to do well.

Ben Jackson: Yep.

Tommy Cue: And I'm pleased to say with what we've done business with now for the last several years, reputation is impeccable. And you said Georgia, but if I remember right, you go a little further east over there toward Alabama. Don't you work in Alabama a little bit as well?

Dale Jackson: Yeah. Back in 2000, we opened up a satellite office in Auburn, Alabama and [inaudible 00:08:32]. So we've been having an office there nearly 20 years now.

Ben Jackson: Yeah. Yep.

Tommy Cue: Nice. Nice. The other thing that I see on your website, and it's really outside most HVAC contractors, whether HVAC or plumbing, is home automation. Is that becoming a big sector of your business?

Dale Jackson: We've tried.

Tommy Cue: Yeah.

Dale Jackson: And we still can provide it, but I think you would agree. Generally speaking, what we found anyway, is if you're not looking for that $20, $30, $40,000 theater system and home automation system, you're going to go to Home Depot and buy it yourself and install it yourself.

Tommy Cue: Yep.

Dale Jackson: And so, just there again, we realized that's not really in our wheelhouse.

Tommy Cue: Yeah.

Dale Jackson: So we can still provide it, but we're not going to really go after it hard.

Ben Jackson: Right.

Tommy Cue: Gotcha. So your company has gotten substantially bigger. How many employees roughly do we have throughout all verticals?

Ben Jackson: Right now, about 87 I think is where we are.

Tommy Cue: About 87, I'd say that's pretty accurate.

Ben Jackson: Yeah.

Tommy Cue: That's fantastic. And of that 87, all of them full-time? Do you do part-time type folks or everybody full-time?

Dale Jackson: One of our projects that we do is we set up community tents that are air-conditioned tents for the community. And so occasionally we'll have some part-time staff that that's all they do is just go and set up those tents. And we kind of use that as an opportunity to see who's going to show up on time and then we may hire them. That's the goal, anyway. Normally we end up hiring them full-time. I keep telling Joey they need to just be part-time.

Tommy Cue: Yeah. I actually saw something on your website. Tell me about these community tents. What is that doing? Because you guys are very well known in your community, what purpose is that doing for you?

Dale Jackson: Well, it kind of came from necessity really, and it actually was three years ago this year we were going to do a big 4th of July celebration, and we wanted to do it for our staff, but we also wanted to do it at our local Troup County fireworks celebration. And so as we're planning the event, and we have a big, huge tent out there, we rented a tent. So I'm out there physically, and if you don't know, I have a severely special needs son. And so the problem is that when you have a son, as they get older, you may need to change their diaper. And there's not too many places you can go to change a 13-year-old's diaper.

Tommy Cue: Yeah.

Dale Jackson: Or maybe change their clothes completely. And so I realized that while I was setting up this huge event for all of our staff and the community, my own family wouldn't be able to come and participate in the event because of my son.

Tommy Cue: Yeah.

Dale Jackson: And so we needed a little privacy area where a family can go in private and change clothes, or maybe change a feeding tube, or even nursing mothers.

Tommy Cue: Right.

Dale Jackson: And so in this event, we're like, "Well, gosh, if we're going to have this tent, then it's got to be air conditioned, otherwise it'll be roasting inside this tent outdoors." So that's where the idea came from is where we now go, and we have a tent with ... Granted, there's some really good marketing on it because it's a 20 by 40 tent that's got our logo all over it.

Tommy Cue: Yeah.

Dale Jackson: But pretty much any event that is open to the public. So as long as there are special needs families that might come, then we'll set up a tent for free, and it's air conditioned and it's got a little privacy room inside of the tent. So whatever event's going on, we let that organization use the tent, we just tell them, "You have to allow for special needs families to be able to come in here and access this privacy room. You can use the rest of the tent, but they get this 10 by 10 tent over here."

Tommy Cue: That is an absolutely beautiful story. Thank you for sharing that. I know you're a big company, you've got lots of employees. What other community involvement do you have as Jackson Services?

Dale Jackson: Ben, you do a lot with LCS.

Ben Jackson: Yeah. So I do. I was checking my time sheet this morning, actually. I was posting some time. I've been there for the last five years. I've been a volunteer community coach for our local private Christian school here in LaGrange. And we're actually beginning the first round of playoffs tomorrow, but it's been a five-year run so far. And so I donate a lot of my time there. So far this year, 246 hours I saw yesterday. I didn't realize it was that much time, but it's a lot. But it's a lot of fun, a lot of rewards.

Ben Jackson: Get to mentor young men, so I've seen a lot of kids come through that I've been able to just talk about life, talk about baseball, their plans in the future, so it's rewarding. It gets a little tiring sometimes, but it's a good thing. And then I also volunteer at the school doing some grass cutting on the football field and serve on several boards there for the school, so I'm really connected to Lafayette Christian School here in LaGrange, and then Dale has a lot of other activities that he does as well throughout the community too.

Dale Jackson: I think that's something we're really blessed is the foundation that our fathers put down. It gives us the ability to do what a lot of 40-year-olds don't get the opportunity to do, which is kind of serve as that owner, that really board, that can run the company from looking down. We have a great staff of managers. And so, currently I'm the chairman of the board of the chamber of commerce and serve with United Way and the Boys & Girls Club, so we're just really blessed that we have that opportunity to be able to do that.

Tommy Cue: That's awesome, man. That's family tradition right there. Well, gentlemen, you guys have been a fantastic partner us for several years. I love to hear Will Basko, our regional manager that calls on you guys, he raves about you. So I just wanted to say thanks for the time. I appreciate it very much. Let's do this again next year. I'd love to see how successful you guys can become, but have a blessed year and good luck in 2021.

Dale Jackson: All right.

Ben Jackson: Thank you, Mr. Tom. Appreciate you very much.

Tommy Cue: All right, guys. Thank you so much.