Kyle Buscher is a maintenance and operations manager at a Minnesota HVAC company that handles both residential and commercial installation and service. He only has a handful of years in the industry under his belt but has moved up quickly and is already looked to as a leader. The company he works for was recently sold to two new owners who have been expanding from solely residential work to take on more commercial and construction jobs. Want to hear from a guy that’s seen everything from the residential service side of the industry to industrial installs, all packed into his first five years on the job? Hear what Kyle has to say about it.
How long have you been in the industry?
Since 2012 or ’13.
And how do you like it?
I DO like it. I think the best part about it is there is something new every day, versus a basic desk job where you’re kinda doing the same thing… another interesting part is you’re always trying to solve a problem or a puzzle. Trying to figure out what is wrong with the equipment. And it’s kind of nice in the spring and the fall to have a little bit lighter schedule. You know, when it’s not hot or cold out, that’s when you get to do your vacation.
Is that why you chose HVAC?
I actually chose it just because I knew there was a big need for it. I did some research on kind of the jobs that were in high demand and the jobs that were going to continue growing, and HVAC was one of them.
Did you consider anything else or was this your first choice?
I originally went to school for website development. Then I realized I didn’t want to sit there pounding a keyboard all day every day.
What surprised you the most when you first got out of school and got on the job?
The unrelenting hours as a service tech. I worked for a company that only had two service techs so I was on call every other week. Weeks I was on call was about 90 hours. When I wasn’t on call it was somewhere around 70. That burns you out really quick.
One of the things you hear about commercial HVAC is that it’s less demanding that way with more regular hours. Has that been your experience?
Yes, that’s definitely correct. A lot of times commercial companies are staffed to handle around the clock, whereas residential is basically your normal 7 to 5 and then whoever is on call takes all the night and weekend. [My company] has actually scheduled a second-shift guy to help meet demand.
Is there a lack of qualified people going into the field right now?
You know, there is a huge demand because a lot of the guys are retiring. There’s not very many people getting into the field and unfortunately it feels like about half the guys we hire just don’t work out. They have problems showing up for work or they were pushed through school and didn’t get the skills they needed. So finding people who are capable is a whole other thing. You can find a body to fill the hole but… it’s a challenge.
Are you the one that is responsible for bringing those guys up to speed?
Yeah, I do a lot of training. We do weekly meetings where we go through one training tip or a short safety video. I try to do some ridealongs once a week or once every two weeks with the guys. When we have three callbacks on the same property I’ll go back with the guys on the third time and make sure it’s going right. A lot of times you’re really just trying to put the fire out with the customer at that point as well.
One of the more important aspects of the job I’ve heard they don’t really teach in school is that customer relations aspect. Was that true for you?
I’ve noticed that a lot of individuals who worked in retail before, or while they were going to school, have a little bit better knowledge on how to handle the customers. We’ve had a few guys who were strictly doing construction, and those were the guys that seem to have the hardest trouble with customer service.
Would you recommend technical or trade school as the best way to get into the field right now, or is there any other advice you would give?
If you were looking to go into service, that’s definitely what I would do. It’s a great education. For installation, a lot of companies will start you off as an apprentice and train you. I’ve seen quite a few guys who have done that and turned out just fine. I think it really depends on how quick of a learner the individual is, as to how they should start their career.
Is there licensing for HVAC in Minnesota?
Oh, yeah. We’ve got some of the strictest laws in the country as far as competency cards. Even if you go to school, they say, ‘You can’t work here until you pass the test.’ And to pass the test you have to have four years in the field and school experience. The nice thing is that the customer is always getting great individuals in their home, the work is going to be done correctly and to code. But the downside is you definitely pay a heavy premium to have those individuals. It’s kind of a balance.
What was your experience getting the license?
It wasn’t too bad. I mean, I went to school, so I had… the actual test, you can use the code books, it’s multiple choice, you just have to find the answers in the book. The big thing is knowing how to read the code book. So if you spend 12 to 24 hours studying through the book, taking the test and passing isn’t too hard. It’s just sitting down and familiarizing yourself with all the codes.
Do a lot of people have trouble with that?
I’d say we’ve had probably half the guys in our office passed on the first and the other half took two tries. I guess that goes to show the guys who put in the effort to actually study versus the ones who thought, ‘Oh, it’s an open book!’” When you take the test, you definitely learn a lot just by studying.
Do you have any other licenses or industry certifications?
Yeah, the EPA certification—the Universal. I did the OSHA 30 construction course and the MegaPress and ProPress, I’m certified in that, which is basically a new tool that eliminates the need for brazing or soldering pipe. And a Gastite certification, which really doesn’t mean much other than that you had your local sales rep come out and show you how to do it.
Were any of those useful? Is it just a piece of paper or do you actually get something out of the training?
I’d say ALL the training was useful. The Gastite one you could probably figure out on your own, but it doesn’t hurt to have the guys come out and do it for you the first time. The ProPress certification was good knowledge, it was basic knowledge, but the technology was just breaking into the market so they wanted to make sure that guys were using it right.
What does your career path look like from here? Do you have other goals you’re going to work towards?
I think I’m definitely… I feel well in the spot that I am at. I’ve been blessed to have a pretty good growth path just from being the guy who is usually the first one to work, last one to leave. Kind of giving it my all every day. That’s kind of pushed me into the position I’ve received now. As far as growth opportunities, saving up and buying into a company or starting my own company from scratch… which is a great dream, but that takes a lot of bankroll! If you don’t have the bankroll, that can go south.
One of the things you hear about residential is that the guys in the trucks end up having to do a lot of sales work. Is that true in your experience?
At this point, it is not. If the service techs do find a piece of equipment that is either completely dead or the cost of repair is significant or if it’s just 25 or 30 years old, a lot of times they will just provide the information to our sales guy. Snap a lot of pictures, then the sales guy will throw up a quote and visit the homeowner, present the different options. I know before the company was sold, though, if the service tech found a bad piece of equipment, they were allowed to make the sale. Which, you know, is a good idea to save on labor except I think it’s better to have someone who is trained to repair things, repair things, someone who is trained to sell, sell things. There’s less room for error when you have someone who doesn’t know very much providing quotes. You can lose your butt. What we do is, the technicians get a spiff [a cash bonus for making a sale] so at least that makes them feel a little bit better about it.
How are you handling the expansion into commercial business?
One of the owners was a general contractor on residential remodel, so he had a lot of people he knew. We’re able to get our foot in the door pretty easy. When you know people it goes well. They’ll give us a try and it’s our fault if we screw it up.
What’s the major difference that you’ve noticed between residential and commercial work?
Residential is much more personal. It’s much more face time. Commercial is more call, clock in with a district manager or the property manager. You’re just there to get a signature. People don’t bat an eye about the price, they don’t ever try to argue. The other downside is that the guys who are doing it don’t get as much time with other people, so if they’re a social kind of person it burns them out. Whereas if they’re a loner, that’s a lot easier for those guys.
What about the equipment you work with in residential versus commercial?
We do different brands, solely on price. We’re a Lennox dealer, so residential equipment and commercial is kind of a premium you’re paying for the name, the quality. So we found the easiest way to tap into the [commercial] market is to use something cheaper that still has a great warranty, so we can undercut the competition.
Can you talk about your experience in HVAC school?
My dad was having some health troubles when I was in school. He had a couple of major surgeries. I was also working overnight at the time, cleaning kitchen exhaust systems, so I was coming into school in the morning covered in kitchen grease, dirty, and I was tired. My teacher helped me a lot. I asked him at the end of the first year if I really needed to do the second year. Because I knew there was such a high demand. I knew I was good, I’d picked it up very quickly. And he said, ‘Honestly, somebody is going to hire you right now with just the residential degree.’ He said, ‘You’re going to pick up commercial as quick as you picked up residential. Yeah, it might be a little harder for you than if you’d done the two year program.’ But at that time, I thought I wanted to focus on residential, too, so that helped push me. But when I go up and started working on commercial equipment, I realized it was the exact same thing, just with more wires. So it made me feel a lot better about the choice I made.
Did you stay in touch with that teacher?
Every once in a while… just to hound him for his students who are just about to graduate.
Can you talk a little bit about your experience with mentoring? Either receiving or offering it yourself?
When I began, I always had the other service tech, he said, ‘Call me day or night.’ He’d walk me through it on the fine. Obviously, as I became more experienced, I’ve returned that favor. It’s nice when you have a bigger service team when everyone can kind of lean on each other. Three or four brains are more powerful than one. It might just be something tricky where the guy that you’re calling had just seen it a few weeks ago.
What was the most and least useful aspects of your schooling?
I would say the most useful was learning the refrigeration cycle, learning the properties of thermodynamics. How temperature and pressure go hand in hand. Also learning how to follow electricity, read wiring diagrams and schematics. I’d say the least useful thing was learning the different styles of motors. Like shaded pole, PSE. I actually remembering asking my teacher in school, ‘When am I ever going to need to know the difference between this motor and this motor?’ And he said, ‘Honestly, you’re never going to need to know. You’re just going to call in to the supply house and give them the model and serial number of what you’re working on, and they’re going to tell you what motor you need.’ And, you know, I really respect that at least he was honest with me instead of lying and telling me it was something I would need to know. And I memorized it, passed the test, and made room for other useful information.
What’s the most useful skill you think you bring to the job now? What do you use everyday the most?
I would say my customer relationship skills have continued to put me in a good position, because that’s why I was promoted to service supervisor and service manager. Knowing how to handle customers, when you go in their house at 11 o’clock at night, it’s 30 below outside and 40 in their house, trying to keep them calm and let them know, ‘Hey, this part isn’t in stock, we’re not going to be able to get it for 48 hours…’ You know, calming them down. And I would say as far as technical skill, just learning the electrical portion and the refrigerant cycle. Because if you can’t do that, you really can’t do anything.
If you were just getting started in the industry today, what would you do different? Would you take the same route you did, or is there a better way to get into it initially?
If I could do it over, I would probably do the two-year degree. Just because, you know, it’s only an additional year. If I didn’t have to work while going to school, that would have made it a lot easier. I think going with a union shop is a good thing for some people. I’m not going to talk down and say that nobody should do it. Because I think a lot of it depends on when you get in, too. If you get in at the right time, the union can be amazing. But for me, by the time I was looking at the union, I already had a year and a half of experience, and in order to go in to the union I would have had to take like a four or five dollar pay cut. I just couldn’t do that.
If you wanted to stand out as a candidate, if you were hiring someone, what would you look for?
I’d say we probably hire one out of every three or four that we actually interview. I’d say to stand out as a candidate you should have personal skills, come in wearing a button up shirt and jeans, don’t come in wearing slacks or a suit and tie. That’s not the right career field. Another thing is, know your stuff. A lot of the guys when I sit down and interview them, I say, do you know sequence of operation on a furnace or air conditioner? And if you can’t tell me that, then that tells me you don’t know how to do the job we’re looking to hire you for. Even if you think you know it, spend an hour or two that morning or the night before studying on the actual material, because you might have some guy like me who actually questions you instead of just feeling you out and giving you a try.
What direction do you see the industry going over the next 10 or 15 years? What do you think is going to have the biggest impact?
Obviously the economy. You know, things are going so well right now, you know it just can’t go forever. If things continue going the way they are for another three or four years, I think we’re going to see the prices skyrocket. There are a lot of guys set to retire, at least in our market, in the next year or two. So really that’s just going to drive rates pretty high, when everyone has to put in overtime to accomplish all the work. It will be interesting to see with the leadership change in the White House kind of how that affects where the market is going. And another big thing is, we do a lot of custom home building, the HVAC systems… there is a little bit over a year’s worth of million dollar plus houses in one city where the average house, two miles away, may be only $250,000. With that much surplus of housing on the market at that rate, it kind of makes you question, when does the bubble pop?
How much construction versus service do you handle?
Currently, I’d say our revenue is about 30 percent [not understandable], and probably 50 percent is change-outs, and then the rest is construction. So it’s not a big portion by any means. We’ve actually scaled back a lot over the last year and a half because so many companies are fighting to do that work that it’s kind of, everyone trying to price themselves into making no money for a month. And I think a lot of guys are at the point where they’ve been doing this, and they’re starting their own companies, and that’s how come they can come in and do it for so low. So when you’ve got a 14 man shop competing against one guy and his brother in a vehicle doing a house… he’s got us beat all day.
Do you guys have an edge when it comes to service, though?
Exactly. We actually lost one of our builders due to pricing. They had another company come in, and they did it for about 25-26 percent less at the end of the day. They did one house for them. Needless to say, we’re back doing their work, because when they called for a service call, nobody could come. They drove from an hour away and their service guy was the install guy. So he couldn’t do it until his day was done at his job. When we can be there 30 minutes after you call, it provides a whole other level of service. Obviously, our guys have been doing it… our install manager has been doing it for twenty-some years, the other leads have been doing it for twenty-some years, so everyone knows what they are doing. They’re efficient. We’re trying to bring in a lot of helpers, too. You bring them in to train guys and offset the wages of the leads so we can be competitive. A lot of the helpers we’ve brought in are guys who’ve just graduated from school. So at least we know they have some knowledge of the system and how things work when they’re installing.
What have you seen shift in the industry through the course of your career?
A lot of things keep going to be more efficient. But yet we still go in houses today with 120-year-old gravity boilers wrapped in asbestos. It’s amazing to think that stuff is working just fine and yet, you buy a piece of equipment today and it might only last you twenty years. The biggest improvement I’ve seen is building automation. There are a lot of companies coming out doing a lot of things that can take into account the weather outside, how sunny it is, the solar gain on the side of the building, kind of offsets so that every building in the office is the exact same temperature. The controls, obviously, wifi thermostats… they’re all pretty much the same thing but everyone’s looks a little different. I’ve heard quite a few things on the negative side of the wifi thermostats as far as security, which makes me a little nervous. Knowing that someone could access it with relative ease, it’s a little nerve-wracking with a home wifi system.
Has that made your job easier or more difficult?
You know, I’m young enough where luckily I grew up with computers in my household. Granted, it wasn’t a laptop, it was back when you had the giant monitor and giant PC and things were very slow. Plus, I like to always learn. I think that helps a lot. So when new things come on the market, I always read up on them. I try to get demo models of them so I can at least see it and we try a test run, we do a lot of that. Especially for all the new indoor air quality products on the market, it seems like every week or every two weeks someone is coming in trying to sell a new, fancier cleaner. I at least like to hear the spiel and sit down and see what technology is coming. I think a lot of it is, everyone’s trying to get a piece of the pie, and it makes it kind of congested as far as what’s actually worth it.
What’s your favorite new thing that is coming on to the market that maybe people haven’t heard about yet?
I’d say the most impressive thing I’ve seen is from a company called 75F. That’s a local startup that just started hitting the market in the last couple years here. That’s that building automation I was talking about. I firmly believe the system is more user-friendly than Trane. I believe the amount of information the company can gather as far as how things are operating is mind-blowing. The fact of how easy it is to install, too. It’s an interesting thing. I know a lot of the Taco Bells and other restaurants are starting to use it, just because a lot of those small fast-food places have one rooftop serving the whole area. When you’ve got 85 degrees in the back where all the frying equipment is, and 75 degrees in the front, there’s no way to balance that. Other than a building automation system.
You said the installation is easy with those, how about service?
Easy. It’s a very simplistic design, with high functionality. It’s literally just putting in a damper, running a wire back to a control board. And the nice thing is, it just uses simple materials. The data from it, where you can figure out exactly how much it costs to cool this office, how much do you need to heat that office in a building. A lot of times we’ll get a call from the company, 75F, saying, ‘Hey, there is an issue going on at this building.’ We go over there, and they don’t even realize the issue is happening yet. Which I think is pretty cool.
Can you do any of that stuff from the office?
Anywhere in the world.
Are you doing that a lot?
We actually chose to stay out of the monitoring of it. We had the choice to monitor the equipment that we installed. And the reason why we chose not to monitor was, we started off with so few that the labor to monitor would have been pretty significant. So we let the manufacturer handle all the monitoring and they just call us when there is an issue.
Is that strictly commercial side or is the same thing happening with residential stuff?
I know they actually developed it for residential, and I don’t know that they actually did anything with it. I think that they went straight to commercial. I mean, it’s all the same thing, you could use it on any rooftop or furnace, so I don’t see why it couldn’t work.