Fully Committed: My Interview with The General

the general

 

When I began working with The General two words immediately defined the relationship: intensely professional.  There is a vibe to this remarkable company that sends a clear message to everyone who walks in the front door.  The General is a first-class company.  The General hires first-class people.  The General provides first-class training (every day!).  Perhaps most importantly, The General is a meritocracy.  Talent soars in The General.  The two current leaders exemplify these attitudes.

Patrick Somers is the General Manager at The General.  He and his busiess partner, Fransisco Rodriguez (Sales Manager), are friends.  The two are also assuming control of the company as a succession plan.  Both men are high-energy, focused, and live the standard of excellence that their predecessor Frank Harrison set many years ago.  I recently interviewed Patrick in order to better understand how he and Fransisco evolve and assume control of a company without compromising either their friendship or the company’s storied legacy.

Interview:

M: Succession can be tricky business both financially and personally. How did you both view the succession process from a leadership perspective? How did you determine roles and responsibilities? Finally, how did you decide upon a working relationship that accomplished professional outcomes without compromising your friendship?

P: I look to the Dread Pirate Roberts from the Princess Bride when it comes to succession, When Roberts is ready to retire the chosen successor is put in charge with the soon to retire Captain Roberts staying on board. Once the crew accepts and becomes accustomed to the new Captain Roberts, the old leaves and enters retirement. For us it’s the same except it’s a General and not a Captain. For us the plan was well thought out with plenty of time for us to be mentored and for the reins to be gradually turned over year by year. The roles we have taken as partners are aligned with our strengths. We communicate a lot and most important is the level of trust we have with each other. Ultimately it comes down to a unified vision between the successor and the predecessor and a deep understanding that the culture has the power to bury you if you do not respect it and nurture it. That is something the three of us are very focused on, ensuring the culture remains intact and is strengthened, and that the team accepts the new leadership. Francisco and I both see General Air Conditioning and Plumbing as being something bigger than us and we have a responsibility to the brand to ensure a solid personal and professional relationship.

M: The General brand is well established in your market. From firsthand experience I’ve heard customers say: “Everybody knows The General.” How do you plan to maintain the brand legacy while evolving it to reflect a changing consumer? In other words, how will you respect the past while modernizing the brand?

P: General Air Conditioning and Plumbing is a very strong brand in the Coachella Valley, a lot has been invested to create it, not the least of blood, sweat, and tears. Our focus must always remain on the integrity of the brand and its alignment with our vision. Ultimately we have to never forget what business we are in, if we start to believe we are in the air conditioning, heating, or plumbing business we will eventually have a Kodak moment. We are in the business of changing people’s life by delivering unparalleled levels of comfort and convenience. To be successful in that business the brand must evolve with the consumer. The consumer’s wants, needs, and desires do not change so much as how they fulfill them does. Consumers never stopped wanting to capture memories, nor did they lose interest in music. The consumer simply evolved and those industries and businesses believed their brand was stronger than the evolution of the client. I believe they forgot what business they were in; ultimately they were in the business of releasing endorphins and stirring emotion. They failed to be aware of the evolution taking place around them and evolve.

M: Your sales consultants make great money and are first-class individuals. How do you keep a salesperson motivated when he or she is already performing at the highest level?

P: We do have a great sales team that we are very proud of. Keeping them motivated starts with hiring and identifying those individuals that are not easily satisfied and have a competitive nature. Identifying those individuals is not easy and we don’t always get it right. Additionally, we identify the motivators in each salesperson and it is not always money. For example, we have one team member who likes time off during our busiest months because that’s when his wife has off and they take family vacations. The initial reaction was to be angry that a sales professional wants off when we need him most. Once the initial reaction subsided, we met with him and his wife and said for every x amount of sales he will get one day off and can take that time whenever he wants. We know as does the sales team that no matter how high of a level they are performing at there is always more to learn and new levels to reach. Competitions help as well, for sales we typically have competitions that allow them to win the products they sell. Doing this we get results and the sales professional gets the products they sell installed in their home. Like everything else the most important element is to be united around a common unifying vision.

M: Our recent conversations have centered on full-team alignment and the General Experience. For many people in the service industry that type of thinking is obtuse. How do you translate The Experience concept to a practical “boots on the ground” level for folks who are more removed from leadership ideas (ex. parts runners, installers, administrative employees)?

P: It starts with communication, communicating the mission statement, the vision, and the values. Everyone has to know them and believe in them, additionally they have to know the role they play in achieving company wins. It is very important we make sure that they know what winning looks like, what a company win looks like, if we do not define them they will define them and that’s where alignment issues start. As leaders in the organization we also have a responsibility to inspire everyone, to make them aware of the contribution they play, to understand that no matter how small they believe their role to be there role is essential to our success. Lastly, most critical is having the ability to recognize when the individual is not a fit and not buying in, even more critical is being able to execute on eliminating them from the roster.

M: Training has always played an important role in your teams’ development. How has training changed over the years and how have your training needs changed over the years?

P: Training is like marketing, if you want to have successful growth you have to have it in your budget. Our training use to be very focused on the mechanics of a call, where to park, how to enter the home, how to present pricing, etc. While that still is a part of what we train on because systems and consistency is very important, over the last several years our training has become much more focused on creating an experience and differentiating ourselves. Floor savers, uniforms, guarantees are easily duplicated and companies are watching the successful company’s in their town and copying the things they are doing. We have shifted our training to be more focused on a higher level approach, understanding consumer behavior, interacting with a more educated consumer, and providing an experience for the consumer. That can only be achieved with a strong culture. We spend a lot of money and time on training specific to achieving that culture.

M: You two are friends. How do you compartmentalize business and friendship? When do you agree to disagree?

P: We became friends through our professional relationship, the more we work together the more we realized we were very much aligned in our thinking and beliefs. Of course we don’t always see eye to eye. We don’t really compartmentalize friendship and business per se, however we don’t let one interfere with the other. When it comes to business we don’t disagree, we work through where we have different points of view and one of us wins over the other. It has to be that way, we both have to have complete buy in or we will not have alignment and when we are not aligned the team will sense it and we start to get cracks in our foundation. Believe me we don’t just fold we have many heated discussions and debates; it can take time. However, when it comes to business what may have started as us having opposing views results in us emerging as unified front with each of our fully supporting each other.

M: Warehouse sales: Costco, Home Depot, Lowes. Mega retailers are a normal part of the service industry these days. Is that incursion a good or a bad thing? Why?

P: I do not believe it is good or bad it just is, it is the evolution of the industry driven by the consumer and partly us. We as an industry have done a great job of turning HVAC into a commodity, beating each other up in a race to the bottom, essentially allowing others into our space, relegating the contractor to an installer working for wages. What can be good or bad is our attitude toward it and how we adapt to this evolution. We participate in one of the programs and it is very good for us, we are careful to make sure our business outside of the box retailer grows faster than the retailer business, and that it does not exceed 20% of revenues.
I believe this evolution is a good thing because not everyone can adapt for the long term and it will take a certain sophistication to make it a successful part of your business while maintaining your own brand identity and growth. I believe it will thin the herd and make it more difficult for the companies that can’t set themselves apart beyond floor savers to compete. The down side to that is it will drive more of those contractors to become beholden to big box retailers and online retailers. To me that’s a down side because those retailers will have plenty of contractors to churn through to provide the services they sell. There is an acquisition taking place, the difference this time is it is not an acquisition of businesses, buying up brick and mortar locations. The big box and online retailers are making acquisition of customers. Ultimately the good is the struggle the retailers will face is managing the boots on the ground, managing the labor directly and providing a customer experience that is very difficult to control remotely. The companies that can do that and provide a client experience along with being easy to do business with will be victorious and that’s what we are positioning ourselves to be.

M: Marketing has always been a very significant cornerstone of The General’s sales strategy. How do you see your marketing decisions and financial allocations changing (if at all) in the future?

P: I have learned many lessons from my mentor Frank Harrison, the one that applies to marketing is you have to be consistent and we will always be consistent. However, I do see changes in marketing that will be required to stay relevant. Some of my answers above I have referred to evolution several times, with marketing it is more like a revolution! There is so much changing because of the change in consumer behavior and technology. It is going to be more and more critical for us to be at the forefront of those changes. Relationship marketing and employing more and more pull vs push style marketing is a part of our marketing allocations and I believe we will see more of it. With technology bringing us more and more collaborative and social communication channels focusing on customer retention and satisfaction are critical. Clients want to feel good about their purchases, they want social proof, and they want those they do business with to be a partner in providing a more satisfying transaction.
Overall I see more and more being allocated to social media, and grass roots community support. The more traditional marketing we use such as TV I believe will see a shift overtime to be where the consumer is, more and more people are cutting the cord and going to on demand streaming services and that will continue to grow. We are currently moving more and more into channels that help with social proof, I once hated Yelp and now I love it and it has become a revenue generator for us. This year we are going to be producing how to videos as well for our website, YouTube, and social. Consumers want to know how to “do it themselves” and if we help them with the little things they will look to us for the big things they can’t do or won’t do. The consumer is educated, they are going to find the answer and I would rather have them find it from us and look to us as that partner in ensuring a more satisfying transaction.
M: What are the most influential books you’ve read and why?

P: Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude – This is the first book I remember getting from my father when I was about 13. It has changed my life and I really credit it for teaching me how to keep my head up and my vision alive.
The Art of War Sun Tzu – These agent writings of military strategy and tactics are relevant today as much as they were when it was written. They apply to business and life, I can mediate on his writings daily and have a new take away every time.
The Seven Laws of Highly Effective People Steven Covey – This book is more like a handbook for life and is a great resource for taking yourself to the next level in productivity, life balance, and relationships.

M: Your company implements divisional goal setting. You also openly share these goals. What is the process involved in goal setting that ensures accountability?

P: Each year in October the management team goes on a retreat led by a facilitator to help keep us focused and on task. There we do a lot of SWAT analysis and build a “context Map” where we identify trends, political factors, economic climate, technology factors, customer needs and uncertainties. We discuss what business we are in and where we need to put our focus in the coming year, we come up with a budget and a plan. We then take that master plan back to the entire company and each manager works with their team to come up with their own department goals that are aligned with the master company plan.
The critical part of the accountability component is letting everyone know the plan and have a say in developing the plan on a departmentalized level braking down many of the department goals to the individual technician, CCR, office team member levels. Each member of the team knows what they must contribute and then they all sign the plan and it is hung on the wall. The second critical part of accountability is for us to continually talk about the goals and incorporate it into our daily conversations and training. Additionally, it’s important to add that we let the entire team know that we have a responsibility to hold them accountable and more importantly they must hold each other accountable and even the management team accountable.

 

 

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