Working in Paradise Requires Perfect Tools

HVAC/R contractor JC, (A.K.A. Joe Cool), Shares His Perspectives on Customer Service, the Perfect Tools, and Living in Paradise

If you’ve ever wondered if the life of an HVAC/R tech is for you, let us introduce you to JC, the owner of Beacon’s Keeper, an HVAC/R contractor in Pine Knoll Shores, a small community located on one of North Carolina’s Outer Banks barrier islands.

If you want JC’s help, you’ll need to know one of his customers. He doesn’t advertise. He doesn’t have a website. His phone number is unlisted. He does identify his van with his logo but there’s no name or contact information and only a very slight hint of what he does.

“If you know me, you know whose it is,” says JC. “I get lots of comments on the image from people who haven’t a clue it’s my business logo.”

And yet, JC, a professional HVAC/R tech since 1980, is as busy as he wants to be serving his 300 to 400 customers in Pine Knoll Shores, averaging 3,000 to 4,000 miles a year on his service van.

“It didn’t take me long to realize the person living next door to my last call also needs someone to service their HVAC system,” says JC. “So why not me? I gave incentives to my customers to tell their good neighbors about my service. Now, my customers have turned it into a game. One lady who lived in a six-unit complex sold her five neighbors my service agreements to keep me invested in her property. They like knowing I’m close by. Many of my customers go back to the 80’s. With relationships like that, it’s an honor to be in their service.”

JC lives by one simple rule: “My price is dictated by the attitude of my clients.” he says. “In other words, life’s too short to work for unpleasant people. Twenty years ago I fired 10 percent of my customers and 90 percent of my problems went away. Today, when someone I don’t know requests service, there’s a probationary period. I’m very cautious about taking on new customers. If they’re not interested in maintaining their equipment then they’ll need to call someone else.”

As a sole proprietor, JC sets his own rules, and to him, the most important rule is his approach to customer service.

“When I enter the home of one of my clients, I behave as their invited guest. It’s an honor to be called and to be entrusted with the care of something so essential to their home. Without air conditioning, their houses are unlivable,” says JC.

Because most of the residents of Pine Knoll Shores come from other parts of the country for only a few weeks or maybe a couple months at a time, the time they spend in their beach homes is very precious. One step that JC has taken to protect their property is the wifi thermostats.

“I’ve installed more than 200 in the last two years,” JC says. “It’s given my customers the ability to see what’s going on in their absence, set it before they come down, and the best part, have a way to determine if it’s operating correctly. Now, instead of late on a Friday night after they’ve arrived, often it’s noticed on Wednesday or Thursday, giving me time to get it corrected before they arrive. Another feature is the notification when there’s a serious failure. Having a thermostat send a message that there’s a serious problem in the property is a real blessing.

“About twice a year there’ll be a system with a broken O wire,” says JC. “It’d be discovered only when someone decided to visit the property. The highest I’ve seen it was 135 degrees and that ran for 28 days. The oil paintings ran down the wall. Now that threat is history. We set a range, too wet, dry, cool or hot. Go outside that range and the thermostat fires off an email alerting the owner to a possible disaster brewing.”

“I’ve been saving my customers vacations since 1982,” says JC, referring to the year he went out on his own. “When something goes wrong with their heat pump, it needs to be corrected quickly. Because condensers only last 5 to 7 years, it’s important to plan ahead. I keep a healthy supply of parts plus replacement equipment on hand, ready to install in a moment’s notice. My customers really appreciate the importance I place on their vacation. I know they’re here for some much needed downtime. To maintain the beach atmosphere, my working uniform is blue jean shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.”

With nearly all of his customers under service contracts, it is the Beacon’s Keeper’s goal to prevent equipment breakdowns when his clients are visiting or renting their beach homes.

“I actually consider it a failure if I have to make a service call during the vacation season (Memorial Day through Labor Day),” says JC.

JC’s path to becoming an HVAC/R tech started in the late 1970s. Fresh out of the Navy, he returned to the area where he grew up and took a job as a manager at an oceanfront hotel. After watching the salt spray dissolve the air conditioners, he went to school to learn the trade. Shortly thereafter, he met Bedford “Bet” Dowty, the owner of Dowty Refrigeration, a local heating and air conditioning contractor. ”He really took a chance with me. I know I’m not the easiest person to employ.” It was there that JC was exposed to the growing number of homes and condos being built on the island.

JC eventually met Don Brock, a local property developer, who was building a 150-acre resort at the west end of Pine Knoll Shores. Brock wasn’t particularly happy with his current HVAC/R contractor’s attitude about emergency services for the systems he had installed, and decided to give JC a shot to start his business.

“Because my background was in hotel management, I had a totally different understanding of customer service,” JC says. “I developed my approach based on listening to my customers, focusing on service, and being available when they needed me.”

One Sunday morning, just before the service at a local church, JC received a call from one his clients that their heat pump wasn’t cooling.
“When I informed my pastor I had to leave, he asked, “Haven’t you made enough money?” JC says. “I replied to him, ‘It’s not about the money. Those people need help.’ That sums up my approach. This work is a ministry.”

JC pinpoints his approach to business based on three mentors whom he says, “without their participation in my life, this would be a very short story.” Besides Don Brock, the developer, who encouraged him to focus on service (“and the money will take care of itself”), JC also was influenced by George Jones and Bobby Mercer, all of who worked together at Dowty Refrigeration.

“George is an amazing person and the finest tech I’ve ever seen,” says JC, “One Thanksgiving, I got sick. No one seemed to be able to pinpoint the source of my discomfort. Finally, around Valentine’s Day an excellent physician’s assistant isolated the problem that ultimately ended with gall bladder surgery. The following day, as my mind cleared from the procedure, I realized I had several months of work to do with just one month to get it complete before my clients started arriving at their vacation homes. As I was realizing my situation, out of the blue, George calls. He said he had just retired from the county school system and was bored, “I need to go to work with you.”

Bobby Mercer of Heat Pumps Plus, is another great friend and excellent tech. “We’re both sole proprietors, each growing our business, not as competitors, but as comrades,” says JC “We help each other with difficult jobs and cover for the other as needed. ‘I have a heart for mission work. Bobby has always been willing to take the pager so I could do outreach or simply to get away. In 20 years, he’s never cost me a customer or harmed me in any way. He’s a real stand-up guy. Having people you can trust is a real blessing.”

At 63, JC is planning to transfer the daily responsibility of running his company to a younger fellow.
“Brian Gupton is an excellent service tech with a very bright future. We met when he bought my home on the mainland,” says JC. “Over the last few years I’ve been sharing with Brian the tricks and techniques I’ve learned. His attitude is great and he’s proven himself both dependable and honest.’

Looking into his backyard from his island home in Pine Knoll Shores, JC reflects on what advice he would offer other HVAC/R techs who are just entering the trade.

“It’s important to develop the person within. Build your character. Twenty years ago I started writing in an effort to become who I could be. It’s critical to invest in yourself,” he says. “Stay sober and sane. If you need drugs and alcohol to function, find out why and then do something about it. You’re probably going to live a lot longer than you think. Like the old joke says, “If I’d only known I was going to live this long, I’d probably taken better care of myself.’”
JC says staying focused on servicing your customer’s needs is the answer.

“Treat your clients like you’d want to be treated,” he says. “ I’ve found the Golden Rule is also the best path to making gold. By developing a genuine interest in the well-being of your fellow man, we can change the world. And one last thing, don’t waste money buying second-rate tools. Invest in things that last, like YELLOW JACKET tools. My absolute favorite is the Tube Expander. It allows me to swedge up to 1-1/8” copper tubing in seconds without hurting my hands. In my 30 years working in an environment where condensers last only a few seasons, I cannot remember a single time a Yellow Jacket tool has failed me.’