Live from Lennox Live 2022 in San Antonio, TX, we welcome Neil Whitney! Neil is General Manager of Keefe’s A/C, Heating & Electrical out of New Orleans, and comes on To The Point to talk about his NOLA experience discovering that people are the secret to success in business as well as in life.
Neil’s story begins with his brother, who owned a sheet metal shop. Neil and his brother would fabricate and install duct systems for AC companies out in Connecticut. He figured out pretty fast that he didn’t like the air duct business, but he sure enjoyed watching the HVAC guys do their work. After graduating from high school, Neil went into the tree trimming business. He ended up hurting his back and decided to go to school for HVAC. After graduating from HVAC school, he went to work for an oil company in 1986.
The wintertimes in Massachusetts were brutal, and Neil would often get called in the middle of the night to go to work. So no sheet metal, no trees, and no oil for Neil! He moved south to Savannah, Georgia for warmer weather and a different job. He found a mentor, learned how to set goals, and how to be accountable while working for a new contractor. He would work at that position in the early 90s for 7 or 8 years, learning the trade and what it took to be successful.
Gen Z won’t remember, and millennials barely do, but Neil met his wife online before the days of Tinder. He and his future wife would cultivate their relationship on AIM (AOL Instant Messanger), with her being in New Orleans and he in Georgia. Neil convinced her to come out to Savannah, but she decided she liked New Orleans better and wanted to move back. He chased her back to NOLA, where his current boss set him up with a gig. That job didn’t work out, and Neil found work at a Mom and Pop shop in 2000. He helped grow that company and exited a few years later.
In 2005, just a month before Hurricane Katrina hit, Neil joined Keefe’s. His goal when he went to work for Keefe’s was to start his own business, but the problem is everything was about phone books at the time. There wasn’t an opening in the phone books until the next year, so Neil decided to work there until he could get in and start his own venture. It didn’t take the owner, Keefe Ditta, long to realize that Neil could be more than a service tech, and promoted him to service manager. Then, Katrina hit.
In the years to follow, business was rough. Just after the storm hit, everything had to be replaced. That meant new systems everywhere that didn’t need a whole lot of work after the initial flurry of replacements. When Neil joined, Keefe’s was at 5MM, then dropped to 3MM after Katrina. However, they slowly started to build back up over the years.
Joining Nexstar was something that Neil and Keefe had discussed for years, but they’d been hesitant to pull the trigger. However, in 2018, they finally took the plunge. Things changed rapidly for the better. With coaches and mentorship along with training and support, Keefe’s started to elevate to the next level.
Keefe’s has enjoyed exponential growth since joining Nexstar. Before joining, they were simply approaching things day by day. Nexstar helped them develop a plan for growth, and encouraged Neil to become a General Manager. In 2019, Neil became GM, hired a service manager, an install manager, and now there are 8 managers and 100 employees at Keefe’s. They continue to grow every day, and Keefe’s is projected at 22MM for 2022 doing 100% residential HVAC and electrical.
What really ended up clicking for Neil was the realization that success is truly dependent on the people around you. Early on in his career, it was the mentorships that helped him succeed. Nexstar gave Keefe’s the knowledge and support to start growing like crazy. Adding the right people to management was a huge component of that growth. And finally, the employees that work for Keefe’s are essential to the success of the company.
When Neil’s career was young, he lost a lot of good employees not realizing this truth. He cared about them but didn’t do a good enough job of showing that. You can’t do it all on your own and need to rely on the people around you, bringing them up and helping them grow. He wasn’t treating them right and worked them to death. There was no consideration for their quality of life. When Neil came up in the industry, you worked when work was there and were lucky if you had time to go home and spend time with your family or to pursue your hobbies. They were calling techs from their homes at 10pm on a Sunday night. Neil started to wonder, how much is that customer going to bring in over the next 5 years in comparison to the quarter-million dollars that tech is bringing in on his truck every single year?
This style of business is transactional. You’re telling that tech’s family you don’t care about their husband or their father. You’re telling the tech you don’t care about their work/life balance. Times have changed. People want quality of life, and with the difficulty in finding good skilled labor, the leverage has certainly shifted. Now, Keefe’s has removed on-calls completely. They work 5-day weeks with weekends off. It was a difficult sell at first, but after a year of no on-calls, employee morale and retention is at an all-time high. In fact, people from other companies are being attracted because of the 5-day work weeks, no on-call, and numerous other benefits they provide for their team members. Neil loves to ask new hires where they want to be in 5 years, and then help them get there. It’s his passion to mentor them and help them get that first home, or take that dream vacation, or just earn a good living and have a great quality of life.
This shift in focus towards the people is one of the driving factors behind
Keefe’s Institute of Technical Training (K.I.T.T.). Along with solving recruitment issues, K.I.T.T. is a school that brings people into the trades debt-free and helps them grow.
Neil and Keefe had the plan to build a school for several years, slowly building the facility in their warehouse. They finally found the right trainer and pulled the trigger. K.I.T.T. had its first class of graduates in December 2021! Of 10 students, 8 are on the service side, and 2 are on the install side. They hire new employees and recruit for K.I.T.T. not based on skill, but on personality. Keefe’s wants good people and is willing to teach them the trades no matter how much or how little experience they have. There are lots of great techs out there, but it’s harder to teach someone how to talk to people and be a great person!
There’s a mix of candidates ranging from younger men and women who don’t want to go the traditional route of college and graduate in debt with no job to people in their mid-life stage looking for a better career. Using tools such as the Color Code test, Keefe’s filters out the right candidates based on who they are as people. Best of all, Neil points out you don’t have to be some huge organization to do this, either. They started K.I.T.T. in their warehouse, and are by no means the biggest trades company around – but they’re doing the right things, focusing on the people, and continuing to grow.
Keefe’s was awarded Top Work Places of 2021 and continues to have a huge focus on its culture. A big part of that culture is focusing inwards on the team, and an equally important part is focusing outward on their community. They do multiple food drives each year and are involved with programs such as Toys for Tots, Lennox Feel the Love, and other local organizations. Neil believes you have to be a part of your community, not just live or work in it. It’s good for the company, too, as it helps nurture that culture.
The next K.I.T.T. class is already in session, and Neil and his team continue to look toward bringing on more great people and cultivating the relationships they already have. The focus on people is paying off in spades, with Keefe’s showing an 80% year-over-year increase from last. Growing your business is about a lot of things. It’s operations, financials, mentorships, and plenty of other details. But don’t forget that at its core, it’s all about the people.