It’s not a stretch to say that perhaps Rusty Cochran was destined to be successful in the home services industry. Along with his father, Rusty comes from a whole family line of people in the trades. During high school, summer breaks were filled by working with his dad doing air conditioning, and even college was learning AC and refrigeration. Rusty worked his way up from a helper to lead and eventually superintendent at a trades company, and by the age of 25 was running a territory in Southern California. Working on both the commercial and residential side of things throughout his tenure, Rusty would reach general superintendent before it was time to move on.
Rusty and some friends were toying around with the idea of starting a business together, even going as far as putting together some marketing materials for the company, but Rusty would go on to get his own contractor’s license and take the dive himself. Not even 30 years old, Rusty started We Care Plumbing, Heating & Air out of his home in 2000. Like many business owners and past To The Point guests can relate, Rusty’s house was doubling as an office at the start, with his wife holding a baby in one arm and a phone in the other to take calls and oversee the books.
Before long, they had bought a one-acre property with a metal storage facility. Rusty and his wife were living out of a double-wide storage home, and using a single-wide storage home as their office. New construction homes were the majority of their business, and they were growing so fast they quickly doubled in size and then some. In a few short years, We Care saw a jump from roughly 1 million to 5 million. By 2008, We Care had its own building, a 13,000 square feet facility that Rusty jokes at the time was so big he contemplated putting a go-kart track in the back just to fill space. Four years later, they had already outgrown that building and would go on to purchase a large boat showroom in Murrieta to turn into their own facility. Just under 12,000 square feet when they bought it, they would add offices, another warehouse, and all said and done would be over 30,000 square feet. Quite the jump from working out of your home!
From ACCA contractor of the year in 2014 to Dave Lennox Award winner 9 times consecutively, We Care has seen incredible growth and success under Rusty’s vision and determination. Still, there was plenty along the way Rusty had to learn and is always excited to share with others who are on the same path.
This success wasn’t without struggles, of course. Like any small business owner, especially in the trades, there is plenty to learn. It’s never a straight shot to the top, and Rusty had to endure plenty of setbacks and hurdles to get where he is today. We Care was primarily focused on new construction in its early stages, and in 2008, you can guess what happened. The Great Recession was in full swing, and new construction wasn’t exactly the best business to be in. We Care had dropped from the 5MM mark back down to 1MM, and made the switch towards residential service and installation.
Around this time, Rusty took a Lennox class on operations and accountability. They were discussing KPIs and benchmarks, and Rusty wasn’t sure what in the world they were talking about. He met someone in the class that would go on to introduce him to Frank Harrison of General Heating & Air out in Palm Desert. Frank was an open book, and was doing really well for himself with residential heating and cooling. He became Rusty’s mentor, and showed Rusty whatever he wanted to see and taught him quite a bit.
Back then, Rusty and his crew were basically working in sweatpants and backwards caps. After a visit to Frank’s shop, Rusty came back with pictures of the General Heating & Air crew in their pressed uniforms and boots and asked his team “what looks better, us or them?” They went out and got uniforms, and started to implement all of those things Rusty had learned.
From 5 million down to 1 million, Rusty had a long way to go. After making the switch to residential and really focusing on implementing the best practices and using what he had learned, business was booming. It didn’t take long to reach 9 million, then 17, then 23, and now We Care is sitting around 30 million this year and about 160 employees. Rusty is quick to give the credit to his team, noting that they still have the first few employees that ever worked for We Care. He has built a family for sure, but it can’t be understated the impact having a good mentor and the motivation to implement better practices and procedures had on the growth of the company. Each and every day, Rusty is focused on making We Care the best possible company it can be, and it shows.
If you know anything about Southern California, it’s a highly competitive market in the HVAC world. It’s not the only competitive market of course, and the things Rusty has learned and found great success with are universal, so you can implement them into your own business as well.
We Care isn’t trying to be competitive in terms of price. In order to be relevant, you have to provide value for your customers. Being the cheapest option on the block isn’t how you grow! It takes a lot of time and effort, along with constant training and having the right people, but by focusing on ensuring you’re giving your customers the best possible value and experience with your service is how you really make your mark.
Rusty knows that leadership is a key component to growth. In order to nurture his team and propel them forward, driven leadership is what allows the We Care team to communicate the right way and work together to push the company forward. Leadership training is for both current and future leaders in your organization, too. Rusty has found success using the MAP Management System among other programs.
In Southern California, the weather is pretty amazing most of the year. There are plenty of months where staying busy is a real challenge if you aren’t being proactive. You have to find your way into homes, or you’re going to find difficulty simply relying on a few busy months of the year to keep you afloat. Rusty’s team is always on the phones, and is always following up on leads. Even if a lead is a few years old, it’s not dead until you’re asked to stop calling. Maintenance agreements are a key focus, as it’s what really allows you to fill up those slower months.
If you aren’t considering things from the perspective of your customers, how can you truly provide the best value? Rusty has gone as far as laying out his customer experience journey step-by-step on a white board. Make sure that your services are as convenient as possible, keeping in mind potential hurdles and roadblocks that can detract from your customer experience.
Perhaps most importantly of all, you can’t be complacent. Even when things are going well, you have to be looking for how you can improve. That means always seeking out more knowledge that you can use to propel yourself forward. We Care is a member of Nexstar, Service Roundtable, and ACCA, and is always sending techs, comfort advisors, sales managers, and leaderships out to training. Rusty routinely visits other shops, and has others visit his shop to share knowledge in both directions.
It’s probably no surprise, but you’re going to ultimately be the sum of your parts. You have to make sure you have the best people on your team, and those who share the same mindset as what you want in your company. Surrounding yourself with more successful people is how you’re going to grow, and that’s not just those within your organization.
When asked if he could go back in time and give his younger self some advice, Rusty replied with “sell it for more than it costs!” Rusty was an installer in his early days, and had to learn the business and financial side of things. He stresses the importance of understanding your P&L statements, your balance sheets, and looking at more than just your revenue. Know your numbers, and be sure you’re comparing them month to month and year to year. If you are the owner, you have to have an intimate understanding of your metrics, KPIs, and benchmarks. For some, this may simply be starting off by hiring a great accountant and implementing a few simple KPIs.
Rusty is always happy to help, and loves to share what he’s learned with other contractors. He also loves learning from others! It doesn’t matter what size you are, there is probably something you’re doing better than the next guy, and something you can take away from someone else to better your own business. It’s all about being willing to ask for help, and then asking the right questions. If you’d like to contact Rusty, you can find him on LinkedIn, or shoot him an email at [email protected].