All Industries, Management

Craig Elliott Goes From ‘An Awareness’ To A Diverse, Thriving HVAC Company

Craig Elliott
February 28th, 2021
9 Min Read

Craig Elliott started Nice Heating & Air in 2011 with only a pickup truck to his name. Ten years later, Elliott has 30 staff members and 20 trucks. Working out of Springfield, Va., the company is targeting $7 million in business in 2021. Elliott is African-American, and in February ServiceTitan wants to recognize the minority owners in the trades. We are proud to share Elliott’s story, in his words: 

An African-American grows up with an awareness. Most people don't use it as a crutch or an excuse, but in the Black experience it tends to always be there.

When I was younger in the trade, I had the long hair, the dreadlocks down my back. I had tattoos all up my arms. I'm 6 feet tall, and I was about 250 pounds. I had the awareness: I'm a big Black guy coming in people's houses. It just meant that I had to overcome what I felt was a potential roadblock because of the way people would perceive me.

I kind of understood where the narratives and feelings came from. I didn't agree with them, but I understood. People didn't have experiences with certain cultures. We're human. We all do it.

I just took care to try to show my customers I was more than what I looked like.

There was always a little apprehension when they opened the door. You see the eyes widen a little bit, you see the body tense up a little bit. So when I recognized that, I knew what it was. All I did was just try to be super authentic.

Back then when I pulled up to a house, I had a thought process, a little system. I rubbed my hands together and thought about the ways I was going to help this person. I'm just looking for ways to leave you better than I found you.

That trash can on the curb? One of the techs is going to bring it up for you. The newspaper right there on the ground? I’m picking it up and bringing it in for you. ‘How's the home? Is it comfortable?’ And then after we warm up we're talking about how this bedroom is hot, Susie's got allergies, kid’s going to college next week. We really open up. For me it was natural because my motive was always to help people.

I read Zig Ziglar early: ‘You can have everything in life that you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.’ That’s one of my favorite quotes. As long as I do what I normally do, that's going to break down the preconceived notions. And almost 100% of the time it did. I loved it when it did.

I think it's unfortunate that you have to be aware of the color of your skin and how people might perceive you because of it. But I do value that experience because it helped me work with people and get them past those ways of thinking. I felt like I was someone who could help break down those barriers because I was the typical, young, big black guy—the one you'd be scared of walking down the alley at night.

I could show people that there's more than meets the eye; skin color is just what meets the eye.

By the time I decided to start my company, I had worked for three different companies. I had my master’s license. I got a NATE Top Tech award in 2009. I had mastered boilers, oil, electronics, everything in the trade, and I was making about 30 bucks an hour. I was at a good company, a real good company.

We had a meeting one day and the company said it made a decision that it was not going to be paying more than $30 an hour to anyone. Me and the Black fellow sitting next to me were the only ones making $30 an hour. I never thought that the decision was because of race; I thought it was a business decision. But you couldn't help but think about it. The people I worked for were good people, but it was interesting.

I had a new child on the way, had recently purchased a home, had a fiancée. The reason I started a company wasn't for any of that. It was because I wanted to make something where people weren't limited for any reason. I wanted an organization where there is unlimited potential. I was able to build that.

We have a very diverse mix. I love different cultures. Everyone brings something different to the table from different backgrounds. It's something that I think about. I'm always looking for the best people, but I'm aware that the best people might not be in a typical pool you would look at because of whatever limiting beliefs. I don't want to make that mistake of missing excellence because of my own preconceived notions.

I think that's one of the things that serves us the most. Different people, different ideas, different ways of thinking. I have to be hyper aware of it, not just to do it, to do it for the best interest of the company and making sure I'm not missing out on opportunities.

It has been very, very profound for me to be able to grow the company from nothing. A young Black man with no college degree. I'm not supposed to be here, but I had a good head on my shoulders thanks to my mom, Janice Cotton, may she rest in peace. She passed from lung cancer a couple of years ago.

She was born in Baltimore. Poverty stricken. Her mother unfortunately was on drugs. Dad was out of the house. Grandma ended up raising her. She had three siblings, so she was always the leader of the family. She was just resilient and persistent. She started at AT&T as a secretary and just worked her way up to one of the top salespeople in the company and moved us to Virginia to give us a better life.

I used to complain. But now as an adult, I realized she was doing what she had to do for her boy. To have that in my life and experience and see it firsthand in retrospect has been very powerful.

That helped condition me to think that whatever it is I put my mind to, I can get it done. As a young adult, I dug pretty deep into a lot of self-help and self-improvement; I was trying to figure out how to get to the next level and why I was stuck. I learned from books like “Think and Grow Rich” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” And I started recognizing things that I learned from Mom, and things that worked, and things I stumbled into that worked.

I went to a high school in Maryland that was 99% black. That flipped when I moved to Virginia my sophomore year. It was almost all white with a couple black kids, some Asians and some Indians.

That was great for me. I got to experience the black culture in depth as I was growing up. But then I was  in this situation where I had to learn and understand different people if I wanted to make connections, and that was very powerful because I had my own preconceived notions.

Nowadays people are more curious and interested. For me, it was almost forced.

I want people to know that there is opportunity out there. It's not always easy. But there should be no excuse. We're talking now, discussing race and diversity.

Black people were brought up to understand certain things. You're in the store, don't put your hands in your pocket; someone might think the young Black man is stealing. It was ingrained early that you have to move a certain way in the world. It is unfortunate that because of the color of the skin that that happened, but it's never bothered me. It's never been a hindrance.

Now with the conversation increasing, I'm comfortable putting my hands in my pockets when I walk through a store. And that does feel good. It feels good to notice a difference.

I used to be apprehensive about being the face of the company being a Black man. That's changed, and I'm not scared that I might turn someone away before they get to know me. These conversations make my eyes water up because it's stuff we couldn’t talk about.

It’s really only been the last year that I've noticed I feel comfortable using my voice. I can share and not have to worry. I never worried that people would be turned off because of a black owner; I was only worried they didn't get a chance to see that this black owner's a stellar guy in the business and they're going to love him.

About a year ago is when I put my first video on the website where people can ask me anything. That was a turning point. People appreciate that there's a Black owner running this good company. That's a major milestone for me.

I recently joined the national board of ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America). I'm on a subcommittee and we're working on diversity, equity, and inclusion. That's been phenomenal to have these discussions, to be able to really talk about these things. The people on that team respect my opinion and my experience.

I'm engaged with the Boys and Girls Club in our area. I absolutely believe that my story can inspire and that I can influence people. That's the main reason I joined the ACCA. I have a good story.

There’s a talent pool out there that's untapped. I'm hoping the future will bridge that gap and we'll start to see a better mix of culture and experience.

I don't see why it wouldn't happen. The conversation is taking place. There's an openness. There’s major initiatives all over. I think in the future we'll see a lot more diversity, a lot more inclusion, which I think will grow the industry with more talent and more resources.”

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