Greg Mericle readily admits he knew little about residential and commercial heating, cooling and plumbing services when he took over as owner and president of Hurlburt Heating & Plumbing in 2014. After 20 years in the auto body industry he didn’t know how to install a furnace, repair a leaky drain pipe or service an air conditioner.
“I asked my accountant wife, ‘Hey, what do you think about selling everything and buying an HVAC/plumbing business?’” Mericle says. “She looked at me like I was an alien.”
Once his wife realized he was serious, the couple looked in earnest for profitable heating and plumbing businesses all over the country before selecting Hurlburt.
“We sold everything, moved to Wisconsin and purchased a business started in 1959 with a longstanding relationship with the community,” Mericle says. “That was my entry into the industry. Sort of trial by fire.”
Mericle’s inexperience with HVAC and plumbing services didn’t matter, he says, because he knew how to provide excellent customer service and how to talk about technology. And he understood how a better software operating system could make everyone’s job easier.
His formula for success appears to work well. In five years, Mericle has doubled the original revenue and size of the staff at the family-owned HVAC plumbing company based in Durand, Wis., just east of Minneapolis near the Minnesota state line.
Mericle credits much of Hurlburt’s recent success to improved communication and operational efficiency gained through technology, employing ServiceTitan’s all-in-one solution software for residential home services, sharing positive Google reviews company-wide to incentivize employees, and allowing the staff to communicate and collaborate in real time on the Slack messaging app.
“When I got here, the company was very old school,” Mericle says “I mean, old school. Everything was on paper. What they called their ‘computer quote program’ was DOS-based (single task system that runs from a hard drive), and it didn’t even keep a check register for you.
“It was sort of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing.”
When Mericle bought the business it employed 16 people, many of whom had worked for Hurlburt for 30 or 40 years.
“I was very open and honest,” he says. “I said, ‘Here’s my background. I know nothing about what you do. I don’t pretend to and I don’t need to, but what I will do is support you in everything you do,’” Mericle says.
“We’ve come a long way in five years, but it wasn’t easy.”
The biggest difference-maker? Mericle says he signed on with ServiceTitan in 2015 and never looked back. We asked Mericle how he uses the software to keep Hurlburt relevant and growing in 2020.
Q: What was the company’s size and revenue when you first acquired the business, and how much has that revenue grown to date?
A: I was employee No. 17, and today we just hired employee No. 35. They were probably doing about $3.5 million a year at the time (of purchase), and our earnings will be more than $7 million this year. So, we’ve basically doubled the company.
Q: Does Hurlburt Heating & Plumbing focus solely on residential service and replacement, or do you also do commercial work for new construction?
A: (We do) very little new construction. During negotiations to buy the company, the previous owners told me they serviced about 80 percent residential customers and 20 percent commercial or new construction. I discovered it was really the other way around, as it turns out, with Hurlburt doing more commercial than residential work.
Some might think, ‘Well, they just weren’t being honest.’ I don’t believe that to be the case at all. These folks are just incredibly honest people. They just didn’t know, because they didn’t have a means to properly track it.
Today, we are probably 85% residential service and changeout, and 15% commercial service and changeout.
Q: As someone with no experience in the industry, what was the most surprising thing you learned when you entered the HVAC and plumbing trades?
A: In general, I was amazed at the lack of quality control and checks, and the lack of quality customer service offered by the average home service provider.
Even at Hurlburt, they thought they were providing awesome service and had all of these checks and balances in place. But they didn’t, and they were in the same boat as all of our competitors. They took customer service for granted. Their approach was, ‘We work on our schedule, not yours. We answer the phone on our schedule, not yours.’
I thought it was just this business at first, but I quickly realized, wow, this is sort of an industry thing. Customer service was an afterthought. They just thought, ‘We’re here to fix stuff. Customer service? That’s not our thing.’ That dynamic was probably the most eye-opening.
Q: What did you do to change the company’s trajectory?
A: It wasn’t easy. You don’t just stop a big boat and turn it around. We had people who had been with the company for 30 or 40 years. It was the culture and I had many sleepless nights. Unfortunately, we did lose some people who just couldn’t get onboard with the changes. It was painful, but it’s what had to be done.
Once we were able to properly communicate our goals for Hurlburt—emphasizing customer service as our No. 1 priority—people got on board with that and we started getting really positive feedback that we shared with everyone in the company. The ‘attaboys’ ramped up among the staff and it was sort of a storm that took off on its own. There was a major shift in the way everybody here looked at things.
Q: How long did the old DOS-based system last once you took over?
A: Before buying the business, I spoke to Ruth King, a well-known consultant in the HVAC industry, and she advised waiting for six months before changing anything. But I just couldn’t stand by and watch the pain go on any longer. We immediately did an exhaustive search for a software solution and found one we thought would work, but it didn’t pan out.
We did everything we could to make the system work, and we asked questions when we couldn’t solve a particular issue. We soon realized, however, that it took a minimum of 24 hours to get a response from the company. You could call and leave a message, but you could never call and get service right when you needed it. Well, when you’re having an issue with your dispatch, your accounting or your entire CMS system, 24 hours doesn’t cut it.
Q: Besides the lag time in customer support, what else did you like or dislike about the first software system you tried?
A: I liked that it was an all-inclusive system, with accounting and dispatch functions built in. The company had been around for awhile and they were willing to come and train us.
After using it for about a year, we disliked how the mobile solution didn’t work well when our technicians were working in an area with questionable cell phone service. That was a big hangup.
There were also promises made for new features that never materialized, and talk about the company being sold.
Q: How did you learn about ServiceTitan, and what sold you on the all-in-one solution software for residential home services?
A: I met Ara (Mahdessian) and Vahe (Kuzoyan), the founders of ServiceTitan, in the fall of 2015 at a trade show in St. Louis. They were all about the tradesmen. They weren’t stuck on telling you why you needed to adapt to their offering. They asked questions, like what can we change or do differently?
They weren’t the typical salespeople we’d run into before with many of the other vendors. They were just two guys wanting to do what they could for the betterment of the contractor. It was that willingness to listen and change ... I thought, ‘If I’m going to hitch my horse to somebody, these are the folks.’
Q: How has the ServiceTitan platform improved Hulbert’s efficiency and streamlined operations?
A: I don’t think a lot of companies fully understand and consider how ServiceTitan is such an inclusive system. One thing we realized was how much time we were spending on all of these manual processes and workarounds … all of that goes away with ServiceTitan.
Our presentations to customers improved right away, and we could make changes to our pricing or descriptions in our digital pricebook whenever needed. The direct access and ease in operating the pricebook in ServiceTitan is just huge.
I also love the automated, scheduled reports—all of which can be customized to your own business. I can see reports for how many new customers we gain each week or how much revenue we bring in by zip code. Our technicians can see their schedule for the day or week, or how much revenue they’ve earned in a given period. That comes in handy when trying to incentivize our guys to meet a certain goal, because it always gamifies it and creates a competitive atmosphere.
We also set up our system so we can answer our own phone calls after hours. We found that’s been a tremendous way for us to grow—when many of our competitors are asleep or transferring calls to a call center. The CSR on call uses either their computer at home or one of our company laptops, and they book the call and dispatch it the same way they do at the office.
So, we give our customers the same great customer service, whether it’s 2 o’clock in the morning or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We couldn’t do that as easily, if at all, with a server-based system back at the office.
Q: What advice would you give other HVAC contractors considering the ServiceTitan software?
A: We’re just so happy with ServiceTitan and the relationships we’ve built there over the years. I don’t know how they do it, but I appreciate that even with more than 1,000 employees they’ve retained their family-like approach to do whatever it takes to care for the customer. That lines up perfectly with the way we do business.
There is so much to ServiceTitan. You can utilize the bare minimum, or you can put somebody in charge of it and really reap the maximum benefits. The possibilities are really endless. It’s a huge platform with a lot of levers to pull, and all of them can move your company forward.
ServiceTitan is a comprehensive HVAC business software solution built specifically to help service companies streamline their operations, boost revenue, and achieve growth. Our award-winning, cloud-based platform is trusted by 100,000+ contractors across the country.
Ready to learn more about what ServiceTitan can do for your business? Contact our team to schedule a demo today.