Management • Operations • Technician Tips • Business Tips • 72 minutes

Marine-turned-GM: Culture, Communication Keys to Trade Success

January 26, 2021

Episode Overview

“A good culture is where you are consistent in what you do, and you hold people accountable for what you expect them to do.”

— Eric Knaak

After leaving the U.S. Marine Corps, Eric Knaak spent the next 31 years working his way up the ladder at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning. Today, he’s Executive Vice President and General Manager for a mega-company that has close to 300 trucks on the road serving Western and Central New York. Knaak discusses hiring veterans, the role of communication in company culture, and his trip to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the home trades industry.

 Here are Eric Knaak’s top management tips for the trades:

Veterans are a good fit for the trades.

Knaak notes that when you’re in the military you go through training and schooling to help determine your skill set. The trades are a natural transition after leaving military service. “It’s not the same as the military, but veterans are used to difficult hours, things always changing and having to be ready to pivot at a moment’s notice,” he says. 

Building your own technical school is the best way to find new employees.

Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning recently opened the Isaac Technical and Education Center. The 30,000-square-foot ITEC is near the company headquarters and has 10,000 square feet of classrooms and 20,000 square feet of lab space. “We can train people in everything we do,” Knaak says. “We train, educate, develop and help bring people into the trades.”

“Home performance” should be on your radar. 

Rather than installing or fixing parts of the house, Knaak says more focus should be on the overall “home performance” of a residence or a facility. Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning has a group of auditors who can inspect a home with a long checklist. “It covers electrical conservation, water conservation, HVAC, insulation, windows and a number of things,” Knaak says. The inspection gives homeowners the opportunity to save energy, as well as devise a payment for improvements.

Speak up if it’s time to switch jobs, responsibilities. 

Knaak says employees need not fear having a conversation with a boss about switching jobs—especially within the company. “It’s your career, and you should enjoy what you’re doing,” he says. “If you don’t, it can impact those around you. So, advocate for yourself. Don’t assume there aren’t other opportunities. Sit down with your manager and find out.” 

Start new initiatives by picking a leader for the project. 

Knaak says having a “champion” for a project has always been the key at Isaac to moving an initiative forward. “Before you decide to implement a new thing—a new branch, a new service, a new division—assign a trusted employee (one who has potential) to be in charge of the planning,” he says.

A consultant can get you over the hump. 

Like many trade companies, Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning was once stuck while trying to get over a financial hump—but their blockage was at the $8 million to $10 million range. Knaak recommends bringing in a consultant, even if your company is smaller. “Bring in somebody else who has a different experience and different expertise,” he says. “Somebody from the outside can shake things up—in a good way.”

Without timely communication, you will fail.

When the COVID crisis began, company owner Ray Isaac updated the entire team with a weekly email. After a few months, as people got accustomed to the age of coronavirus, Knaak says the emails became less frequent. But with the pandemic picking up pace again, the emails are back to coming more often. “It’s about delivering the same message with consistency,” he says. “We want all our offices responding in the same way.”

Keep your company culture consistent. 

“A good culture doesn't mean that everybody gets what they want,” Knaak says. “A good culture is where you are consistent in what you do, and you hold people accountable for what you expect them to do.” Another component: Clearly lay out the expectations of your team. “When people know what to expect and they know they're going to be held accountable, there are no surprises,” he says. “That’s what really throws people off—last-minute surprises and changes that come from a lack of communication.

The federal government can affect the trades. 

In his former role as the chairman of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), Knaak went to Capitol Hill to talk to Congress about issues in the trades. “We talked to Congresspeople and their staffs about state programs to get people into the trades,” he says. “We also talked about getting veterans into the trades. We were just a small push on the flywheel—but if you continue with the message, eventually you make progress.”

Recommend research and reading

The E Myth books, by Michael Gerber

Good to Great, by Jim Collins

Unlocking Us by Brené Brown

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