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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 8, 2016 4 years ago

Bring it home

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If United Mechanical can install and service air conditioning in large commercial buildings, it reasons it can do the same in your home.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

For nearly three decades, United Mechanical has had a hand in many of the region's top commercial construction projects.

The Fort Myers-based specializes in heating, air conditioning and plumbing for large commercial buildings. Most recently, the firm participated in the construction of Landmark Hospital in Naples and the expansion at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

With 160 employees, United Mechanical has worked with large commercial contractors such as DeAngelis Diamond Construction and Skanska. It survived the downturn because of its expertise in health care facilities, one of the few industries that continued building through the recession.

But United Mechanical didn't escape unscathed. Like the rest of the construction industry, it had to shrink staff and manage through some difficult years at the turn of the decade. “In 2010, we were looking for other opportunities to grow our business,” says Michael Clark, president and owner of United Mechanical.

Clark reasoned that the expertise in air conditioning could translate to residential service, though he acknowledges that it's an unusual move because commercial contractors rarely offer residential services. “We have the technical ability,” says Clark, who says that the residential market is large enough for another player.

To help him expand into the residential arena, Clark joined a group called Nexstar Network. It's an organization of contractors from around the country who share best practices for various parts of their business, from how to manage call centers, to customer service, marketing and training. The peer networking is limited to two companies for each region and they can't be competitors.

After mulling the idea for several years, Clark recently launched United Mechanical's residential division. It's a separate division with its own staff, he says. “My commercial technicians don't work on homes,” he explains.

Clark says the strategy is to help smooth out revenues during the inevitable downturns in the economy. The company's revenues totaled $25 million in 2015, up nearly 20% from 2014.
Clark estimates the residential division could post annual revenues of $5 million to $10 million. “It might take five or 10 years to get there,” he smiles. “The first step is getting the name recognition.”

Started in 1987 by Harvey Clark, who sold to brother Michael, United Mechanical has grown without incurring debt. “We never had an unprofitable year,” Clark smiles.

Clark says he intends to take the same approach to the residential division, growing it slowly. It currently employs five technicians, each with a van, and Clark says he may hire another five or 10 people depending on the volume of work. “I don't want to have 10 guys standing there not working,” he says.

Finding good people is a challenge, particularly those who are personable with customers inside their homes. That's especially true because they have to pass background checks that root out anyone with a criminal past, driving infractions and drug use. “We can always train the technical side of it,” Clark says.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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