Play it Cool
When Air & Energy moved into its new headquarters in downtown Bradenton in September 2015, “it was almost like a coming out for us,” says Stewart Moon Jr., the company's vice president.
“We were kind of always looked at as an underdog company, that 'small company out on the island,'” adds Moon.
But the move downtown marked something of a turning point. It served as proof of how far the Moons had already taken the firm and laid the groundwork for even more expansion.
“It's like we grew into our dream,” says company president Trudy Moon, Stewart Moon Jr.'s mom. “We kept thinking we would be this, and then all of a sudden we are this. And now we're thinking, where do we go next?”
Boredom first led Trudy and Stewart Moon Sr. to buy the company. They'd both retired early and moved to area from Toronto. After spending some time boating and having fun, they sought something else to do.
They'd never worked in the air-conditioning business before.
“We were both in commercial real estate and development previously,” says Trudy Moon. “Everyone thought we were going to come in and fire everybody and hire our Canadian friends. And I remember walking in and saying, 'Sit; stay. We have no idea what we're doing.'”
That changed after Stewart Moon Sr. got his HVAC license and learned the technical side of the business. Trudy Moon handled marketing. And over the years, they grew the company little by little.
“We've always compared ourselves to the tortoise and the hare, and we are the tortoise,” says Trudy Moon, who declines to share revenue or growth statistics. “We started slow and we just kept nudging up. We didn't go and buy big plats of land or take on big industrial contracts. We just did one house at a time. That's a slow growth, but it's steady and it's secure.”
That same slow-and-steady attitude has been the rule for almost every move the business has made. The Moons only expanded into plumbing and electrical 10 years ago—because customers asked for it.
“We started with a little electrical arm and a little plumbing arm that just did our customers,” says Trudy Moon. “We weren't out there trying to beat up the big plumbing companies. We did just enough so that Mrs. Jones didn't have to go to someone else. And now it's grown, which is nice.”
A focus on serving homeowners rather than big commercial clients or homebuilders helped Air & Energy ride out the recession. “We never had all our eggs in one basket, where if you lose a contract you can lose a lot of business,” says Trudy Moon. “When building stopped, we didn't. We never changed one thing for our employees; we never cut anybody or took away benefits. We were actually growing during the recession.”
And while the company hopes to keep growing in the future, it won't do that by expanding to other parts of the region or state. “Our market is Manatee County on purpose,” says Stewart Moon Jr., who joined the family business about seven years ago. “We've decided on saturation over geographic expansion, and that's how we're growing.”
The Bradenton headquarters helps Air & Energy better serve its Manatee County clientele. Before, technicians leaving the Anna Maria Island office to reach customers in Lakewood Ranch, for example, would be at the mercy of seasonal traffic and drawbridge openings. Now, the company is strategically located near State Road 70, U.S. 41 and U.S. 301. “We're right between the arteries of the entire county, so we can respond anywhere in the county within 20 minutes,” says Stewart Moon Jr. It still keeps a team of technicians at the original Anna Maria location as well to handle island-based service.
The company built out the space with a focus on efficiency. A ring of offices surrounds a big open area. “You can hear every single conversation in the entire company,” says Stewart Moon Jr. “That was a huge part of it, to be entrenched in the day-to-day activities much more.”
The warehouse space is designed specifically for Air & Energy's needs. Before the move, equipment had to be stored outside because there wasn't enough room. A lack of parking meant a complicated staging process to load trucks each morning for jobs.
“Our organization and logistics all make much more sense now,” says Stewart Moon Jr. “We get a load in half the time it took us to load out on Anna Maria. All of a sudden, we're efficient.”
And there's still plenty of room for expansion. A building at the front of the property is just being used for truck storage at this point. And the company also owns an adjacent one-acre lot.
Ensuring the business has the necessary employees to grow is a big focus for the Moons. Like many others involved in the trades locally, finding staff is often a challenge. So they take a twofold approach, working to keep valued employees happy and helping to mold the employees of tomorrow.
“We have worked ridiculously hard to attract, retain and continuously train our people,” says Stewart Moon Jr. “A lot of other companies play games with their pay or their benefits. We don't do any of that. It's so much easier to be straightforward, upfront and honest and to set expectations.”
The Moons know that their employees drive the company's success. “My tech is the face of my company when he's in your home,” says Stewart Moon Jr. “He might see 10 customers a day, and that is the only point of contact those customers have with Air & Energy. If it's not a perfect experience, that customer doesn't come back. It is in my best interest that that guy is out there happier than hell, smiling and joking and having fun with the customer.”
To find new employees, the company helps raise money for scholarships and talks with students and advises on curriculum at Manatee Technical College. This works to inform students of opportunities in air conditioning and ensure that they're properly prepared to work in the field.
“They work with instructors, look at what they're currently teaching, and talk about trends in the industry,” says Doug Wagner, executive director of adult, career and technical education for the Manatee County School District and former director of Manatee Technical College. “So when our students graduate, they're ready to meet the demands of the current workforce. It helps reinforce the reason why our students are in the HVAC program when they can hear from businesses in the industry saying we need techs.”
Stewart Moon Jr., 28, essentially grew up in the business. “He's done every job in this company — sweeping the floors, filing, copying,” says Trudy Moon.
He officially came on board around the time his father retired for health reasons, about seven years ago, when his mother stepped up to lead the company. It took about three years for him to fully understand the ins and outs of the company enough to lead it — which he'll do one day when Trudy Moon retires. (She's working on her exit plan.)
“I came into it immediately after college and was walking into a very well-established company with long-term employees and two very strong, involved parents,” says the younger Moon. “It took a lot of time just learning and listening and watching, making mistakes and getting out in the field.”
Employees had to adjust, too. “He had to earn everyone's respect,” says Trudy Moon. “You can't just come in and be the boss.”
The elder Moon also had to learn to let go as her son got the hang of things more. “There may have been decisions he made I wasn't really keen on, because it wasn't the way I would do it,” she says. “At the beginning, I would correct him. But then he got stronger, and as he grew and got stronger I trusted him. This is my livelihood, too, so I had to feel OK.”
Stewart Moon Jr. is already continuing his parents' tradition of community involvement, both at a personal level and as a company. Air & Energy has made donations to organizations like the Salvation Army Manatee County and Easter Seals of Southwest Florida, and the Moons have held leadership positions with the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.
Mother and son also say adding additional services is a possibility. For example, they see opportunities for growth in home automation and networking devices, a burgeoning trend.
“There's going to be a huge transition,” says Stewart Moon Jr. “No longer is the industry stuck in the dark ages. There's going to be an amazing opportunity for the companies that are progressive to come out ahead. And that's where we will absolutely be at the head of that curve.”