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Cool Opportunity

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 9:30 a.m. April 29, 2011
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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John Barbour believes the economy has stabilized enough to embark on an expansion plan for his air conditioning firm, which targets the time-share and resort industry.

In the process, Barbour, president of Sarasota-based Union Mechanical, hopes to surpass $1 million in annual revenues in 2011. The mark would be a considerable accomplishment, considering the fragmented and competitive air conditioning service industry on the Gulf Coast has few giants and lots of small players. Union Mechanical had $700,000 in 2010 revenues.

Barbour will rely on the company's niche in doing work for time-share complexes, condo buildings and resort properties in his pursuit. He considers that approach Union Mechanical's primary asset, other than his employees. While competitors will take jobs in those areas, Barbour says “there really aren't any other companies out there who do just what we do.”

Barbour will trumpet that fact in the next few months. The six-employee company, with clients and offices in Sarasota and Fort Myers, recently expanded to Pinellas County. The firm also added electrical contracting to its services.

Despite an economy that decimated the industry, Union Mechanical has grown revenues 6% to 10% a year from 2008 through 2010, when it grew 15%. The 2010 bump stemmed from two projects on Captiva Island, says Barbour, where the company spent a few weeks changing out air conditioning systems in two large resorts.

With the new services and a third location, however, Barbour projects significantly more sustainable growth in 2011, including revenue growth of at least 30%. Barbour says he initially considered a Tampa area expansion in 2006, but he spent most of the past three years in survival mode.

And that fact, that Union Mechanical survived, is partially why Barbour wants to grow now. “As the economy went bad, a lot of competitors dissipated,” Barbour says. “They just kind of starved out.”

In 2010 Barbour discovered even more firms in Pinellas County collapsed, companies that competed for resort work with Union Mechanical. That pushed Barbour to actually expand, rather than just think about it.

Barbour hired a marketing firm to promote the expansion. The firm, Lakewood Ranch-based Aker Marketing, put together an extensive ad campaign that includes radio, Internet, newspaper, direct mail and email components.

Barbour took over the air conditioning business from his father in 1998, when it was based on Sanibel Island and called Tropical Resort Services.

Barbour moved the company to Sarasota, where he expanded to condominium buildings, in addition to time-shares and resorts. He targeted condo associations on Siesta Key and Longboat Key. Barbour changed the name of the firm to Union Mechanical in 2006 to differentiate the firm in a crowded marketplace.

What Barbour found the first few years in Sarasota, though, were new customers skeptical of change. So business was slow in the early going. Says Barbour: “We muddled along.”

Barbour says now he's more prepared for that challenge in a new market, with the move to Pinellas County. He hopes the new materials produced by Aker will show potential customers that Union Mechanical isn't a fly-by-night operation.

“We've got a lot of things going on,” to reach new customers, says Barbour. “Everyone is wary of hiring new people in the service industry.”


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