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Cool Growth

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  • | 10:00 a.m. May 23, 2014
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Why go to college when you can earn six figures now?

Consider Louis Bruno, a 25-year-old entrepreneur whose air-conditioning company zoomed from $71,000 in sales in his first month in business in December 2012 to $2.4 million last year and projected revenues of $9 million this year.

With the backing of tomato magnate Larry Lipman, Bonita Springs-based Bruno Air Conditioning has 54 employees from Orlando to Tampa and Marco Island.

Bruno was an International Baccalaureate student and top high school baseball player at Fort Myers High in 2006. But in the back of his mind he always wanted to run his own business.

“My biggest issue with school was being told what to do,” says Bruno. A personality test confirmed his temperament, he says.

While in high school, he worked part time as a helper for a small air-conditioning company in Fort Myers. Although he had a scholarship to go to college, he decided in 2007 school wasn't for him. “My first full year I made six figures,” he explains.

In September 2012, the ambitious Bruno started his own air-conditioning company, Bruno Air Conditioning, working from his home. “I had saved up $30,000,” he says.

More important than money, Bruno established an advisory board consisting of leading business executives and entrepreneurs from the Fort Myers and Naples area. Among those was Larry Lipman, the chairman of agribusiness giant Lipman Produce, whom he had met at a friend's birthday party.

Instead of partying with people his age, Bruno sought advice from Lipman about business. “I wasn't on the same page as many of my friends,” he says.

Mentors and advisers gave Bruno this advice: “Stay in the garage as long as you can, don't give up control and don't borrow,” Bruno recalls. Bruno had planned to generate $400,000 in revenues in the first year, but by the fourth month he had notched $600,000 in sales.

“I started lean,” says Bruno. All the company's 48 trucks are like mobile workshops, equipped with iPads and inventory. Phone representatives dispatch a technician as soon as they receive a call from a customer.

Speed is key to winning new business away from competitors, Bruno says. The company offers a “be cool in two hours” guarantee from the minute a customer calls. “We're going to be there sooner than the others,” Bruno says. If technicians don't have the parts they need in the truck to fix the problem, they leave a portable air-conditioning unit so the customer has some cool air.

Bruno's technicians aren't paid on commissions, so they won't try to sell you a system you don't need. Instead, they're rewarded based on customer surveys. Bruno says some of the best technicians come from the hospitality business because they understand customer service better.

About 75% of customers who call Bruno also decide to buy a service agreement that costs $70 a year. So far, Bruno has sold about 3,700 service agreements. Such service contracts are each worth $12,000 over a 10-year period because air-conditioning systems last about a decade, he estimates.

Bruno says he uses the Internet to find new residential customers, though he won't say exactly how. He also uses more traditional marketing such as direct-mail cards. “We send 40,000 pieces a month,” he says.

Meanwhile, Bruno is also expanding into the commercial business. Because commercial customers are slower to pay than residential ones, Bruno needed to be able to cover cash flows because commercial customers take 30 days or longer to pay (residential customers usually pay right away).

That's part of the reason he sold a minority interest in Bruno Air Conditioning to Lipman in September. “Commercial will be our business,” Bruno forecasts. Although residential is 80% of Bruno's business now, it may shrink to as little 10% within 10 years as the company grows its commercial side. Bruno says he's landed business with companies that provide repair services to large national retailers in cities such as Orlando and Tampa, though he's reluctant to share more details for competitive reasons.

To accommodate future growth, Bruno is expanding into a 17,000-square-foot building in Bonita Springs. He expects the commercial business to take him out of state, too. “We're going to keep moving north,” he says.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss


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