BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A name that is generic by nature, says a ton about the uniqueness of the product of a man who still does business the old-fashioned way.
Tom Schulz has been working in the heating and air conditioning business since he was 12 years old cleaning offices in his dad’s heating and air conditioning business in Des Moines.
Now Schulz has one of the most recognizable names in the business in southeast Iowa and certainly has the most unique name – Your Heat and Air Guy. It’s a name he came up with sitting one night trying to put a name to the face.
“I was just sitting up one night thinking of possible names and I thought, you know these people are sitting at gas stations and coffee shops in the morning and when their furnace goes down they don’t say, ‘My furnace broke down last night and I had to call ABC company to come out and fix it.’ They say, ‘My furnace broke down last night and I had to call my heat and air guy’,” Schulz said.
Now those tan trucks can be seen running on one highway or another throughout Lee and Des Moines counties and even into the Hancock County market.
Schulz said the heart of his business will always be Fort Madison, and the growth really has been more of a word-of-mouth marketing.
He started in the Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning business in his father’s shop eventually moving into warehousing and then field calls before he even had a driver’s license. Then he moved to Florida from Des Moines after a stint in the reserves beginning 1981 and opened his own business in Sarasota, Florida.
The business was eventually purchased by a larger company and Schulz managed those operations for an absentee owner.
“We didn’t talk very much but he was a great guy. I sent him reports and money and he let me run the operations,” Schulz said.
But that company was swallowed by a larger corporation run by a younger accountant.
“He didn’t know his butt from a banjo. I was in Fort Madison for my late grandmother’s 90 birthday and got a call from the office. I was so red-faced when I got off the phone, I told my wife I’m done. I remember it very clearly, I was standing outside Aldi’s here and saw a real estate office. I told Joanne I was going over to see if they had any commercial properties for sale.”
He said that was on a Thursday and the couple flew back to Florida on Monday and by the following Thursday had a building at 723 Avenue G where Schulz set up shop in the back.
“We pretty much kept it close to home at first. Our growth has been more word of mouth. The first year I was here we did a trade show in Burlington and sold about 13 systems up there after that, but Fort Madison is, and will continue to be, the heart of our operation. It’s my home.”
Schulz said he’s seen a reduction in the quality of service of late and more contractors are moving to larger-scale jobs leaving a void in the market.
“The level of service has gone up in this town and the price has gone down and I think we’re solely responsible for that,” he said.
“When we looked at starting a business here I went through town and talked with people. And almost to a person they said we don’t need another heating and cooling company, we have plenty. I asked them if they were happy with the service they were getting and it was common to hear, ‘well they don’t always show up when they say they will or you can’t get anyone on the phone’ , and I thought, you know, this is exactly the place to start this business.”
He said the cost of media marketing was also a big reason. “It’s better here and those are big costs. In larger communities those costs can be stifling.”
But he said focusing on training and staying up on the latest technologies in the industry has kept his service at peak levels, all the while being able to hold prices down.
“One way we are able to keep our prices in line is we negotiate like we’re a multi-million dollar company even though we’re not.”
Schulz has grown to a staff of three that includes his father, Jerry.
He says he’s take on the business is that he will never become a rich man monetarily, but the people he comes into contact with make his life richer.
“It’s the people. I love being able to help people,” he said. “When Joanne had her restaurant downtown, she would say I don’t miss the restaurant one bit – she hated it, but she loved the people she got to interract with all the time.
Joanne ran businesses out of the front of 723 Avenue G called Angel Scent and then the RiverRat Restaurant but they closed when she ran up against some health issues.
“I make a fair profit,” he said. “I will never be a rich man in this industry, but I sleep well every night when I go home to bed.”
“When I go about this business I want everybody to understand, when I make a recommendation to a customer, its the same recommendation I would make to my mother and the day I can’t say that will be my last day. I guess, in short, we want to be the standard by which others are measured.”