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Focus on future drives TBS: staying ahead of the market created 23 years of success

Focus on future drives TBS: staying ahead of the market created 23 years of success for TBS in temperature control and building automation. Most recently, it led to a U-turn on service and maintenance, affiliation with a key union-contractor team , and TABB certificationContractor Gerald Jannicelli of Technical Building Services, Inc. (Ballston Spa, N.Y.) always has a game plan. And the plans usually work! But sometimes, the market throws him a curve ball.

That's when Jannicelli adjusts. He's been in business for 23 years because, when it's time for a change--he can really adjust!

In 1999, after 18 years as a non-union contractor (who was active in the non-union umbrella group, the Associated Builders & Contractors), TBS began to study the benefits of going union. In 2000, it signed on as a member of SMACNA, the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association.

TBS includes among its employees 40 to 45 members of SMWIA Local Union 83 and 15 to 20 more installers who are members of IBEW. SMWIA = Sheet Metal Workers International Association; IBEW = International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"Becoming a TABB contractor was one big reason we became a SMWIA employer and joined SMACNA," he says. "But I would say the biggest driver for us was the educational and marketing efforts that the International is making. It's especially important that SMWIA is cooperating in these efforts with SMACNA.

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"And, of course, there is the training that the union and contractors provide."

Big changes are nothing new at TBS. Shortly after the company's 1981 founding, close to 100% of its revenues came from maintenance contracts and service calls. Jannicelli, a former Honeywell employee, and his two founding partners specialized in servicing equipment from a variety of key vendors.

Over time, things changed. The two partners departed; one retired, the other started a performance contracting company. And TBS mutated.

"After we became the area Barber Colman representative in 1988, we began doing more Bid & Spec work, and grew in that area," Jannicelli remembers. "You might say that project work provided more instant gratification." It was gratifying enough so that, by the late 1990s, close to 75% of TBS sales came from installation.

"The service department was, perhaps, neglected in that period. But a few years ago I saw that the construction market here might start to shrink. We went back to our service roots, and now probably 40% of our revenues come from service. About 35 of our 70 trucks are dedicated to service."

As you probably have detected, Jannicelli is tuned in. His pursuit of TABB certification for TBS and its workers is strategic, in that it equips the company with skills and status to spur further growth (see accompanying story).

TABB = the Testing, Adjusting, and Balancing Bureau.

Adding services & suppliers

An "inventory" of the special knowledge and skills that TBS has added over the years is impressive in its breadth and depth. Here's an overview:

* temperature control, mechanical maintenance, and HVAC services;

* the only center in the New York capitol area that's designed specifically for building automation system training;

* an independent field office, serving upstate New York, for temperature control manufacturer, Invensys Building Systems

* experience with building automation protocols and systems such as BACnet, Niagara's Tridium, Invensys Network 8000, and LonWorks;

* systems integration work;

* energy management, CCTV, access control, lighting retrofits and DDC systems;

* variable frequency drives; and

* support for products from Honeywell, Siemens, Easylite, Staefa, and the manufacturers mentioned above.

Additional details can be found at www.tbscontrols.com.

With half the TBS workforce doing field work, what does the other half do? "We do virtual manufacturing here," Jannicelli says. "There are people involved in application engineering, software programming. Some are the graphics specialists that create the background screens for the automation systems that we install.

"Were you to break down our business, you'd find that we deliver solutions to our customers via the products and services we represent."

Our Mission statement is" To earn the reputation of being the organization that owners, contractors, and consultants depend on regarding the systems and equipment that operate in a building".

Keys to success

"You must be fleet on your feet in technology as well," he observes. "In just the past five years, the control industry has moved to TCP/IP. Our workers have to know how to troubleshoot Ethernet networks and use Internet protocols.

"That's why we've always emphasized training here. Just last week, we had a one-week immersion course for field people in the Niagara Frameworks and LonWorks protocols. It's probably unusual for a technology-oriented company like ours to offer training in such things to tradespeople--but it continues to pay off for us."

TBS is primarily a commercial contractor. The company's employees joke that it is a "cradle to grave" service company--doing work on K-12 schools as well as nursing homes. Other work for institutional customers takes the company to prisons and hospitals.

Jannicelli thinks the two non-technical changes in the past four years--union affiliation and refocusing on service work--provide TBS a firm footing with which to grow.

"For a company such as ours, service work is the only real value the business has," he claims. "You can't sell a contracting company. But the work we do in service has real value. Our service business has more than 300 regular customers."

How did those customers react when TBS brought itself under the union banner? "Certainly it was a surprise to some, especially as we had been active with ABC," he remembers. "But most did not care." TBS heard from a few customers, with those phone calls amounting to requests for information. In the end, there was no customer turnover.

"This was a management decision--we weren't 'organized'," Jannicelli says. "We felt that, sooner or later, our employees would be under pressure to organize, and we would be pursued. Instead of waiting for that, we did some investigation up front.

"We found both the SMWIA local union here, and the International itself, were adaptive to the needs of our company. They truly understand the specialty nature of the temperature control business. As we've already been interested in training, we were impressed with the union contractor training effort.

"In fact, the local training center just added all annex designed for HVAC service training. It wasn't purposely designed for us, of course, but it will be helpful. We've also helped the SMWIA-SMACNA training effort, with trainers and equipment.

"Going forward, we hope to work with the other union contractors here, in SMACNA, to make the national marketing efforts--such as that represented by HVAC Expertise, and HVACexpertise.com--work for all of us. We also hope to bring NATE certification here, to the training center."

Interesting, isn't it, that in the 2000s, a state-of the-art temperature control contractor chose to focus on service work, retrocommissioning (see accompanying story)--and became a union contractor to do all of it better.

"In the history of TBS, which is approaching 25 years, we've always seemed to fly in the face of our peers," Jannicelli says, "in that we're a knowledge-based business. Now, we've partnered with the union, SMWIA, to deliver that."

Where TABB Fits In The TBS Equation

"Over the past 10 years, the industry has continued to change," says Gerald Jannicelli, owner of Technical Building Services. "We want to stay ahead. When we look at the future, we see retrocommissioning becoming a big part of our business. That's where we're heading with our involvement with TABB."

TABB is the only testing, adjusting, and balancing organization that provides certification to HVAC companies on three levels: The contractor, its supervisors, and the technicians who perform the work. Find out more at www.tabbcertified.org.

Explains Jannicelli: "We are doing a lot of work for performance contractors, many of them ESCOs [energy service companies]. These companies provide projects to end-users based on projected savings. At this point, we've partnered up with about 20 of them."

Performance contractors often provide up-front financing for end-user building improvements in exchange for a satisfactory share of the energy savings produced by the retrofits. To make such investments and guarantees, a performance contractor must know a great deal about an existing building. That information has to come with a high level of certainty.

That need, Jannicelli says, "is a catalyst for our company. And TABB fits in on both ends of a performance contract.