ABCO: A Lesson on Meeting Change With a Winning Plan

As the New York City metropolitan area expanded rapidly in the decades following World War II, so too did ABCO HVACR Supply + Solutions. The business was founded in 1949 as ABCO Refrigeration Supply Corp. by Jules Gottlieb, a commander of a Navy minesweeper in the Pacific theater during the war. When he returned home, he was determined to build a customer service-oriented, sales-driven wholesale distribution company. With an agile engineer’s intellect and a savvy skill at sales, Gottlieb believed that each and every customer was ABCO’s most important customer. Along with his partner, George Moncher, who joined the organization several years after its founding, ABCO became the dominant New York City-based refrigeration wholesaler distributor.

But what happens to a business when the pace of development slows and the customers’ needs change? It takes more than a rich history and tradition to continue growing and moving a company forward. For ABCO. this time came in the late 1980s as the economy and the region’s growth slowed. ABCO was still successful at what they did, but they were too limited – in both their scope and their geography. When Michael Senter joined Gottlieb, Moncher and Gottlieb’s son, Jon, in 1992, they recognized that ABCO had to evolve and grow if it was going to remain successful.

“Their love of the business and enthusiasm for disciplined engineering and relationship-based sales were contagious, but limited in scope to core refrigeration customers in metro New York,” says Senter, CEO of ABCO, speaking of the Gottliebs and Moncher. “Expansion had not yet reached across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey nor had our talents varied greatly from a focus on refrigeration equipment, parts and materials.”

With the core philosophies of Gottlieb and Moncber firmly intact, ABCO in 1992 began its expansion. The business moved beyond its refrigeration roots into air-conditioning and heating equipment. parts, accessories and knowledge. Today. ABCO is about 600 percent larger than it was in 1992 with 17 full-service facilities and branches serving markets from Boston to Washington, D.C. ABCO also features a narrow aisle, high ceiling, 90,000-square-foot central distribution center in Queens, NY, that provides around-the-clock service to its customers and branches.

It is among the largest distributors of DuPont refrigerants, Mitsubishi Heating and Air Conditioning equipment, Luxaire Heating and Air Conditioning equipment and Mueller copper. ABCO also is a distributor for such traditional refrigeration product lines as Copeland compressors, Bohn equipment, Russell equipment, Tecumseh compressors, as well as walk-in boxes from TAFCO, Crown Tonka and AmeriKooler.

ABCO also recently added a new division — ABCO Engineering Resources — focused primarily on serving the engineering and architecture communities as well as providing sophisticated engineering support to air-conditioning and refrigeration contractors throughout its market. Even as ABCO expanded, however, Senter is quick to point out that great customer service has always remained a hallmark. “We needed to be as dedicated to the requirements and interests of air-conditioning contractors as we were to refrigeration contractors,” he says. “But that expansion of focus had to feature great customer service and technical support or we would fail to establish lasting value among our customers.”

ABCO has continued to earn this trust among its contractor customers in the Northeast by only selling to contractors and working to enhance their capabilities. Senter says ABCO’s philosophy is to provide all of its customers with “opportunities, resources and solutions.” That means having a deep, readily-available and high-quality inventory accessible to customers as well as the means to get its products and equipment to them whenever and wherever they are. ABCO’s staff also plays an integral role in making this happen, and Senter says this includes everyone in the organization: sales account managers, branch managers, application engineers, customer service representatives and counter teams as well as the warehouse teams and drivers.

“We believe that ABCO must be a knowledgeable, resourceful and, therefore, valuable member of each customer’s team,” Senter says. “We try to understand each customer’s individual requirements and each customer’s unique outlook on its business. You would be surprised how many times our customers request a specific delivery driver because they know the individual cares and works hard to provide great customer service.”

Building championship performance takes teamwork, Senter says. When he joined ABCO in 1992, building a great team with high-performing individuals was his very first goal. He notes that the average age of an ABCO employee in 1992 was 63 (he says that now, as a man of 55, he sees 63 as young and vital), but for the organization it meant that there were few younger team members and a lack of strong middle managers. That’s when they began to build the team philosophy. “We urged everyone to measure their performance in terms of the organization’s success, not in terms of anyone person’s achievements.” It’s an outlook that continues to this day. “As we expanded our vision of who we were, we also expanded our vision of what we do.”

Senter lists the “Five C’s of Competitive Management” when he talks about achieving great teamwork: “Calm, Confident, Competent, Credible and Communication. That means calm and analytical to gain the knowledge and understanding of customers, confident in their (and the team’s) abilities, competence through hard work and education, done credibly and with timely and accurate communications. For ABCO, it’s about helping to create solutions rather than merely reacting to problems.

The teamwork approach really shines during difficult economic times. Senter notes. There are fewer opportunities to succeed during recessions. “With this in mind, we must be at our best whenever our customers need us,” he says. ”The only way the distribution channel can achieve championship performance is through teamwork.” Face-to-face meetings with customers are the place to share ideas and develop an understanding of their needs and requirements.

In the crowded and highly competitive Northeast market. ABCO relies on a strong marketing program to reflect these customer-focused values. “We want all of our printed materials and Internet communications to reflect this philosophy. We want our customers to feel dignified and respected when they read our printed and Internet materials or experience our advertisements,” Senter says. ABCO’s product managers and sales account managers work closely with some of the very best advertising agencies in New York City to create materials that are accurate and detailed, yet tell a compelling story about ABCO and its varied strengths.

An integral part of ABCO’s marketing has been the company’s alliance with the Make-A-Wish Foundation®. ABCO’s marketing and product management team worked with its local advertising agency, GROK Advertising, and Luxaire brand managers at Johnson Controls to develop an ad campaign. In 2010, and again last summer, radio advertisements and outdoor advertising at metropolitan New York City commuter railroad stations created awareness of ABCO and Luxaire. Contractors were seen as important, thoughtful and charitable members of each community because Luxaire Heating and Air Conditioning supports the Make-A-Wish Foundation and helps to grant wishes like Austin’s (a Make-A-Wish Foundation recipient). The motto of the campaign was, “See why the best air-conditioning system is the one that can give you a warm feeling inside.” Luxaire premier dealers were branded in outdoor advertising as “Wish Angels” while the radio advertising featured information about Luxaire’s products and the company’s contribution to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. ABCO plans to expand its radio advertising next year to major markets throughout the Northeast.

Senter calls the association with the Make-A-Wish Foundation “an incredibly rewarding experience. ” He has been on the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Metro New York’s board of directors since 2002 and has served as its vice chairman since 2009. “In addition to funds contributed from Luxaire, ABCO (with the support of manufacturers and contractors across our industry) also donates to its local Make-A-Wish Foundation chapter,” Senter says. “In just under 10 years, ABCO, its customers, associates and manufacturers have contributed more than $1 million to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

ABCO’s marketing also features seasonal “Package Deals” that organize its product offerings in complete packages of related equipment, parts and supplies at very competitive prices. This helps make each member of its contractor teams knowledgeable not only in what to think about when purchasing, but also what to consider when selling to their customers. The deals also help ABCO team members organize their sales efforts to contractors.

ABCO University is another component of its sales and marketing efforts. The importance of continuing education for contractors is best summed up by ABCO’s theme of ABCO University: Knowledge is Profit. “The breadth of classes is unmatched.” Senter says “ABCO University concentrates the talents of men and women from throughout the industry to provide detailed technical training and pertinent product information.” Knowing that contractors have limited time, ABCO publicizes its class cataIog through its website ( Attendance is almost 100 percent at every class. “Good food and camaraderie certainly help stimulate participation,” he adds.

One event that continues to grow each year is the ABCO Expo. Featuring more than 200 industry vendors and almost 6,000 customers, this annual one-day event held in November is a one-stop shop of product and technical knowledge mixed with fun. “The magic of the annual Expo is the camaraderie for one day among fierce competitors as old friends and respected competitors shake hands and inquire about one another’s families and business well-being,” Senter says.

Another annual event held for customers is the ABCO Adventure Trip. This year’s rewards trip, which contained a mix of education and customer service, took more than 450 ABCO guests to Aruba and remains an important opportunity for ABCO to thank its customers and their families for their trust and loyalty.

Senter says ABCO’s overarching philosophy is “embracing our customers.” He says ABCO feels “privileged” to be part of the HVACR community. “Imagine contemporary life without reliable air conditioning, heating and refrigeration. In almost everything we do, we can see the value of our customers’ contributions to modern life.” That’s why ABCO works so hard to provide its customers with everything that they need — from the products and the product knowledge — so they can succeed. It’s been a winning formula for success for more than 60 years.

Michael Senter, ABCO's CEO (center), discusses expansion strategy with manufacturers' reps at the opening of the company's Baltimore-Washington, D.C. branch.