Interview with Air-Tro President Bob Helbing

Reprinted by permission from INDOOR COMFORT NEWS, The Voice of the IndustryBest HVAC Technician in Pasadena, CA

Q & A with Bob Helbing, President of IHACI 

bob helbingIn an industry that prides itself for resolving cooling issues, Bob Helbing is on a serious hot streak.

As president Air-Tro Inc., Helbing runs one of the most successful commercial and residential HVAC contractors in Southern California. Over the years, Air-Tro has won multiple accolades, including ACCA’s 2011 Contractor of the Year award and Los Angeles Times 2012 Best of California Readers’ Choice award.

Recently, Helbing was nominated as president of the Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries, Inc., a non-profit trade association of contractors, manufacturers, distributors, utility firms, and related businesses actively engaged in the HVAC/R/ SM industry.

Indoor Comfort News recently sat down with Helbing to discuss his thoughts on the critical issues facing the HVAC industry and what his goals are as president of IHACI.

ICN – Please discuss your background.

BH – I’m a third-generation engineer, with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology. My goal as a boy was to build spaceships, and I kind of got close. My first job out of college involved working on the Trident submarine ballistic missile, and later I worked on the Minuteman, MX and Small Missile programs. My wife teased me, calling me a rocket scientist. However, about six years after I graduated, the Berlin Wall came down. A good thing of course, but it did mean we suddenly needed a lot fewer rocket scientists. It was time for me to change careers.

ICN – How did you get started in the HVAC industry?

BH – In addition to being a third-generation engineer, it turns out I’m a fourth-generation contractor. My dad started Air-Tro Heating & Air Conditioning when I was seven years old, so my first experience in the HVAC industry was sweeping out the sheet metal shop on Saturdays to earn my allowance. I worked in the family business off and on before college graduation. When I left aerospace, my dad asked me to come back. I worked for him for five years, and he only fired me once. When he retired, I took over as president.

ICN – What are your favorite aspects of being in this industry?

BH – The challenges, the variety and the people.

The challenges include the fact that no two buildings are the same, so each HVAC system needs some thought put in before it’s installed. We’re not like manufacturers, where every step of production can be plotted, optimized and perfected. Instead, each new project presents new challenges.

The variety flows from that. But it includes more. Just as every building is different, so is each building owner or occupant. Matching the right equipment or application to the needs of the consumer and the constraints imposed by the building means that every job walk and every sales presentation includes something new, novel or unexpected.

That brings us to the people. HVAC isn’t the fashion industry. We’re not an impulse or a prestige purchase. It’s just not as much fun to spend money on a furnace as it is on a sports car or an overseas vacation. As a result, we have to work harder to build the value for the customer before the sale and harder to deliver the value after. That means you have to have the right people making the sale and the right people performing the work. They build the value for the customer and for your company.

ICN – What does it mean to you to be a member of IHACI?

BH – It means being an active, contributing member of a multibillion dollar industry. Our industry will only make progress if we work on it, and if we work on it together we are going to make much greater progress. IHACI works hard to meet the needs of those in the industry and works just as hard promoting the needs of the industry with other important stakeholders, such as regulators and utilities, to name a few. We are here to help our members improve their skills and businesses, while advocating on their behalf in front of legislators, educators, etc.

ICN – What do you see as IHACI’s most significant accomplishments?

BH – Our training programs have been a major success. The California Quality Installation, Maintenance and Service (CA QI/QM/ QS) training series was designed to address those issues specifically related to the with California’s market in mind. In addition, we offer NATE (North American Technician Excellence) training to give installers and service technicians every opportunity the chance to enhance their skill set. Annually each year, more than 12,000 students attend IHACI training. IHACI has dramatically increased its presence in Sacramento as well as on a national level. In addition, IHACI has taken is taking an aggressive role in compliance and enforcement issues. We have heard our members and are doing everything possible to create a level playing field for C-20 contractors. Volunteer support and participation is at an all time high. We’re making a difference.

ICN – Why do you believe IHACI membership is critical to California C-20 contractors?

BH – In 2004, the California Energy Commission focused heavily on the HVAC industry as the main source of peak energy. Its mission: “to transform HVAC to ensure its energy performance is optimal.” California C-20 contractors must be part of this process. No doubt, HVAC, is a heavily regulated industry and it’s likely we’ll see more, not fewer, regulations in the years to come. Unfortunately, too few C-20 contractors step up to the plate. The industry tends to be reactive opposed to proactive. IHACI members are proactive. We have seen differences, whether it be a regulation that has been modified and/or changed, to incorporate the reality of our business or shedding light on the challenges contractors face on a daily basis. We draw attention and address the “real life” challenges faced by C-20 contractors. So much of what’s affecting the HVAC industry today is taking place in San Francisco or Sacramento. You’ve got to be at the table in order to facilitate change. You lose every fight you fail to show up for. Frankly, it’s difficult for me to understand why a C-20 contractor would not be a member of IHACI.

ICN – As president of IHACI, what are your short-term, long-term goals?

BH – My short-term goal is to find the time to represent IHACI and its members, continue to run Air-Tro, and spend enough time with my family that my wife doesn’t hire an attorney. Seriously, I want to work with the IHACI Board to find more opportunities for its members. IHACI members have demonstrated their commitment to the industry. They want to do what’s right. I want to make certain that they are the beneficiaries of our efforts. Membership benefits that are “exclusive” to IHACI members will be key.

Long-term goals include a strong reputation for IHACI as the go-to-source of industry expertise; making certain that our voice is heard in every area affecting the HVAC industry; expanding our education and training efforts; and doing everything possible to level the playing field for C-20 contractors. Much work has already been done, but there is much more to do.

ICN – In your many years in this industry, what are you most proud of?

BH – In 2011/2012, Air-Tro was fortunate enough to be named Readers’ Choice by both the Los Angeles Times and the Pasadena Star-News, as well as being honored as Commercial Contractor of the Year by ACCA. We also saw our business volume finally recover from the depths of the construction collapse caused by the Great Recession, and 2012 was our biggest year ever. We seem to have successfully endured the worst, and good times beckon.

I’m hoping the same good fortune applies to IHACI, its members, and the HVAC industry as a whole. We’ve weathered a big storm, but clear sailing seems ahead.

Download the Indoor Comfort pdf interview.