Published: August 13, 2015 - by Ray Wohlfarth

Categories: Commercial Heating

Ray Wohlfarth Pic

My Generation-Y children prefer to do their shopping online. "Nobody goes to the store anymore." they argue.

I wonder if this will be the future boiler purchasing model. Will boilers be sold directly from the factory via a flashy website? I warn my family that the traditional brick and mortar shops may  be shuttered and local people will lose their jobs if everyone buys on line. In addition, I worry about what will happen when you are on a job site at 4:00 pm on a Friday and the client has no heat. Please allow me to elaborate about two such calls we actually had with completely different results.

The first was to a home with a newer mod-con boiler that provided heat for both space heating and domestic hot water. Upon arrival, my technician found a defective inducer fan. We called the "stocking" distributor and were told that this part was not stocked and would have to be ordered from the factory. They did give us a toll free number that we could use to order the part directly. After numerous voice mail options, I finally contacted a real live human. She said that the part could be shipped today and would arrive on Monday morning. I explained that the weather forecast called for temperatures in the teens and asked if anyone else stocked the part. She could not tell me but suggested I order it quickly as this was the last one in the company. I explained that the part should be under warranty as the boiler was only six months old. Even though it was still under warranty, I had to pay for the part until they verified that it was a legitimate failure. Once the failure was verified, I would receive a credit in 30-45 days. In addition, there was an overnight expediting fee of 20% that would not be refunded. The price of a replacement in warranty inducer is now within $200.00 of the price for a new boiler. Can you feel the anger building? I grudgingly ordered the part and let the owner know the status. We furnished several electric heaters but the owner decided not to use them because the breakers would trip. The client had his family move to a hotel for the weekend and he stayed at the house to make sure that nothing froze. He was not pleased with me or his new mod con boiler.

The second Friday call was to a nursing home about two hours from our shop. The lone boiler that heated the building had failed due to a defective flame safeguard control.  By the time the diagnosis was complete, it was almost half past five. The owner was concerned that they would have to evacuate the nursing home. I called the distributor just as the counter person was about to leave. The part was in stock  and he offered to hide it in a secure outdoor location. I picked up the part and delivered it to the nursing home. The client had heat immediately and we were heroes. The clerk called me later to verify that the part worked and the people had heat. What a difference! I fear that the future of our industry will be more like the first story as more manufacturers may try to eliminate the middle man, i.e. distributors and representatives.

I received a call from an engineer friend of mine that was designing a replacement boiler using a boiler that the owner wanted to use. He was not familiar with the boiler and asked the sale person for assistance in the design using his piece of equipment. The rep simply sent over a cut sheet from the manufacturer's manual which infuriated the engineer. The engineer called the salesperson and asked a question and was told the engineer should call the toll free number for the manufacturer. I offered to stop over and help. I twice called the technical support line for the engineer and have yet to receive a call back for a question we had. The engineer told the owner that he would not use the boiler and used mine instead.  

I miss Russ.

One of the companies we represented was owned by Russ Geaslen. He changed the industry as we know it by designing and patenting the Primary Secondary modular boiler piping. He was a combination of half genius and half mad scientist.  He would often call me early in the morning and ask me technical questions, a kind of quiz. I would answer the phone at 6:00 am and would hear, "Hey kid, what is the coefficient of expansion of steel?" He would be calling me from Chicago, IL which was an hour earlier. You could tell by his tone that he had already been up for hours.

"Uh, I am not sure Russ. I just got up. I have not had my coffee yet." I would sleepily answer.

"You gotta know this stuff. If you want to sell my boilers, you need to be the best trained in your market. If you are not the best, the customers will go somewhere else and so will I. The engineers will look to you for your expertise. They deserve a real professional. Anyone can pick out something from a catalog." He would say. Russ and I would talk for hours and he taught me so much about boilers and heating systems.  As I reflect on it, I am not the best but I realize that I learn something daily about our industry. It has been great for myself and my family. I got to meet some amazing people and saw some really cool places. During the course of my career, I have helped many people with their heating system by meeting face to face and walking through their boiler room. I hope that we never lose that personal interaction with our clients.

My friend, Ron, was a very successful person in the insurance industry for over 20 years. This is a very populated industry where 90% of all agents fail within 5 years. I asked him how he could compete against all those people. His answer has stayed with me forever. "Ray, I have many people in my industry but I have few competitors. You do not have to win by a mile. You just need to be one step ahead to win."  I ask myself this question often, Am I one step ahead of my competition?

Want to learn more? Check out my books, Lessons Learned in a Boiler RoomLessons Learned: Connecting New Boilers to Old PipesLessons Learned: Servicing Boilers, and Lessons Learned: Brewing with Steam.