Group picture of 2023 Special projects attendees in Rosemont, IL
Synergy hosted 48 members for our 2023 Special Projects Forum on April 23-25th at the Loews Chicago O’Hare hotel in Rosemont, IL. This year’s session featured large group discussions and small peer-to-peer breakouts.

The Special Projects Forum started with Bill Van Winkle (CSE), Mike Crouse (North Mechanical), and Kelsey Kingsolver (Vital Mechanical Service) sharing how their company has set up their special projects group and what their keys to success have been. Bill said the success of their special projects group, which has been a stand alone group for the past four years, was because they stress the importance of a good culture, effective leadership, and building the team with smart people. Mike (North Mechanical) shared that they started finding success when they stopped serving money and started serving people. He said they take care of their internal and external customers which has led to tremendous growth over the years. Vital Mechanical’s special projects group started in 2004 with small projects. Kelsey shared their manpower graphs which show their capacity for work. He said the group is selective about the clients they work with and has let go of those who weren’t a good fit.

“I think it’s so good to hear how other companies are successful running their projects,” said Cari Brennan (JM Brennan). “It gives good insights and starts to foster ideas of what we can implement in our company.”

After the three presentations, attendees talked at their roundtable and shared the different aspects of their companies, such as revenue, the number of yearly projects, if they have a standalone special projects division, and who determines the projects that end up there. They also identified what their group does well, any lessons learned, and what they have done to move the needle, which included things like finding the right customers, hiring a field person for scheduling, implementing new software for project flow and real-time progress tracking, improving project execution, and better communication through monthly closeout meetings.

“It helped a lot to hear others’ success and failures as well as how others accomplish the same things in different ways,” said Doug Walk (Phoenix Air Conditioning).

Alex Kaslofski (Atomatic Mechanical) kicked off The Price is Right group activity by presenting the group with a real life job, a 12.50ton rooftop unit replacement. Alex showed an XOi video so each group could see the unit and the crane access area. Each table was required to estimate the crew size, total labor needed, and what their markup would be.

“It was interesting to see how every project bid from each table had a different outlook or approach to the hours and mark up percentages,” said Mike Josenhans (Vital Mechanical Service).

After lunch members shared the unique things they do to provide value for their clients. Hosting company events and functions to give customers a chance to see company culture and the facility, creating a positive client experience through quick response times, technical ability, and value-added processes and procedures, and building trust and identifying practical solutions for customers were all things members are doing.

The last topic of the day was on project execution and the top change members had made to increase profit, which included having a dedicated technician for projects, using field staff to free up salespeople’s time, and refining the closeout process and ensuring sales and project managers slow down and understand the project fully. 

On day two Jim Bartolotta (Synergy partner) kicked off the day by talking about how to recruit the special projects unicorn. In a lightning round, attendees shared the one trait that their ideal special projects team member has and where they found them. In small groups, members discussed various strategies to attract and retain skilled workers. Some companies have implemented referral incentive programs for experienced and inexperienced workers. Others are building relationships with vocational schools and participating in career fairs to attract new talent. Some companies are also exploring new talent pools, such as the residential market, to find skilled workers.

“It was great to see everyone value the same type of person,” said Kyle Dilks (Baker Group).

The morning continued with a discussion on what members measure, who they share the information with, and how much they share. Some companies are implementing a system where they ask for payment up front to have money to pay vendors, and others are tracking job progress and sharing financial information with employees to make them care more about their work. Members also shared the various software they’re using, such as Vista and Tech tool, to track progress by phase and labor on the job.

After lunch attendees talked about the communication tools they use to share job updates and success stories with their team. Alex Kaslofski (Atomatic Mechanical) shared how their company uses XOi and Andy Foster (Pacific Rim Mechanical) shared how they’re using Microsoft Teams.

The last session of the forum gave members an opportunity to talk about where the future of special projects is heading. Members shared several challenges they see, including phasing out natural gas, manpower shortage, customer portals taking away personal interaction, economic changes, limited availability of insurance, refrigerant limitations, customers buying equipment directly from manufacturers, finding suitable vehicles, and fluctuating interest rates.

The session ended with each attendee writing down their action plan of what they want to implement and goals they will accomplish when they return home.

“I was really impressed with the forum,” said Ryan Gobbi (Cox Engineering). “I would say it was the best group seminar I have attended.”

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