Lesson from Andy Stack

I’ve got this friend I would like to tell you about

In my life, I’ve known and worked for men who claimed to be self-made men. But I also knew the backstories of how their father’s set them up in business and bought them equipment, or how their father-in-law bought them a house for a wedding present and made them a vice president of the family owned company. Some ended up inheriting a family business they previously hadn’t been involved in. Many people claim to be self-made, but I have a friend who is the real thing. His name is Andy Stack – and I would like to share his story with you. It offers some lessons we all can benefit from.

Sue and I completed construction of our extremely energy efficient home in Sandusky in 2006. While I was an experienced contractor, I found researching, selecting, finding and working with advanced materials and systems a challenge. In many instances finding information on how to install them was even more of a challenge.

The radiant floor heating system was the one system I just couldn’t get to work right. The boiler was running all the time, but the house was still cold. The manufacturer sent a technician from Chicago to fix the problem, but after they left, it still didn’t work. After working on the house for two years, it wasn’t working as planned – and I was at my wits end. I searched and searched for information. Finally one of the suppliers I called said, “I don’t know him, and he doesn’t buy from us, but you need to call Andy Stack in Avon, Ohio.”

When I called Andy, I didn’t have any idea who he was. I didn’t know whether he worked out of the trunk of his car or was a bonafide heating contractor. After a short conversation, Andy said he would be here in an hour. Once you hear the rest of the story, you’ll understand how that response said a lot about who Andy Stack is. Stack Heating, Cooling & Electric isn’t a mom and pop business, it’s a full service heating, cooling and electrical contractor. They currently have 47 employees. While the company is a full service heating contractor, it has a reputation for being an authority on boilers and radiant heating. They also work on many of the cathedrals in Cleveland. And – they also have a reputation for being the company to call to fix other contractor’s work.

When Andy arrived at our home, he immediately identified the problem with our heating system. He came back two days later and completely rebuilt the system. The design and workmanship was a piece of art. Andy and I have been friends ever since – and I’ve learned a lot from who he is.

Andy started Stack Heating as a part time side business with his wife Sandy in 1976. Finding side work, estimating jobs, picking up materials and physically doing the work after you have already worked a full day for someone else requires remarkable fortitude. Lots of contractors are able to eek out a living working from a pickup. Many have aspirations of growing their businesses, but it takes a whole new level and balance of skills, talents and thinking to grow and manage a company that supports dozens of employees, a fleet of vehicles, a warehouse and offices in a corporate park. Accomplishing it through all of the dramatic ups and downs the economy has gone through over the years is hard to image. Doing it while rising four children is even harder.

If I had to picked the five things that most define Andy’s success, I’d start with who he is in general. Andy is easy to like. He’s as genuine as they come. He’s never who he is at some else’s expense. He’s honest and fair minded, quietly generous, principled, grounded, and a no nonsense, get it done, always do the right thing – kind of guy. He’s a problem solver who works with a sense of urgency. He also has a touch orneriness just waiting to surface – along with the grin that always follows. He’s eager to learned and innovate. Andy never does anything halfway and chances are whatever he or his sons do, it will include a clever solution. The family loves what they do and it shows in their interactions and conversations.

Second, would be Andy’s wife Sandy. Having a strong and capable partner allowed Andy to focus on the business, while Sandy provided a strong family home life – and she also helped manage the office. And ultimately, both commitments sit the foundation for their Children’s’ and the company’s growth.

Third, I’d say Andy’s intellectual curiosity and his willingness to seek out information – whether it’s better products and equipment or better ways of doing work or running his business. While Andy is proud of his work and company, he doesn’t have an ego that needs to control everything, to always be right or to be the one that has all of the answers. Andy’s willingness to seek out, afford and take advice, whether legal, marketing, finance, leasing, etc., has made an important difference in his business – and it’s something his sons continue to do.

Fourth is Andy’s forward thinking and his willingness to invest in the future. Like most people and businesses, it would have been easy for Andy to get caught up in the day to day minutia of managing crews, jobs and his business, but he has always had a long term vision for where the business was going and he didn’t loose sight of it. He took the time and took the steps to invest in the company’s future. Early on, Andy invested in building offices and warehouses that would allow for the company’s growth. In addition, he built two additional warehouses that were rented out until Stack Heating needed the space. He also invested in equipment that would help to expand and make his business more efficient – and he invested in consultants as well. And lastly, he invested in marketing. Andy understood and invested in marketing.

Fifth, would be Andy’s children. In the end, Stack Heating and his children are a reflection of Andy’s intellect, determination, values and commitment to family – and I see those same qualities in his children, including his orneriness. They grew up in the business and developed skills and experience beyond Andy’s in many cases. They now provide a vision for the company that is beyond what Andy could have imagined. Andy’s respect and faith in them allowed him to delegate and entrust them with managing portions of the business. It allowed the company to grow and in turn, prepared them to take over the company.

Building a company that employs your family and 42 other families is a remarkable testament, but no easy matter. Andy intuitively, did what most small businesses fail to do, keep current, plan and invest in the future, seek and take advise, delegate and entrust others, and market.

Andy turned the business over to his two eldest sons in 2013. And when I say turned the company over, I mean he turned it over. They run the company – and his sons have no problem limiting Andy’s input – and he loves it – he’s proud of it – and of them. Together, his sons have tripled the companies business in four years. He’s mentored and taught them well and now they are putting their own mark on the business. Andy and Sandy have a lot to be proud of.

Andy recently created a succession plan for his business and an estate plan for his family. Last April he turned his attention to his health and changed his diet. Andy lost 50 lbs. and decreased his waist from 44” to 34”. He now weighs 173 pounds, the same weight as the day he got married. His blood pressure has returned to normal and he no longer takes any medications.

Andy plans to retire in May, but that doesn’t mean Andy is ready to sit around and let the world go by. Andy is a youthful 67, in good health and will always be an optimistic and determined problem solver.

So Andy has his health, business and life in order – so what’s next? I’m anxious to see the rest of the story myself.