Comfort Mechanical Contractors calls itself the “premier HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) installation and service contractor in the Triangle.” The Triangle being the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan regions of North Carolina, an area this Durham-based firm has been serving since the mid-1950s.
“We do commercial installation. We also have a fabrication department and do duct work for ourselves and others. We manufacture a lot of HVAC [items]. We also have a very skilled service group. We go out and service anything we install. Anything that’s commercial HVAC related, we like to be involved in,” says Brent Sigmon, president of Comfort.
As Sigmon notes, the company is entirely focused on commercial buildings, primarily in Comfort’s home state. “We have certain outlining projects, but generally we’re local. North Carolina is where we do the majority of our work. We’ve also done some projects in Virginia and South Carolina.”
In addition to being company president and co-founder, Sigmon is a licensed professional engineer. He also has an MBA and two decades worth of design, sales and management experience in the HVAC sector. Given Sigmon’s engineering background, it is no surprise that Comfort also offers design-build services.
The design-build segment is growing, he reports. On some large-scale projects, Comfort will work with other companies collaboratively. “We can team up with local engineers and provide turnkey service. We’ve done a significant amount of design-assist work over the past two or three years,” states Sigmon.
Comfort Mechanical has a long, interesting history. The company was initially launched in 1955 as Comfort Engineers. The founder was “a gentleman by the name of Claude Williams. He grew up in Durham and went to Duke University. He got a mechanical engineering degree. Claude wanted to stay in Durham. He had the opportunity to do some HVAC [installation], so he started the company. He held it until the late eighties-early nineties. Then the group was led by his son, Alan Williams. Alan purchased the company and was president from the early nineties until 2016,” states Sigmon.
Sigmon was an employee of Comfort Engineers. In September 2016, Sigmon and two other former employees, Jamie Haigler and Robert Knott, purchased the commercial HVAC side of the business, and Comfort’s residential component was acquired by other parties. Along the way, Sigmon and his partners changed the company name, to Comfort Mechanical Contractors.
There is no big secret to the company’s longevity, beyond treating employees well, working hard and offering stellar customer service. “We have a very, very low turnover rate. We really don’t tell our installers how to do their work. Almost daily, we’re surprised by their ability. We have some project managers that are very experienced. They know how to execute [a job]. They really enjoy what they do because they have freedom.” At present, Comfort has roughly 120 employees.
“We all have the mentality, ‘let’s do the best for our company with the customer in mind.’ Every project does not have to be the most profitable thing we’ve ever done. Today’s job is going to sell tomorrow’s opportunity. We have to make sure the customer knows we’re going to do our best,” states Sigmon.
“I love to come in every day. I love the interaction with all the folks. I have an open door policy. [Staff can bring me] good news or bad news,” says Sigmon.
As for what the company wants in a new hire, Sigmon looks for a positive attitude, ability to get along with others and work ethic. HVAC experience or a background in sheet metal, welding or pipefitting is preferred, but not necessary. “We’ve had people of various experience [levels] come in. Some say, ‘I want to learn about the industry, but I have zero experience. What can I do?’ We put them with more experienced guys, so they get experience. We feed them a little bit more responsibility until they’re ready. We want someone with drive and the ability to get the work done. We let them know we’re going to be watching to see what they do. We appreciate the work they do, like staying an extra hour to clean up before they leave,” states Sigmon.
This approach has paid off. Since September 2016, “we’ve received three or four recommendation letters from customers – unprompted. They list the employees and say what a good job they did [and how] they were courteous and respectful. Nothing makes my week than seeing one of those letters come through,” he continues.
The company has also earned industry kudos. Comfort Mechanical recently took home a 2016 Pinnacle Award from the Carolinas AGC (CAGC), a major trade association. The award was for a renovation project Comfort worked on at the Duke University Chapel. Said chapel is a focal point of Duke University and one of the best-known structures in the Raleigh-Durham area, says Sigmon.
Comfort was teamed with Romeo Guest Associates, a respected local general contracting firm for the project. “They had to renovate many things there at the same time. Humidity is a big factor in this space,” says Sigmon.
Comfort’s role involved the installation of new air conditioning equipment in cramped quarters that were originally constructed in the 1930s. “As you can imagine, anything built in the early 1900s did not allocate much room for any air conditioning. It was a very sensitive installation. Each piece made it inside the space by a matter of inches. It was a long grueling install. Some of our best technicians and installers were out on the job for months at a time,” recalls Sigmon. “It turned out to be a beautiful installation.”
The chapel renovation took one year, from May 2015 to May 2016. The new A/C equipment makes minimal noise which is an important consideration for a space where religious services, weddings and important gatherings take place. Duke is “very happy with the install,” reports Sigmon.
Sigmon is currently working on an initiative that would allow clients and Comfort staff to monitor HVAC equipment online via a computer or smartphone. “What we’re really trying to do is get in front of the customer before they know there’s a problem. If we can monitor a boiler remotely, we could get an alarm when conditions are [are dangerous]. We could go online and see if the boiler was on or off. If it’s cold outside, there’s a chance the boiler could freeze, if it’s outside. We could automatically dispatch our service technicians and to save the boiler. We’re able to do this on a handful of current service projects and it’s been very successful. We can get ahead of the problem before there is one,” he explains.
While Comfort has an online presence and lists its services on construction industry-related websites such as Construction.com, much of its promotional work is centered on “old-fashioned, face-to-face,” meetings. “There’s a lot to be said about just going to see your customer, asking them what they’re looking for or what they’re not receiving from other HVAC contractors. What are they missing? What would they like to see? What can we do?” says Sigmon.
According to Sigmon, Comfort’s biggest challenge is “finding the right people… We try to find ones that blend in with our corporate personality.” Other challenges include “getting the work done. Teaming up with the right owners and general contractors. [Plus] any time you’re in a growing market, there’s extensive competition.”
As for the next few years, Sigmon says, “I see our service group really taking off. I see our continued growth. We’re targeting a minimum of five percent growth per year. The first year and a half it’s been a little bit more than that. We’re expanding what we’re good at,” he shares. “We do a lot of work at local universities—Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and we see all these universities are in growth mode as well. They’re repairing HVAC systems. So, five years from now, I can definitely see us growing in size, growing our fabrication department. Making more ductwork, not only for us but for others.”
Comfort recently hired a business manager to help the company land projects worth between $25,000 and $500,000. The firm is also looking to expand and might open a new location down the road, perhaps in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The company recently picked up an award from the Triangle Business Journal. “For 2017, we received the top specialty contractor award in the Triangle area. That was unexpected for our first full year of operation. We have a very old office that was built in the Claude Williams era. It’s a nice brick building but no frills. We proudly hung that award in the front.”
“We’re not doing anything elaborate. We just want to do the best mechanical contracting that we can. We’re proud of not only our awards but the people that made them happen,” he states.