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Joel Long and brother Steven Long are the third-generation to run GSM Services, Gastonia, North Carolina. We talked with Joel about becoming the president of PHCC. Among other things, we learned how Joel (and Steven) steered a company of 230 employees through the pandemic; about Joel’s interesting habit of giving stones to people – but not just any kind of stone; and the goodness that came from community following the shocking news of April 7.
PHC News: Can you recap how GSM Services fared last year during pandemic?
Long: Overall, we were very fortunate. We have 230 coworkers and had around 80 who entered COVID quarantine at some time during 2020. We consider ourselves very fortunate that we did not lose anyone on our team to COVID. We had fewer than five coworkers who became extremely sick and no one ended up in the hospital. On the business financial side, we did receive PPP funding and that helped us weather the storm. We stayed busy and did not layoff our coworkers, so we feel blessed compared to other parts of the country. We did not have a good year from our net profit expectations, but we are counting it as a win overall.
PHC News: What were the early days like and how did you respond to keep your techs safe and your customers’ service needs fulfilled?
Long: Like everyone else we were a little stunned in the early days of what may happen. There were so many unknowns and the information changes were so fluid that we felt unsure each day on how to make smart decisions for our people and customers. We of course distributed PPE as soon as we could and disinfectants for each vehicle. We also exerted a lot of efforts to communicate with customers about how each one wanted to address service calls at their specific home or facility. There were a lot of different requirements depending on the situation. The best move we made was sending out daily updates to all our people to keep them informed.
PHC News: What are a few vital issues facing the plumbing and HVAC industry right now, and how is PHCC taking a leadership role to address those issues and challenges?
Long: Right now, the immediate issue is how do all of us get back to more normal business operations coming out of the pandemic?
First, I have to applaud our PHCC leadership during the pandemic. In the early days PHCC set up our COVID-19 Resource Center which transitioned to a COVID-19 Recovery Center (www.phccweb.org/preparedness). This allowed us to get up-to-date information and suggestions out continuously to our members and partners and this became a very valuable resource for success. This focus on getting out the latest and most current information and suggestions on how to thrive over the past year has been an amazing benefit to our contractors. We have heard this over and over again.
Second, how are our contractors going to find the next generation of coworkers to enter our industry coming out of the pandemic? And how are we going to prepare these young people to be successful?
I like to put these together because I believe so strongly that PHCC has a wonderful answer for young people who are struggling to find a path forward coming out of high school. Our online apprenticeship program (bit.ly/3jxuvfI) provides a pathway for youth who want to grow intellectually, gain financial independence, and find a career full of advancement opportunities. We are seeing a huge shift all across the country in the understanding that trades such as HVAC and plumbing are extremely lucrative adventures that can be entered without the weight of college debt.
Our contractors are using this apprenticeship program as a recruiting tool to bring young people straight out of high school into our industry. They work, get an education, and start their career with no debt. What an opportunity for future success. And did I mention how much parents love the “no debt” opportunity?
PHC News: Let’s turn our attention to PHCCCONNECT in October. Tell our readers what are some of the show highlights in store for them in Kansas City.
Long: For me, here are a few highlights of PHCCCONNECT 2021:
Hearing Jon Gordon as our Keynote Speaker. We decided to bring in someone with national recognition this year and his discussion on “Positive Leaders Drive Positive Results” is going to really hit home coming out of these past few years of turmoil.
We have around 50 different opportunities this year for our contractors and partners to expand their knowledge, partner with our industry, and become a stronger part of PHCC. I am excited to see how our contractors get connected to these opportunities to strengthen our industry.
Listening to Connor Lokar with ITR Economics layout his “Moving Forward” vision on economics will be a strong presentation and help prepare all of us with his snapshot of what may lie ahead.
PHC News: What do you hope will be the main takeaways from this year’s PHCCCONNECT?
Long: As always, PHCCCONNECT is an opportunity for growth through our combination of education, leadership, technology, and community. I do believe this is the most important event in recent memory because of what has happened. My hope is that our partners leave re-energized to thrive in their businesses in the coming year. Our goal is to use all the resources of PHCC to set up our members for success coming out of this pandemic. We have an opportunity this year to positively affect the future and look forward to that challenge.
PHC News: As you prepare to move into the role of president, what are some new initiatives or goals set in place for your term and beyond?
Long: My first priority is to make sure we make the full transition to new leadership with the retirement of Michael Copp. We have been blessed with his leadership and he has been the perfect leader for his time and now we must transition to a new leader for PHCC I am looking forward to that opportunity to introduce a new leader and set up PHCC for future success.
We are finishing the last year of our last Strategic Plan and will be meeting early next year to lay out the next five years and I believe this is my most important work that will take place during my tenure as President.
I have so much respect for the past leadership of PHCC. I will be continuing the work of Presidents Hunter Botto (2020-2021) and Jonathan Moyer (2019-2020), who have led us through this pandemic. They deserve a huge thank you from our membership. I will be continuing their work in these areas: membership growth opportunities; workforce development; apprenticeship program expansion; strengthening of our relationships with our state associations; and proving the value of PHCC National to our members.
PHC News: What are you looking forward to most as president?
Long: This is easy; I am so looking forward to seeing and interacting with our members and partners all across the country. For too long we have been cooped up and it is time to get back out on the road. To me, it is all about making sure our members have more and more opportunities for success because of PHCC and I am going to spend this year working to expand those opportunities.
PHC News: What have you done in the last year to prepare for this new role?
Long: Luckily, I have been blessed to be around for many of the past presidents who have led this organization so well. My first real mentor was PHCC Past National President David Dugger from Tennessee. I watched and listened to him lead the organization so well and since then have been able to watch others such as our current president, Hunter Botto. They have taught me invaluable lessons in leadership at the national level.
In the last year or two, I have really focused on understanding the width and depth of PHCC as an organization. We are such a diverse organization when you analyze our differences from region to region and state to state. I think understanding those strengths and challenges is very important when attempting to lead and I have focused on gaining that knowledge.
PHC News: What has been the best piece of advice you’ve received in life that has allowed you to be successful and pay it forward with your involvement in the industry?
Long: As many know, I have passed out river rocks to many I have met. I love how smooth and beautiful they are. I had a mentor years ago hand me one and I carried it in my pocket as a reminder of her advice. You see, river stones are smooth and have no rough edge. How did they get smooth? They are worn smooth over time by water rushing over them and they slowly became smooth by the constant work of the water.
The message is that anything that runs smoothly, or runs well, or is beautiful today didn’t just happen. There is no such thing as an “overnight success!” Everything worth doing takes a lot of work, effort, and patience. Whether it is personal growth, a business, a friendship, or a marriage – success takes a lot of consistent effort.
PHC News: What advice would you give the new generation of plumbing, heating and cooling contractors as they start their careers?
Long: Be bold and take charge of your path forward and go for whatever part of our industry interests you. We live in the most exciting of times and this generation will lead us into even better times. I believe the opportunities for those who hustle have no boundaries. Maybe it is the pandemic or the media spin on our world these days, but the next generation needs to throw off the negativity that has developed about the country and go conquer their future!
I love the quote and try to live by this motto from Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
PHC News: As technology continues to advance and make its way into every industry, what role do you see it playing in the plumbing, heating and cooling industry? And, how should contractors adjust?
Long: Talk about opportunity! Tech advancements are the path forward for most companies to evolve into the future. I have just a few thoughts about tech in the future.
For one, customers will demand better ways to communicate more seamlessly in the future. Can you say Alexa for Contractors! Understanding better ways to communicate with customers to make business easy for them is just one of the ways our world is changing faster than most of us can comprehend.
Also, companies that are more tech savvy and can project that to coworkers will be a lot more attractive to this next generation or recruits. Imagine you are still using outdated paper job application forms up against a company using an app that is user friendly for recruiting. Who do you think has the upper-hand?
We must explore ways to conquer the future of tech in our businesses for sure and I believe the companies that lead in this will flourish when compared to those that lag behind.
PHC News: Tell us about your business and how you ended in the PHC trade?
Long: We are a third-generation HVAC and commercial roofing business that was founded in 1927. My grandfather purchased it in the early 1940s, and my father ran the business until my brother and I took over around 16 years ago. My brother Steven and I are 50/50 partners. He is president of our residential group of three divisions: (Residential Service, Residential Replacement, and Home Performance). I am president of our commercial group of four divisions: (HVAC Installation, Service, Roofing Installation, and Roof Service). We provide service in North and South Carolina in a 50-mile radius of Charlotte, North Carolina.
I have always loved our business. I started working in the field when I was 15 and immediately loved it. I think for me it started that I just loved being able to see how you can make such a difference in one day on a project. I loved seeing the wins when we would install a new piece of equipment or repair a unit. The improvement for the customer that we can accomplish made a huge impression – I love to fix things!
Today for me, it is still about that but it has morphed into how our business is improving our community and our peoples’ lives. When you see your teams building your community and you see your co-workers’ families winning at a high level you can’t help but be proud of your business and industry.
PHC News: I think we have to end our interview by, unfortunately, bringing up the topic of the workplace tragedy of April 7 when a gunman killed your techs James Lewis and Robert Shook as well as four others. I know you wrote a special message (bit.ly/3Agpqz2) to PHCC members following that horrible event thanking them for their tremendous support. Can you speak about the positive aspects of the industry support, including how your GoFundMe raised funds for the surviving family members of James and Robert?
Long: I am still not sure I really have the words to express the level of appreciation and love we feel at this time for our friends and family all across the country. I can assure you that our faith is stronger today than it was on the morning of April 7. This faith has been bolstered through the support we have received and has strengthened our view of how wonderful people are all across the country.
To date almost $500,000 has been raised for the families through the GoFundMe account and other avenues. Of course, these funds don’t solve the loss of James and Robert, but most importantly the families have been uplifted by the support.
In today’s seemingly cynical world, we don’t hear the good news enough, but this is becoming a story about how the compassion shown by the PHCC family led to a brighter future for the families and their six children.
We will keep you posted.