t’s hard to believe that Burke Engineering Co., one of the premier HVAC controls distributors in the Western U.S., actually got its start in a garage. But Burke traces its modest beginning back to 1949, when John “Bud” Burke began making toggle switch controls in his garage -- as a hobby. These controls featured indicator lights for gravity furnaces and when word got out about these new switches, more and more contractors came to Burke to buy them. Burke started making more money at his “hobby” than at his “real” job.
Soon, these contractors began to inquire whether Burke could offer other controls as well. Of course, he didn’t want to pass up this opportunity -- both to satisfy his customers and to expand his business -- so he began visiting other control manufacturers and gathered specific models that would fulfill his customers’ needs.
Much as their founder did, today’s Burke Engineering Co. continues to put its customers’ needs first. In fact, Bud’s son Gary Burke came up with a rather unique way of expressing this philosophy back in 1991: “Ask the customer what they want -- if it is not illegal or immoral, do it!!!”
Gary became president of Burke Engineering in 1972 after proving himself through his hard work and dedication to the business. Bud passed away in 1979 and over the next two decades Gary aggressively added locations and products to better serve Burke’s customers. Then in the early 1980s, Burke Engineering Co. led the charge into the building automation and controls business.
With Gary at the helm, Burke Engineering Co. more than doubled their number of warehouses and more than tripled their sales. In August of 2001, Gary died of a sudden heart attack. While his loss was a palpable one within the organization, he had groomed the third generation of Burkes for the leadership challenges that they would face. Three of his children are the owners of the business and are very involved in the daily activities: Kelly Trolia, who currently serves as CEO/CFO, Craig Burke, who is the secretary/treasurer; and Mike Burke, as the chief operating officer. Under their watchful eyes, the company has gone through strategic planning that has led to growth of greater than 33% in sales in just five years.
In addition to its South El Monte, Calif., headquarters, Burke has 16 locations in five Western U.S. states that service 15 West Coast major metropolitan markets.
The three siblings recently shared their thoughts with editorial director Mary Jo Martin on what has contributed to Burke Engineering Co.’s success over the long term in the competitive West Coast market.
MJM: First, congratulations on this great milestone! What emotions are you feeling as Burke Engineering company celebrates 60 years?
Kelly Trolia: We, as a company, feel very nostalgic and excited at the idea of celebrating 60 years in business with our customers and vendors. As a family, we are saddened because Bud and Gary aren’t here to celebrate with us. However, we know they are smiling down on us.
When a company can weather the storms of losing an industry pioneer (Bud) and an industry icon (Gary), it speaks volumes about our employee, customer and vendor relationships. Situations like this can be very detrimental to a company; however, we were able to pull through. With the help of great employees, friends and advisors, we have been successful into the third generation and hope to move the company forward for many years to come.
Today, Burke Engineering Co. is a controls and equipment wholesaler operating in the western U.S with over 100 employees and 17 locations. We have more than $10 million in inventory to service our customers and support new opportunities. We stock in excess of 25,000 line items company-wide supporting over 150 manufacturers product lines. Our sales are divided 50/50 between the residential and commercial markets.
MJM: What do you believe were some of the major decisions or turning points in Burke Engineering Co.’s history that allowed growth opportunities?
Craig Burke: I can think of five fairly significant factors that really led Burke Engineering to where we are today:
MJM: Can you share some information on all the members of your management team and the roles they play in the business?
Mike Burke: Sure. I’ll start with Craig. He serves as our secretary/treasurer. He is the oldest of the three and has been here as long as I can remember He and I started out packaging Thermostat guards together through beko back in the early 70s. We worked all aspects of the business including the warehouse and counter and then the office. His experience and knowledge have helped the company thrive in good and bad economic times.
Our sister Kelly is dad’s only daughter, and currently serves as ceo/cfo. She joined our team after completing her B.S. degree in accounting at Pepperdine University. She quickly became a major asset in the family business.
David Carlson is our HR manager. Prior to joining our team, he was employed by UPS. He has knowledge of how “large” corporations operate and continues his education taking classes in the hr field. He strives for perfection and stays up on current law and events to better serve our employees and the company.
Chuck Hernandez, is branch operations manager. Originally hired as a branch manager, he was able to turn around a struggling branch, expand our Nevada operations to two stores. He has proven to be a major team builder and business development specialist. He has taken on the responsibility this year to share his knowledge company wide and has proven to be a valuable asset.
Credit manager Stan Rubin was hired by the company upon the retirement of a long-time credit manager. Stan brought with him a vast knowledge of the industry and its customers. Stan is known by our employees as a credit manager who is “sales friendly.” He enjoys making the sale as much as they do. He is a great person to work with and helps our company with our winning spirit.
Stu Moffit is our controller and is one of the more recent additions to our team. His great deal of experience and wisdom is a great help to our young management team.
MJM: Describe the progression of your branch openings and if they were organic or came from acquisitions?
Mike Burke: All of our current branches arose out of a need in the marketplace. We listen to our customers, vendors and employees and open locations that are strategically necessary. It has been our philosophy to build the business first and open a location second. Our locations have anywhere from three to eight employees and vary in size from approximately 5,000 square feet to just over 15,000 not including our two-acre distribution center.
MJM: Are the branch locations all structured pretty much the same physically or do any of them have unique or interesting features?
Mike Burke: Each branch is unique in size and shape, which is dictated by the demographics of each area. However, we constantly strive for consistency in every location when it comes to our product offering and inventory. We want every customer to feel as comfortable in one store as they do another.
Our branch in Los Angeles is the original headquarters for Burke Engineering Co. The corporate headquarters in South El Monte has a distinctive museum of old controls. Our customers and employees still send items in to add to our unusual collection.
MJM: With a number of branches over several states, how is their management handled?
Kelly Trolia: Each branch location has a manager who reports to the operations team. It is the job of that team to ensure that all company guidelines are adhered to in a consistent manner.
The bulk of our purchasing is done centrally. However, the managers each have the authority to meet customer needs. The core product offering is the same in each location, but each branch caters to the needs of its specific marketplace. The managers have the ability to suggest to management changes that they would like to make (i.e. personnel, inventory, location, etc.), but the final authority comes from corporate.
Managers are empowered by headquarters to make their stores successful. Due to our dynamic nature, we can adapt to most customers’ needs. Our employees can sell over the counter, make sales calls or handle orders coming in electronically. The bulk of our business is done at the branch level with the support of a customer service team at the corporate office. This team is specifically designed to assist the branch employees in taking care of the customer 100% of the time.
We offer controls for the oldest, most basic furnace up to the newest, most sophisticated wireless devices that are available today. We offer control panels through Integrated Panel Solutions, a ul panel shop. We also have a beko division that manufactures and assembles thermostat guards.
MJM: Do you have special training programs for employees to increase their technical knowledge?
Craig Burke: Yes. We encourage our employees to participate in many different programs including the HARDI training courses. They are sponsored and given incentives by our company upon completion and passing of each course.
MJM: Do you also put on training courses for customers?
Craig Burke: Yes. Each location offers training on everything from the easiest applications to the most complex building management systems in the marketplace. The branch managers are responsible for organizing these events with our marketing department and making sure our customers stay up-to-date on the newest products available.
MJM: Describe your relationships with your suppliers. Are most long-term?
Craig Burke: One of the most important things a good businessperson can learn is to treat their dealings with their vendors as they treat their relationships with their customers. The business relationship with both suppliers and customers is vital to a successful company. Although our connections and communications with our vendors are always evolving, and we begin new relationships as necessary, some of our suppliers have been with us since our inception in 1949.
MJM: How important are electronic technologies within your company-whether it be for customer convenience, Edi-type activity, branch coordination/ communications, etc.?
Kelly Trolia: Electronic technology and automation is essential in Burke Engineering Co.’s continuing success. It allows us to maintain and grow relationships with our customers, employees and vendors.
Although we still have personal relationships with our customers, they see us as more efficient and knowledgeable. Questions that used to require call-backs can now be answered with a few keystrokes. Our pricing throughout the branch locations is much more consistent. There are no “calculator errors” when quoting a job.
Order entry and consistent invoicing from our vendors is now an expectation and not a wish. Edi has allowed us to be much more consistent, and the errors can be kept to a minimum.
Our business is much more streamlined and efficient with all of this technology which improves our bottom line.
MJM: How have your customers’ expectations changed over the years, and how has Burke Engineering Co. adapted to those changing needs/wants?
Mike Burke: In the beginning, if we could get the part at a fair price, our customers were satisfied. Today, our customers have a very low tolerance if we don’t have the part in stock. Burke Engineering Co. has adapted to a higher expectation, by increasing inventories company-wide to over $10 million.
MJM: Describe the ways you’ve gone about building relationships with customers; special events, promotions, rewards, etc.
Mike Burke: We still maintain our loyalty to the contractors in the market. We do not compete with them for business. We drive business through our contractor partners and are always looking for more. We are one of a few wholesalers that still support IHACI, ACCA and PHCC contractors and have involvement with local unions and trade schools. And our marketing strategy uses all available media to stay at the forefront of our customers’ minds.
MJM: How are you involving your customers in this 60th anniversary celebration?
Kelly Trolia: We are offering each customer with an account a lucrative opportunity to become more profitable by participating with us in a rebate program. We will also be hosting special events at each branch location throughout the year. Anyone interested can check our website at www.burkehvacr. com for upcoming calendar events.
Throughout the year, we will have special bbqs, counter days and trade shows to help us commemorate this special anniversary. More information is available at our website. We are also proud of the fact that we have several employees that have been with us for over twenty years. We will be acknowledging them and all of our employees all throughout the year. We look forward with great excitement and anticipation to the next 60 years.
MJM: With so many sources of competition in the marketplace, how does Burke Engineering Co. continue to differentiate itself?
Craig Burke: We are a controls wholesaler that sells equipment, not an equipment wholesaler that sells controls. We have serviced the niche market of replacement controls since the beginning, and we try to never lose sight of that. It is our company philosophy to provide solutions to our customers, not part numbers.
For more information, visit www.burkehvacr.com.