This Family HVAC Business Lays the Groundwork for the Next Generation

Sav Mor Mechanical, a $45 million (approx. £38 million) HVAC business on Long Island, has succeeded in large part because of its family ownership structure; here’s how it goes about enticing future family members to take over the business
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Refrigeration runs in Gandolfo Schiavone’s family.

After serving in World War II, Schiavone’s father re-enlisted at the start of the Korean War, where he learned the skill. When the war ended, he continued his career in refrigeration in the private sector, eventually launching a New York City refrigeration business with his brother.

Soon, young Gandolfo and his elder brother, Frank, were getting involved. “We didn’t have summers off,” said Gandolfo Schiavone, who added that he started going to work when he was around five years old. “We got in the truck and took care of Mulberry Street and Chinatown and Little Italy. From a young age, we learned the business.”

The two brothers picked up skills that eventually served them well as they both searched for jobs after college. When they couldn’t find anything, they launched a refrigeration business of their own.

Today, Sav Mor Mechanical is one of Long Island’s premier HVAC specialists, working on both large- and small-scale commercial projects. Schiavone’s brother is retired and his sons, Ryan and Craig, have joined as principals. Now, the $45 million business has 130 employees.

It hasn’t always been easy, however. There have been decades of long hours. But the work has allowed the family to build a thriving business that gives back to its employees, community and profession. What’s more, Sav Mor has helped launch a popular apprenticeship programme for technicians and is working on the construction of a local autism centre.

“I wouldn’t change a single thing in my life,” Schiavone said. “I think we’ve built something that our family can always be proud of.”

Fighting – then lunch

Early on, the two brothers were strategic in terms of how they built Sav Mor. Both are planners, lining up the legal and financial documents to protect the future of their company. “We’re very organised,” Schiavone said. “We always had buy-sell agreements. We always had life insurance in place. We always went to an estate planner.”

The brothers each led separate arms of the business. As Schiavone focused on construction projects, his brother focused on service work. “We really kind of sat down and created two different paths,” he said. “Yet we still interacted because after I would finish jobs, I would pass them off to him and he would continue to take care of the service.”

Gandolfo Schiavone (centre) with his two sons.

Sometimes, those interactions led to business disagreements, but the brothers never let bad feelings fester. “That’s the biggest thing: don’t take things personally,” Schiavone often advises other family business owners. “We would fight and carry on and have knock-down fights, but after the fight was over, we’d say, ‘Let’s go get some lunch.’”

All that planning and relationship-building over the years paid off more than two decades ago when Schiavone’s brother, at that time aged 50, announced plans to retire from the business when he turned 60. Together, they mapped out his exit, which included selling his shares to Schiavone and his sons. Frank retired, as planned, nearly 11 years ago. For his part, Schiavone, now 67, never really wants to leave.

“I tell my sons – and everybody thinks I’m nuts – I say, ‘I wish I could be your brother and do this all over for another 30 more years,’” he said.

Laying the groundwork

Throughout the years, Schiavone laid the groundwork for his sons’ potential move into the company. But he never set expectations that they’d work with him one day. He and his wife just gave them opportunities to explore the idea, sparking conversations about their future and teaching them the ins and outs of the business.

“The best thing I ever did was buy a little cabin in the Poconos,” Schiavone said. “We went 11 weekends a year, took them skiing and they were forced to sit on the lift with me.”

During those moments on the ski lift, Schiavone took the opportunity to ask them about the architectural drafting and AutoCAD classes that he required them to take in high school. They worked for him during the summers in both high school and college, getting experience across the company. While both were students at Penn State [university], Schiavone even set up a summer internship programme for them and other students in the engineering programme.

From an early age, Craig, the youngest son, was eager to join Sav Mor. The elder son, Ryan, contemplating the long hours his father worked, took a bit longer to sign on. But, around 10th grade [UK Year 11], he was all in as well, Schiavone said.

When they started working full time for Sav Mor, the kids began at the bottom. “You have to gain people’s respect,” Schiavone said. “You have to earn it. If you just all of a sudden become the president of a department and you never really paid your price, people aren’t going to look at you the same way.”

From Poconos to Park City

When Schiavone counsels other family-owned company founders who are having trouble with their own children in the business, he tells them it can take a long time to cultivate a deep understanding and appreciation of the business. Just because the business is in their blood doesn’t mean it comes naturally.

Today, Schiavone’s seven young grandchildren live across the street or just a few blocks away. And, as always, he’s thinking about the future.

Schiavone’s granddaughter helped a little in the office last summer. And he’s talked to his eldest grandchild about working for the business during the summer once he starts at high school in a few years. Of course, those ski trip conversations are still happening – except now they take place at his holiday home in Park City, Utah. “One of the things I tried never to do, I never forced them to come into it,” Schiavone said of bringing in his sons. “And I say to them all the time: Don’t do it because you have to do it. I believe I never worked a day in my life because I enjoy what I do. And that’s the key in anything.”

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