Case Studies

Air Controls Billings Inc.

Family-run HVAC and refrigeration based in repeat business

Based in Billings, Montana, Air Controls Billings Inc. (Air Controls) is a residential and commercial HVAC, refrigeration, sheet metal and custom stainless steel contractor. Owned and operated by second-generation family members, Air Controls has earned a reputation as one of the best union shops in the state with low employee turnaround and high customer retention.

Since 1972, Air Controls has been servicing communities in the upper Midwest, from Montana to Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and beyond. While the company’s line of work isn’t necessarily unique in the region, it’s Air Controls level of customer service and attention that is elite.

 “Everyone can do duct work or install furnaces,” suggest Chris Schaff, vice president of Air Controls. “Our niche is in our service -the follow through in what we do and putting in what we say and backing it up. That’s what has allowed us to build more than 90 percent repeat business.”


Schaff says Air Controls has become the best in the state by focusing on customer service. “The rest is easy,” he says. “It’s the service side we really work hard at. Sometimes it’s just a matter of answering the phone because I see a lack of service in almost every other industry. It’s about going that extra mile and responding in a timely manner. We’re not perfect by any means, but I now we offer more than others in our region in terms of customer service.”

Schaff’s father, Allan Schaff, started Air Controls back in 1972. “We’ve always been a family-run business,” shares Schaff. “My grandmother was even involved for some time. I got into the business in 1996.”

But Schaff didn’t directly jump into the family business. Right after high school he joined the Navy and served in Japan for two years. “After the Navy I worked on a ranch and then decided it was time to learn the trade,” he tells. “I went to refrigeration school, finishing an eight-month program in Phoenix. From there, I went to work in Bozeman, Montana.”

In 1996, Schaff worked with the Bozeman team, starting with service and transitioning into refrigeration and small grocery store remodel projects. “In 2002 my father was trying to sell the Billings branch, but the deal fell through. “With my wife being from the area, I offered to come back and run Billings,” Schaff details. “We got back to the basics and started focusing on the repeat business and negotiated work. We also made sure to diversify so we’re not dependent on just one sector.”

Air Controls now does a little bit of everything, from residential service to commercial refrigeration and industrial HVAC. Also unique to Air Controls is a stainless-steel department and sheet metal shop. This in-house branch allows Air Controls to tackle duct work and flashing to custom hoods and fireplace fronts, sheet metal signs to chimney caps, custom cladding and more.

Air Controls Billings

Main markets

The company offers preventative maintenance programs ranging from residential homes to apartment complexes, offices, grocery stores, warehouses and other commercial buildings that utilize heating, cooling and refrigeration systems. “We offer emergency service 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” adds Schaff. “The bulk of our work is commercial, but we added a residential salesperson and doubled that market by focusing on more for high end change out jobs, which has been very successful. We’re also the number one Lennox dealer for 2014 in the state; we’ve been installing Lennox systems since the 1970s.”

Now with more than 50 employees, Air Controls is larger than most HVAC and refrigeration contractors in the region. “Our crews are licensed in multiple states, including Wyoming and North Dakota for service,” details Schaff. “Around here, everything is a bit of a drive, so we often travel six to seven hours for specific jobs.”

Going remote

One of Air Controls newest market sectors is telecommunications. “We’re working with AT&T to service and maintain a range of cell towers in our region, doing all of the critical cooling,” says Schaff. “It’s becoming another niche market for us and yet another means to diversify.”

But going to these remote locations in western Montana and Wyoming requires a considerable investment in the means to get there. “We have custom trucks with winches and flatbeds for unloading four-wheelers; there isn’t a site we can’t get to,” says Schaff. “It’s particularly difficult in western Montana and Wyoming where snow may stay on the ground all summer long. We’re bringing this capability to the table and other companies aren’t doing this. We’re going after the telecom market even more in 2015.”

From snow to hail, Schaff says Montana has seen a great deal of hail damage in recent years. “We now have a partnership with a large retail developer with 30 sites,” he shares. “We’re hired to replace all the condenser coils, changing out more than 100. I’d say we’ve done close to $750,000 just in coiler change outs, all with hail guards to prevent further damage and unit replacements.”

While Air Controls has also been a major player in the retail grocery market for years, working with clients such as Lucky’s Market, Albertson’s and Whole Foods, Schaff says the firm is growing in the food service sector, as well.

“We’ve been trained by Franke Machines to become a service provider for their specialty food machines,” he says. “Also, there’s a new account for 2015 with a great owner of 14 McDonald’s locations. He is very proactive in updating his systems and wanting to keep his stores running in top condition. He has allowed Air Controls to get into more specialty food equipment—milkshake machine, espresso and coffee machines. We’re sending some of our maintenance crews to trainings in specialty food equipment because I think it’s a good investment.”

Standing out from the crowd

Schaff says he’s happy to report the backlog going into 2015 is very strong for Air Controls. “We have 40-plus jobs going on at once now and many more coming down the line,” he reveals. “Everyone can do this kind of work so we continue to find ways to set us apart. Soon, our guys are going to use mobile devices on the service side. Crews will have tablets and pull data from our internal systems; Montana is a little behind in this area but we’re making strides.”

Schaff stresses it’s not so much the work that makes Air Controls unique, but the way the company has built a solid foundation of repeat customers. “90 percent of our business is repeat business,” he tells. “This is one reason we were named best small, family business in the state by MSU College of Business in 2012. We we’re nominated and filled out the application and eventually won for our business practices, positive employee relations and support of the industry and community.”

After 43 years, Air Controls Billings Inc. continues its reputation as one of Montana’s best union HVAC, refrigeration, sheet metal and custom stainless steel shops, building on longstanding relationships and a family tradition.

Published on: July 6, 2015

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