Alvin Hollis (AH) started a small business in south coastal Massachusetts in 1871, delivering hay and grain to his neighbors. He expanded the business with a retail store, selling flour and wholesale supplies to the farming community, eventually adding wood and ice delivery to his services. As the years passed, the company expanded to deliver changing heat sources. The business began to deliver coal to heat the community’s homes and eventually heating oil.
AH is now a very different company. In its fourth generation of family ownership, AH has become the South Shore’s expert for heating, oil, plumbing and HVAC solutions.
Len Bicknell, Alvin’s great-grandson, president and CEO of AH, now leads the business alongside his brother, Jim Bicknell, co-owner and co-director. Len has been involved in the business since he was 15 years old, almost 50 years ago. The brothers lead a team of 60 employees out of a single location in South Weymouth, Mass.
The company now offers plumbing contracting and services, heating oil delivery, air conditioning and heating service and installation, indoor air quality services, as well as annual maintenance programs. AH has established a niche in heating oil delivery and oil burner service. With the energy industry in a state of flux, the fastest growing side of the business has been HVAC in recent years. Most of the company’s business comes from residential customers with less than 10 percent of revenue coming from commercial work.
“Most of our work is aftermarket, repair or replacement work,” Len explains. “Most of our customers are homeowners, so we act as the independent contractor on these projects. We’ve always been involved in new construction as a subcontractor, but most of our business today is for existing homes.”
Len’s experienced team has been performing quality HVAC work and oil delivery services for decades. “A changing market has provided the opportunity to expand into natural gas services,” Len details. “Approximately 50 percent of the homes in the region are heated by gas, and many customers are switching over to save money on heating costs.” Len and his team make a point to stay ahead of technology in order to maintain a high level of service while remaining competitive.
“As you know, there has been a lot of technological development in heating and air conditioning, particularly with condensing gas equipment,” Len explains. “We have been very involved in technology, upgrading furnaces, boilers and water heaters. A lot of that is driven by the utility rebate structure. The gas utilities offer generous cash rebates for high-efficiency equipment.”
Len goes on to note that Mass Save is an electric utility program that serves as a financing vehicle for high efficiency air conditioning, heat pumps and heating systems of all types. “There are marketing forces beyond supply and demand driving the efficiency trend,” he continues.
Thriving in a changing market
AH has a history of evolving with the market, a quality that has kept the business in operation for more than 140 years. Despite the recent recession, Len and his team have managed to hold steady. When the new construction market retracted, the team found new challenges. While many customers have been hesitant to spend money in recent years, the utility rebate structure has allowed consumers to take advantage of better pricing to update aging equipment.
The company provides lasting value to customers. Newer equipment is designed for efficiency, so when customers replace systems in a home, the project becomes an investment. Over the coming years, energy and heating costs can be greatly reduced by this new equipment.
“The drive from the energy efficiency industry has helped us rebound from the economic downturn,” Len notes. “It has been a very positive thing for the industry and it is good for homeowners. Financing helps with the feasibility of a project, allowing homeowners to get the equipment replaced sooner. Mass Save offers zero-percent financing for seven years for high efficiency heating and air conditioning.”
On top of value, AH provides a high level of service and community responsibility, building a strong reputation in the area. Len notes that communication is the team’s strongest tool, whether with suppliers, clients or neighbors. The business is actively involved with several nonprofits, as well as the local hospital. This dedication to positive interactions continues to provide growth opportunities in Massachusetts. As the economy makes a steady comeback and energy initiatives support the industry, AH is attracting a steady flow of business.
Always looking to expand his horizons, Len says the company’s growth may take his team in new directions. “There are some opportunities in propane and green energy products,” he says. “In the coming years, we will certainly be expanding within our current niche. I think we will acquire some of our oil competitors. HVAC also has a lot of potential because those systems require regular maintenance and become outdated quickly with new technology. That part of our business has seen steady growth for a while now.” Whether adopting new markets or growing in existing ones, Len and his team remain dedicated to the core values that have made Alvin Hollis successful for more than 140 years.
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