Companies that have been in business for more than a century are few and far between, especially in light of the recent recession. There is a handful and one of which is New Jersey-based Dowling HVAC (Dowling). The family-owned and -operated company has managed to not only survive, but thrive for more than 119 years.
Specializing in full-service HVAC and fuel oil, Dowling sets itself apart through second-to-none service and customer care. “In this industry, most products are of the same quality in comparison to what others are offering in the market, so we have to set ourselves apart with quality service that really stands out,” says Chris Behrens, vice president and third-generation family member of Dowling. “Aside from being in business for 119 years, it’s our service that really shines at Dowling.”
A family model
Dowling started out as a family-owned business and while under another family, the same values remain. “Shortly after World War I, my grandfather and his three brothers founded Behrens Brothers,” recalls Behrens. “Two of the brothers decided to keep running Behrens Brothers and my grandfather and one brother acquired Dowling in the 1940s. Dowling dates back to 1895 when the company was established by the Dowling family, but we have kept it under the original family name.”
Keeping up the tradition, Behrens entered the industry in the spring of his graduating year of business school. “I didn’t join the family business right away,” he reveals. “First I spent eight years working for other companies to gain outside experience.”
One of which was a company based in Switzerland where Behrens spent five years doing industrial water purification. “I was recruited by the president of the company who attended the same college,” recounts Behrens. “They needed an engineer who spoke French and I fit the bill.”
Now serving as vice president of Dowling, Behrens is just one of the firm’s longstanding employees. “We have 15 employees,” notes Behrens. “Most of them have been here for 10, 20 and even 30 years -they’re basically like family. In fact, our shortest term employee has been with us for eight years.”
Today, Dowling has a single location in New Jersey and the company serves approximately a 50-mile radius, covering Bergen, Passaic, Essex and Hudson counties. “Our niche is primarily residential HVAC and fuel oil,” says Behrens. “Dowling has been in the fuel oil business since the early 1930s and we have always installed and serviced oil heating equipment, but we diversified into gas heat and air conditioning about 12 years ago.”
Diversifying according to market dynamics
Behrens says the switch was a result of a changing market and after 100 years, it was sink or swim. “The fuel market in certain parts of the country is still going strong -Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont- it’s still mostly oil and propane, but in northeast New Jersey and the suburbs of New York City, the market has heavily shifted toward gas,” he explains. “The gas market is increasing every year in this area.”
As a result, Behrens says he sees less emphasis on fuel oil and more in HVAC services and plumbing in Dowling’s near future. “In addition to home heating, air conditioning and indoor air quality, we’re going to be getting into more plumbing and bio-heat soon,” he adds. “Bio-heat is a combination of bio diesel and heating oil.”
Like most New Jersey companies, the economic downturn hit Dowling fairly hard and Behrens says the company is still feeling the pinch. “The decline in the oil market has also been a huge factor,” he details. “It has forced us to diversify and cut as many costs as possible.”
While the stock market seems to show optimistic signs of growth, Behrens says it’s not the best indicator of how real people feel. “The general public still feels like the economy is still fairly lousy and that has a negative aspect on sales,” he considers. “When people aren’t confident, they’re less likely to make a significant investment in new equipment or upgrades.”
But Dowling hasn’t come this far without putting up a good fight and evolving alongside the market. “I see us switching to primarily an HVAC company with less fuel oil service,” reveals Behrens. “We may get into light commercial work and plumbing as well. You have to do what your customers want.”
“Customer service and profitability go hand in hand,” adds Behrens. “A company cannot be profitable without happy customers. If you take care of your customers and employees, everything else will follow. That’s why we spend so much time and money on employee recruiting and training. Great people will result in customers who are not just satisfied, but thrilled with your performance. And that means a successful business.” That’s been the mantra for more than a century for Dowling HVAC and so far, it has served the company well.
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