Keeping air systems humming
by Keith Morrill
Four years ago on April 1, brothers Jason (left) and Shaun Patnaude teamed up to launch Alliance Mechanical in Essex Junction. As of this year, their $10 million company employs 50 and has a fleet of almost 40 vehicles.
Brothers Jason and Shaun Patnaude have a long history of working together — well beyond the time when most brothers would have been contented to keep their personal and business lives separate.
First it was growing up on the family farm in Charlotte, not quite enjoying the milking of cows. For two years in the mid ’80s, it was assembling and installing every Megabucks machine across Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. In the ’90s, it was a six-year business venture that went by the name of Patco Air.
And now, after a lifetime of perfecting their partnership, the Patnaude brothers have settled upon their latest venture as owners of Alliance Mechanical, a company that specializes in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) and building automation, service, repair, and installation.
Talking to them, you sense the sort of partnership to which only brothers can lay claim. They talk over each other, finish each other’s stories, and refine each other’s statements by immediately saying them better than the other — all the time not skipping a beat. There is ample evidence that this dynamic has served them well.
In just over four years Alliance Mechanical has grown into a $10 million company, and, on April 1, its four-year anniversary, achieved its goal of $1 million in maintenance agreements. Furthermore, the company now employs 50 and maintains a fleet of nearly 40 vehicles, servicing customers spread throughout upstate New York, Vermont, and western New Hampshire. Included in its diverse clientele are Vermont Teddy Bear factory, the Essex Police Department, and New England Federal Credit Union.
The Patnaudes say their rapid expansion comes from having built their company around a part of their industry that most others shy away from. “Our competition is all old-school,” says Jason, the president.
Shaun, vice president, clarifies. “They’re a construction company that does service. We’re a service company that will do some construction.”
“Service is our backbone,” Jason says.
At its most basic level, service in this business means helping customers maintain their heating and air-conditioning equipment (repairing and replacing them as needed) to keep systems humming harmoniously. But it also involves helping customers resolve problems before the equipment has a chance to malfunction at critical times and to forecast life expectancy of equipment.
A favorite line the Patnaudes use with customers goes, according to Jason, something like this: “You go out and buy yourself a new Caddie for 50 grand, are you just going to drive it for the next five years and never change the oil?” When customers invariably answer in the negative, he gives them a good-natured ribbing, saying, “Well, you bought this piece of equipment for, say, one-hundred grand; are you just going to let it run for five years without having any trained guys look at it?”
Businesses that fail to nurture their equipment often find themselves in crisis at the worst of times, particularly during seasonal temperature extremes. This creates two busy seasons for Alliance Mechanical — spring and fall — exactly when customers need their maintenance on cooling and heating systems to ensure optimal performance for the upcoming season. This also tends to be when Alliance Mechanical picks up new customers, whose systems have degraded during a season of disuse and are not ready for that first start-up of the season.
The brothers impressed Jim Westhelle, vice president of base operations and lodging at Sugarbush Resort. “We were with another contractor and were getting somewhat frustrated by the service, and Shaun came in and looked at the property, evaluated it, and made a plan,” he says. “They have our seasonal or yearly maintenance contract on all of our HVAC equipment resort-wide,”
On top of scheduled preventive maintenance for current customers, the manpower required to cover the rash of calls from new customers is significant during these peak seasons. “We have 5,000 hours of maintenance to do in the spring, 5,000 to do in the fall,” says Shaun, adding, “That has to happen in two months, so it can be a bit of a push sometimes.”
To meet the service needs of these customers, the company employs 50 individuals, most of whom are service techs. “It takes a special kind of person to be a service tech,” says Shaun, explaining the role as “part electrician, part chemist, part biotech, part refrigeration technician.” The Patnaudes admit that finding people with such qualifications is a tall order, and that doing so is one of the most challenging aspects of running the company.
Bobby Thomas, the building manager for the Department of Homeland Security in South Burlington, attests to the quality of Alliance Mechanical employees, citing them as the primary reason he decided to hire Alliance Mechanical to provide quarterly service to the seven rooftop units at 70 Kimball Avenue. “That’s one of the reasons I chose Alliance, anyway, because of the people that they hire. He goes on to extol the automated building systems, another service offered by Alliance. Thomas adds, “I can control the temperature of every room in that building — all three floors — from a keyboard.”
Such building automations represent only one area that, in the last year, Alliance Mechanical has capitalized on. Recently, the Patnaudes brought on in-house engineer Skip Stuart. Shaun explains, “Now when we meet with a customer and they want to change a system, we can provide the engineering, so it’s a savings to them.”
This aim to provide one-stop shopping for their customers helps to underscore why they say it is necessary to run a business oriented toward service maintenance. “Everyone can hang a piece of pipe. Most companies can weld a piece of ductwork, install a piece of ductwork, and replace a pipe,” says Shaun.
The Patnaudes spent their early years cultivating their work ethic on Mary Maude Farm, their family’s Charlotte homestead, with brothers Wes and Rick. The two graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School, Jason in ’83 and Shaun in ’87. Jason began his education at Champlain College, but finished at Platt Technical Institute in West Haven, Conn., in ’88, whereupon he moved back to Vermont and worked for New England Air Systems. When Shaun graduated, he worked for their older brother Wes at his business, Wes Patnaude Excavation.
In 1991, the brothers started Patco Air, an HVAC business that offered high-end residential installation service. By the time they made the decision to leave behind the clerical aspects of HVAC and sell the business in ’97, Patco Air employed roughly half a dozen. The brothers made an amicable split, and each found positions with other firms.
Over the next several years, both brothers worked their way up the ladder in their respective companies. They were both living in Charlotte, as they still do, with their families. Jason and his wife, Mary, the owner of JP’s Restaurant in Essex, have three children: Sharon, Bradley, and Michael. Shaun and his wife, Amanda, administrative assistant at Lamoureux & Dickinson, also have three children: Holly, Brendan, and Nicole.
Things started souring for both men professionally around the same time. Shaun had worked his way up to project manager at his job when the owner decided to split the company, giving the service half to his son, and the construction half to his daughter. Jason had worked his way toward an executive position where he worked, overseeing the entire service end of the business, but due to a recent falling-out within the company was looking for other options.
It was Thanksgiving 2009 and, over turkey day fare at their parents’ home, the brothers used the family gathering the way such events are intended: to discuss their current situations. Over the course of the day, Jason and Shaun decided it was time to try their hand again at co-helming a business.
“We could both see a huge demand for a more customer service–related company,” says Jason, explaining they both felt dissatisfied working in an industry where long-term relationships with customers were perfunctory, often lasting no longer than a single project. “We’d always try to build customer relations and they’d get cut off because of these big contracts.” From this mutual distaste for business as they had known it, the idea for Alliance Mechanical was born. •