Sheet metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association

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St. Louis’ contractors and labor create residential marketing magic

SMART Contractors for youtube2250pixSMACNA contractors in St. Louis “own” residential new construction. Post World War II, there was a home-building boom in St. Louis, and signatory contractors got almost all of the work, said Jack Goldkamp, executive vice president of SMACNA St. Louis.

That has changed, however, SMACNA contractors still dominate the new construction market here, but the same cannot be said for the area residential service market. “New construction requires a lot more capital investment, so non-union contractors—who only need tanks and gauges—simply moved in on the [residential] service work. We let them, because we did not see it as a market for the future,” Mr. Goldkamp said.

That attitude has changed over time, with contractors and SMART Local 36 coming together to implement initiatives to take back the residential work. “Contractors have had to change their business model toward more replacement and service work,” said Ed Hoganson, the St. Louis director of marketing for SMART Local 36.

St. Louis started with training and incentive programs

“Our efforts started with putting a new training curriculum in place to teach our apprentices and journeymen how to handle this sort of work,” Mr. Hoganson said. Twenty years later, St. Louis has a new apprenticeship training facility that includes a residential service tear-out and replacement lab, which is the envy of the country.

Of course, having trained technicians doesn’t help without customers to put them to work. To initially woo customers, the union offered rebates for installing new residential heating and cooling systems.

“Customers could get $250—paid entirely by SMART Local 36—for putting in a new system,” Mr. Goldkamp said. “It was a terrific deal and hugely successful.”The initial rebate program proved economically challenging.

Working together, SMACNA and SMART modified the program after a couple of years to a more manageable one, currently in place, that offers residential customers $25 to enroll in an annual preventative maintenance agreement. The union pays $15, and the participating contractor subsidizes the remaining amount. “It’s a good program that helps our money go farther and supports a long-term relationship with customers,” Mr. Goldkamp said.

The “SMART St. Louis” marketing program is born

However, neither SMACNA St. Louis nor Local 36 wanted to depend on rebates as the only way to keep contractors and their signatory labor busy. “We were spending quite a bit of money, but we needed to get a better return on our investment, which meant increasing man-hours,” Mr. Hoganson said. “We decided the best way to do that was to promote our contractors.”

Out of this thought was born the “SMART St. Louis” marketing program, similar to the “I Want SMART” program in Chicago. Although it uses the SMART union name, the program focuses on helping customers make intelligent decisions. “We wanted the customer’s perception to remain union-neutral to ensure that our contractors could have the most success,” Mr. Hoganson said.

 Internet, social media, and radio advertising reap results

“We started year one with a shoestring budget,” Mr. Goldkamp said. Within the chapter, 15 of the 20 residential contractors chose to participate, contributing $2,500 each. The union matched the funds, and together the team set out to implement a branding program accompanied by a new website, Facebook page, and print, radio, and email advertising.

“Starting from scratch, it was a heck of a learning curve, because there was no model,” Mr. Hoganson said. “We had to reach out and find a web developer and marketer to help mentor us.” Funding efforts also increased and diversified.

Becoming consumers’ “go to” place for reliable contractors

The St. Louis SMART/SMACNA partnership discarded email and print marketing, which had not performed well, and advertised heavily on a major radio station in the area and invested in internet search engine optimization to land up high on the list during internet searches.

The SMART St. Louis Facebook page highlights a different contractor each month, and website visitors who submit their email addresses can win a prize. “We have gathered almost 1,000 email addresses from that initiative alone. We use Constant Contact to reach those people to remind them about the contests and about special offers,” Mr. Goldkamp said. The website also has a blog, with such topics as available rebates and how to choose the best contractor.

Both Mr. Hoganson and Mr. Goldkamp believe name recognition for the program has increased over the past year. “Our ultimate goal is to have consumers become familiar with SMART St. Louis and know that is the place to find trustworthy and reliable contractors to perform their work,” Mr. Goldkamp said. Indeed, work hours have picked up since the lows of a couple of years ago. “We had hot sticky weather for an extended period of time, which helps, and we came out of the recession with pent-up demand. Still, this program complements everything,” Mr. Hoganson concluded.

Sheet metal workers and HVAC contractors create smart choice for St. Louis (Labor Tribune)