Jim Abrams Featured

5:40am EDT May 17, 2006
Jim Abrams had built the world’s largest Weight Watchers franchise and one of the most profitable HVAC companies in the country, and he was ready to retire.

He bought a house in Siesta Key in the 1990s, but after a year and a half, he was bored — and ready to return to work and start over. He founded Clockwork Home Services Inc. in 1998, and the company anticipates 2006 sales of $180 million.

Clockwork builds branded companies in the home services market, focusing on plumbing, electrical, HVAC and roofing. One Hour Air Conditioning, a Clockwork franchise, is the second-fastest growing HVAC company in the world. Another franchise, Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, is the third-largest plumbing company in North America, behind Roto-Rooter and Mr. Rooter.

Smart Business spoke with Abrams, chief operations officer, president and CEO of Clockwork Home Services, about how he defines success and how he finds the right employees to grow his business.

Make a decision, even if it’s wrong. I like to get away from it before I make a huge decision. That’s the most challenging thing in business — that and dealing with personnel. I had an early mentor in life who said, ‘If you went to the track every day and bet every race and you won 51 percent, you’ll be all right.”

If you go into business, you have to be willing to make a lot of decisions and have to accept the fact that a lot of them will be wrong. In the decision-making process, I’ve lost count of wrong decisions I’ve made. In the big ones, there’s always reluctance and always fear of change, but that early guidance resonates in my mind. I’ve missed opportunities and done things I shouldn’t have done, but the next big decision is correcting an earlier mistake.

Lead by setting goals. My business has great people as divisional presidents, and I trust them a great deal. I’d call myself more of a guide than a leader. I help them assist what they want to achieve as opposed to necessarily leading them to that.

I would define leadership as the ability to set goals and put a team in place that’s necessary to achieve those goals and coach the team to the successful completion of those goals.

Define success by your own standards. I read where Vince Lombardi said there’s three things important to him — his relationship with God, his relationship with his family and his career. And the measurement of each of those things over the course of a life will determine success.

That’s a pretty good answer for me. I consider my father, who is 82 years old, one of the most successful people I’ve ever known, and he didn’t achieve great wealth. He’s a very happy man, he served his country in World War II and he’s definitely a contributing American and an individual I’m proud to call my father.

You can’t say ‘Here’s my success, now you must have the same.’

Implement core standards. We have five core standards. One, we practice superior business ethics; two, we guarantee service excellence; three, we want to be the place to be, we pay our people more than anyone in the industry and we offer better benefits; four, we want to provide an equity opportunity for employees that share the vision and passion; and five, we want to become the largest and most profitable home services company. From the beginning, that’s been our foundation. That hasn’t changed since Day One.

Find the right employees for the job. We’re a drug-free company, so that makes it difficult for us in today’s world. We have ongoing drug testing on an every month basis — one-fourth of our personnel is tested each month.

But I’m putting people in other people’s homes. If a consumer is harmed in their home, it almost always leads back to drug use by the workers. That makes it difficult for us. Of 100 people that might respond to an ad, less than five will meet our standard of a drug test and criminal background check.

After that, second is the competence level necessary for the job you’re applying for. Third is I’m looking for people who like people. We’re in the service business. If you can’t smile and aren’t friendly and don’t like people, you’re probably not going to thrive here.

We serve people here at every level. This is truly a service business. At higher levels, I want people with very strong ambitions and a sense of purpose looking to get something big accomplished in their life, because we’re looking to do some really big things here.

Keep the right people when integrating companies. I have had businesses that I’ve acquired that, upon acquisition, my manager had to lay off people. It’s never a pleasant thing, and what dictates it is the amount of work available.

We may buy a company that is financially troubled and tremendously overstaffed. One must correct the mistakes of prior ownership, or else you’re just destined to repeat them again.

Find a balance between work and play. I definitely need the time away from work. I go back to that Lombardi quote again. Having piled up a great deal of money and no one around you to enjoy it with would be a wasteful life.

I do not work 16 hours a day. I will if I have to. But generally speaking, if you have the right people in place, the mark of a really good GM or president or CEO of a company is that freedom of time.

How to reach: Clockwork Home Services Inc., www.venvestinc.com