Not so long ago, women in the HVAC space were hard to find, particularly women in leadership and technical positions. This phenomenon is gradually changing, point out three women who have established careers in this traditionally male-dominated field.
Laura DiFilippo, president of DiFilippo’s Service Company in Paoli, PA, first got involved in HVAC industry when her husband Vince needed some help and asked, “How do you feel about doing the books once a week from home?” At the time a stay-at-home Mom with a solid business background, DiFilippo agreed. Then, as her children got older, she ventured into the office once a week, adding more days with the passage of time.
“Now I run the company and go into the office every day,” she says. “I’m really good at what I do, which is the business. My husband is really good at what he does, which is sales, technical, and training. We play well with each other.”
According to DiFilippo, it was her husband’s idea—because of her contributions—to make her the president and co-owner of the business. “The truth is Vince would rather poke his eyes out with needles than sit in a meeting,” she says. “He doesn’t want to run things and is totally confident that I can. He trusts I will do this in the best possible way, but that doesn’t mean I don’t keep him in the loop. We talk about things.”
The second-generation company generated about $2.2 million last year. Of the 13 employees, three are women: the office manager and two office workers. Unfortunately, she says, a female ex-military technician “with a great attitude” recently relocated to another state because of family obligations. “It’s a shame,” she says.
DiFilippo believes that having a strong woman as a leader gives an HVAC company a better perspective of what the residential market looks like. “I am the market,” she says. “I know and understand the market.”
DiFilippo, ACCA’s first and only female chairman, and who now chairs the Great Future Committee, admits she occasionally encounters cynics who don’t take her seriously because they think, “She’s just Vince’s wife.” She doesn’t let those misguided types faze her.
“Of course, there will be naysayers, but that can’t stop us as women from doing the things we do or being the people we are. My dad always taught me to be myself. If I could give any young woman advice, whether on the technical side, on the administrative side, or in leadership positions, it would be not to worry about who the industry thinks you should be. Just be you.”
Installing an Ego Wall
After a career as a stockbroker in ‘70s and ‘80s, “when women had to fight for what we wanted,” Teressa Dew doesn’t give much thought to her role in a male-dominated career. The secretary/treasurer of Dew’s Comfort Systems does admit, however, that when she decided to take an active role in the North Myrtle Beach business in 2010, she decided to hang her diplomas for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in her office.
“I have never had an ego wall, but mainly men work for me, and I wanted them to take me seriously,” Dew explains. “I didn’t make a big deal of it. I just put up my diplomas, so when they come in thinking they know more than I do, they can take a look around.”
The family business started in 1947, primarily specializing in hardware and major appliance sales and service. “In the early 2000s, we decided to get into the HVAC business, because our customers were requesting it,” she says. “We have a lot of absentee owners who trust us. We’re trying to build on that trust, because they have dealt with us for so many years, first with our parents, and now with my brothers and I. It’s something we can offer, and they can rest assured we will take good care of them.”
In Dew’s experience, females make the majority of decisions when purchasing appliances and HVAC. “With HVAC, it’s not about pretty,” she says. “It’s about comfort, and optimizing the power bill. The woman wants to know the system is comfortable and reliable. She doesn’t want it to fail on July 4. It’s peace of mind.”
That is one reason why she believes salesmen who want to succeed should consider every question from a female customer valid. “Men need to know not to talk down to a woman, because she may be just as smart or smarter than they are.”
A Happy Accident
Unlike many women in HVAC, who either married or were born into a family business, Angie White found her calling completely by accident.
“I moved to a city to live with my best friend from college, and I was looking for a job,” explains the customer service manager and director of human resources, AAA Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Kent, WA.
“I found an office job in 2006 at an HVAC company. I didn’t really even know the industry existed before then. I grew to love the industry and decided my lifelong passion was to be in HVAC. It was a happy accident.”
At her first job—she moved to her current HVAC company in 2009—she wondered about the obvious lack of women. “When I looked around, all I would see were male technicians and male managers. It made me question, ‘Why are females not in the field? Why aren’t there female leaders in the industry?’”
Now, as a manager at AAA, she has made it a personal goal to recruit women. “I believe it is super important that we get woman in the doors,” she says. “I don’t want this to be a male-dominated industry. I’m very conscious about going after women and recruiting women, but that’s not to say that men can’t get the job. We hire plenty of men.”
The company, which has 30 employees, is a residential contractor—with a little bit of light commercial—that performs maintenance, service, installation, and duct work. Of the 15 technicians, five are women. “I really hope that eventually I can get up to 50 percent of women in the field,” she says. “I don’t know that I can, but I’m going to try.”
To recruit employees, White pays special attention to the advertisement. “I put Entry Level in the job title, because a lot of people don’t have any way to enter the industry,” she says. “We train people from the ground up. I say, ‘Women and men encouraged to apply.’ I list the benefits and pay. I’m very clear in my job ad about why they should work for us. I have a special note for women where I explain that although this is a male-dominated industry we actively encourage women to apply.”
Once she has narrowed down the applications, she performs a phone interview without telling candidates that’s what it is. By saying she just wants to talk, she finds that candidates are more at ease. She asks the same standard questions of all candidates, and anyone who passes that initial screening comes in for an in-person interview with her and the operations manager. During the one-on-one, she screens for personality and fit; then screens for mechanical aptitude.
During the phone interview, White tells prospects all of the bad aspects of the job that they may not know about, such as going into gross crawl spaces and attics where they might meet unexpected critters and working in the pouring rain and extreme heat. “It weeds out people we might have hired who would have been excited until they actually got into the position.” Her philosophy: Why waste valuable training time on those who won’t stay around?
Once hired, women are expected to do everything a male counterpart does with one exception, according to White. “If they are working in the installation department and they don’t have the strength, they might receive some accommodations. We make it really clear upfront that this is the job, and they physically have to be able to do it.”