Interview with Gene Slade - How he grew his HVAC company from Zero to $3M in 6 Years & Sold for a nice profit

by Plumbing Marketing Profits on June 27, 2016

Plumbing & HVAC Marketing Podcast

On this episode we had the opportunity to interview Gene Slade live at our studio in Miami, Fl. He shares some amazing insights on how he was able to grow his HVAC company from Zero to $3M in just 6 years...making the INC 5,000 List twice & then sell the company for a nice profit. You can watch the live interview below:

He shares some great ideas & strategies for quickly growing your Plumbing or HVAC business

  • He did it using a little know marketing strategy that different than anything you've seen in the market place
  • It involves radio but is unlike what you have seen before. He creates a whole strategy that involves creating demand with a hour long radio show rather than a 30 or 60 second spot
  • If you'd like to talk with Gene about how he can help implement these strategies in your Plumbing or HVAC business you can schedule a meeting with him by Clicking Here

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You can Review The Transcript of the Interview Here:


Josh Nelson: This is Josh Nelson. I want to thank you for joining me on this episode of the plumbing and HVAC marketing podcast. Real excited to have back with me today, Gene Slade from the Lead Ninja, who, I just think is an amazing success story. He ran and built his business, the Air Genie in [inaudible 00:00:43] Springs for about six years and was able to grow it to the point where he hit the Inc. 5000 list two years in a row and has kind of had the full entrepreneur's journey in that he grew it, he saw the success, he was able to sell it, kind of enjoy the fruits of his labor ...


Gene Slade: For a little while, at least.


Josh Nelson: A little while. The entrepreneur never is ready just to sit back and throw their feet up. Kudos on that success. And now, has taken that knowledge on how he did that, because it's different. It's quite a bit different than the average HVAC company's marketing strategy and developed a business where he's actually implementing that for other plumbing and HVAC companies and seeing tremendous success.


I interviewed him for the podcast about a year ago, now. Since then, he started to work with a number of the other listeners to this podcast. It's been such a big success, I wanted to bring him back live in studio here where we can really drive deeper, hear some of the success and the results. Let me just welcome Gene to the podcast today.


Gene Slade: I'm excited. Love Miami. It's awesome Thanks for having me.


Josh Nelson: Absolutely. Thank you for coming. Just, let's start, tell us a little bit about your background. How you got into the HVAC business in the first place.


Gene Slade: I was forced into it. My father owned his own heating and air conditioning company. Started it when I was 11. He said, "Boy, if you want food, you want clothes, come to work." I began as a helper. By the time I was 14-15 years old, I was leading an installation crew. I had a driver. Shortly after that I got into management and then sales and ended up starting my own HVAC company.


Never really wanted to do that, but I found myself in a position where I kind of was forced into it. That's how my whole journey began as an entrepreneur.


Josh Nelson: You kind of started doing it at an early age, then you started the company. Was it an overnight success? Did it take a little while to build it up?


Gene Slade: We had success right away. Right away. I think the reason we had success, I know the reason we had success was because of the radio program that we did. I learned how to do the radio program at another company that I was a general manager for. It really launched our business from day one. It was just, it was not any waiting. We didn't have to wait for leads or any build-up. It was just bam!


Josh Nelson: You were able to be a launch success right out of the gates.


Gene Slade: Right out of the gate.


Josh Nelson: Tell us, just kind of tell us, at its peak, how many technicians, approximate revenue, if you could speak to that at all.


Gene Slade: We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 people on staff in total. That's under the roof and out in the field. We were a little over $3 million. We started and built and sold the company within six years and a day. The thing that's important to mention about the revenue itself is that we were mainly a service company. We weren't an installation company. The final year, we only did $1 million in replacements. We did over $2 million in indoor air quality and just maintenance work. Capacitors, hard starts, all that stuff.


Josh Nelson: Which is really where the profit is in this business.


Gene Slade: Yes. Yes. I never really wanted to have an installation company. I missed out on a lot of revenue. Installers are a different breed.


Josh Nelson: It's a totally different animal.


Gene Slade: Yes. Absolutely.


Josh Nelson: That's amazing. We're going to talk about the radio stuff. I know you're listening to this going, "I want to learn more about that." We're going to get there. The foundation of this whole podcast is what does it take to have an effective marketing strategy for your plumbing or HVAC business. Being a student of Dan Kennedy and the godfathers of direct response marketing, they always taught that it's about the market, the message and the media.


The market being, who are you going to sell to and who is that target audience that you're selling your services to. The message. What are you going to say. How are you going to position yourself so that you stand out and those people want to choose do to business with you. The media is how you get that message out to get those customers contacting you.


If you don't mind, just kind of break down, in that order, who was the market that you were targeting, what was the message that was different and then, how did you, what media did you use to get that message out?


Gene Slade: The market was middle to upper income, conservative talk radio listeners. We would target AM radio first. The stations that people like; Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Laura Ingram, all those people because the people that listen to those stations typically have got a little bit more disposable income and they crave comfort. They despise the inconvenience of the breakdown and the time that's missed with that. That was the market that we were targeting right out of the gate.


Josh Nelson: Interesting. That's very specific. Now, you guys have heard me do this interview with countless plumbing HVAC companies now. A lot of times it's homeowners that are 55 plus that have a certain disposable income. He's talking more about the psycho-graphics and very more specific targeting of that. It's an interesting perspective.


Gene Slade: After that, we picked up sports radio. ESPN Sports Radio. We had mad success on that.


Josh Nelson: That's been as effective as the conservative group?


Gene Slade: It's been very, very effective. We actually even picked up a country station that we simulcast at the same time. That was pretty impressive, the results I got from that as well, from a number of callers calling into the show perspective.


Josh Nelson: Very interesting.


Gene Slade: Since then, we've even jumped onto some of the religious stations. Christian radio stations. We've had some success there as well.


Josh Nelson: Very interesting. That's the market. Let's talk a little bit about the message. What were you saying that would make them choose you guys?


Josh Nelson: We're talking about maintenance. The programs are about maintenance. Why you should have your heating and air conditioning system maintained on a regular basis. Or, why you should have your plumbing system inspected. Make sure that you've got the right hoses on the back of your washing machine so they're not squirting all over the place and busting on you. They're essentially just a garden hose. Think about that for a second.


We talk about maintenance of the home indoor air quality, the effects that negative, the effects that nasty air can have on you. Molds, mildews, dusts, all the allergens and stuff like that in the air.


For plumbing and water treatment, we really focus heavy on what's in the water; the chlorines, the fluorides, the heavy metals, all of those things. We talk about all that stuff and then we give the customer an opportunity to have us come out. Backing up a little bit, we talk about that stuff, but we also talk about what it's going to look like when the technician arrives; how he's going to park in the street instead of backing up in their driveway and leaking oil all over their driveway, how he's going to put on shoe covers and respect their property, all of the things that he's going to do when he's there and the time frame that it normally takes. Most of these customers have had what I call the "drive-by" maintenance. A guy comes up, pulls in the driveway, 30 minutes later, he's out of there, spinning his wheels.


We talk about drug testing, background checks. That stuff is what customers want. It sells.


Josh Nelson: That's kind of the message, right? The message piece.


Gene Slade: Yes. Exactly. After that, we just give them an opportunity to not play Google Roulette. No offense. Or, Yellow Page Roulette. But, to get us to come out there. Somebody that they know is going to deliver that product that they want. We give them an insane offer. For my first year and a half to two years in my business, I went out for free. For free. I'd go out and spend an hour and a half, two hours, doing it for free. My average ticket was $1032.00 without selling equipment. $1032 bucks. People would go, "Oh, people just want something for free." Not when I'm talking a conservative talk radio listener that's 35-65, middle to upper income. They appreciate that value. They appreciate when something's done right. There's almost a sense of obligation. Once you've performed that service work for them ...


Josh Nelson: The principle of reciprocity.


Gene Slade: Right.


Josh Nelson: Do something for somebody and they want to do something back.


Gene Slade: We would create a list. That list had three things on it. The things that were mandatory, things that had to be done right now. The middle of the list, Charlie Greer calls it the paper towel close. He's one of my mentors, that's how I learned it. The middle section on that list were things that were going to need to be done in the near future. Then, the stuff at the bottom were things that would be just really nice to have.


You got to do this stuff. This stuff will have to be done in the near future. This stuff down here, that would be really nice to have. If you've got the money, it will never be cheaper than it is today.


Josh Nelson: Nice. A lot of people would, you'd go in there for a free check-up. Then, when you're in there, you present those three options. Some people will chose one or two and some, higher-end, will, "Let's take care of this whole thing."


Gene Slade: Right. I mean, all of my guys were trained on exactly what to say when they walked up to the door. How to walk up to the door. I come from the Airtime 500 School. I learned a lot of that stuff from them. All the guys are trained so that it's like a McDonald's experience every time they go in. Two years from now, somebody goes it, it's going to be the same thing. Then, they let the customer know upfront, "As I'm going through your system, should I find any deficiencies, you want me to share them with you?" We get permission for that upfront and then we present the same list, every single time. That was one of the things that enabled us to really have major success.


We weren't going out there, my guys weren't just going out there and winging it every time. They followed a system.


Josh Nelson: This is really cool stuff. It's a little bit different than what a lot of you guys are doing. Like you said, you know that we're internet marketing and SEO company. It's very directional advertising. We're waiting for the customer to know, "I got a problem. My water heater is broken. I've got this burst pipe." We're waiting for them to be in that urgent state. The only sliver of the market we can tap into are the people that have an urgent need. Where, there's a lot more people and a lot more homeowners that may or may not have an urgent need, but there's a problem. There's an issue with the water quality. There's an issue with the air quality.


Using his educational-based radio programs, he's tapping into that customer before they're at the urgent state, and creating demand that otherwise wouldn't exist in the market place.


Gene Slade: Exactly. It's an infomercial.


Josh Nelson: Extremely powerful. Let's talk about media. What types of media did you use to get this message out to market?


Gene Slade: For my company?


Josh Nelson: Yes.


Gene Slade: I tried a lot of different kinds. The only thing that really seemed to work for me, because I didn't know a Josh Nelson at that time, was the AM radio. AM and FM radio. 90, I think I spent $1.3 million on radio in the six years.


Josh Nelson: Wow. Unreal. Radio is pretty much it. You weren't doing Yellow Pages or any of that other stuff, or you had a little bit of that?


Gene Slade: I spent just under $100,000 on other things. The local town magazine. I'd get the centerfold page spread in that that cost me $12-1,500 bucks. If I was lucky, I'd get 10, 12, 14 leads a month. That's not even enough for one technician to run on a weekly basis. I know the struggles out there for contractors that are trying to grow. You need 60 new calls a month just to put one technician on the road. You've got to package this and this and this and this and this, if you don't have somebody like you or me who can pull in 100 or 200 leads in a month. It's really hard to grow, especially if you're not selling service agreements.


Josh Nelson: Right.


Gene Slade: That was the real key.


Josh Nelson: Okay. Every customer turned into a repeat revenue stream for you.


Gene Slade: They turned into two more appointments. That's what a lot of people don't get. They're not focused on that maintenance agreement. I might spend $100-$150 bucks to get in that door for that first customer. If I don't sell the maintenance agreement, I got to spend $300 buck or $200 buck to get two more appointments next year for that same technician to run.


I had a very competitive maintenance agreement program. Very competitive. That would lock people in for another two appointments so I didn't have to go out and market those appointments. That was what enabled me to leverage my business and really, really grow. I mean, add a new truck, once a quarter for five years.


Josh Nelson: Wow. Really, this is a marketing show that we're on. He's talking about things that are a couple steps beyond just marketing. Having the strategy, like what he's talking about, where you're not just going in for the emergency call, but you're going in with a systematized process. Here's what we're going to say. Here are the problems we're going to uncover. This is how we're going to present it. Then, we're going to get them, not for a one time buyer, but on a maintenance program where it becomes a recurring opportunity to get in that home. He can spend a lot more to get that first call than you can because he's got that strategy in place.


Gene Slade: That's now all part of the Lead Ninja System.


Josh Nelson: Awesome.


Gene Slade: The presentations that my guys would give, they're all part of what we package and give as, I don't want to say a freebie, but we don't charge any more for that knowledge and that expertise, descripting. We have audio messages. All the scripts are on audio for technicians of my clients ...


Josh Nelson: To hear the inflection.


Gene Slade: Yes. To drive around and listen to the tone, the inflection, the rhythm, the cadence.


Josh Nelson: Nice. Powerful.


Gene Slade: Now we're coming out with all of that same stuff on video. It's the trifecta. You'll have it in writing. You'll have it on audio and you'll have it on your Iphone.


Josh Nelson: It's really more than just a lead generation strategy?


Gene Slade: Oh yes. You and I can generate 100-200 leads for a customer in a month, right? But, unless they are able to monetize those, unless they are able to bring back the dough, forget it. You're not going to be able to sustain spending money on marketing. You've got to close.


Josh Nelson: It's the lead, then. It's the strategy. It's really the business model that's going to position you for success.


Gene Slade: Absolutely.


Josh Nelson: Good Stuff. We kind of had dipped our toe in it. Tell us what Lead Ninja is and what you , I know we talked about it, but give me the high level overview. Really what you bring to the table for that plumbing or HVAC company.


Gene Slade: Depending on the market, we normally work in markets where we've got 400,000 people or more. That's really our target market, if you will. What we actually do is create a radio program based on the $1.3 million I spent. You know, I did a lot of radio shows that didn't work.


Josh Nelson: Some split testing there, right? Fail, fail, fail. Wait, this one works kind of a little better.


Gene Slade: Exactly. Believe it or not, one of the shows that I did was such a success that I ran it for 5 years.


Josh Nelson: Oh Wow.


Gene Slade: Same show. Twice a week, every weekend. It would produce, produce, produce. That was how I realized that it wasn't the content that was going to get me the customers, it was the right message. It was learning what people wanted to hear, learning what they needed to hear. Then, finding another place to distribute that.


There's a guy named Larry Wingit. I don't know if you've ever heard of him. He's the world's only irritational speaker. He says that it's easier to get a new audience than it is to get a new speech.


Josh Nelson: Interesting.


Gene Slade: I found that to be very true. I took the principles that I learned from those shows and now, I just insert a company name, insert a new telephone number and I duplicate that for air conditioning, plumbing, water treatment, solar companies, all over the country.


Josh Nelson: Very interesting. You're able to put together a radio show, put it on the radio to the right audience, based on your experience, in their market and kind of generate those leads for potentially, you, as a listener or a viewer.


Gene Slade: Yes. Exactly. We do all of the negotiating and buyings of the radio. The money doesn't come through Lead Ninja. Our clients pay that directly to the radio stations.


Josh Nelson: The media buy.


Gene Slade: Right. Since I've been doig this for 10 years, I know where the radio companies are going to start and I know where we can get to. I can save my customers a ton of money. Recently, we bought a spot that's a one hour spot that a station in Dallas wanted $3,500 for, for an hour. We were able to get it down to $2,500 and get an additional 20 free commercials throughout the week that also drive business for that customer. We're able to leverage some of that experience and really keep the cost per lead down for those clients, especially in the biggest markets. That's where we see our lowest cost, really.


Josh Nelson: Okay. It's a radio program, the selection of the media, actually scripting the message and then, it sounds like some of the follow on stuff to actually make it work and understanding the strategy. There's more strategy to this than there is just spending some money on radio ads.


Gene Slade: Absolutely. Part of the Lead Ninja System is helping provide the information that the technicians are going to need in order to communicate with the customer. We provide the communications training as well. It's not anything that we charge any extra money for. It just comes with the package.


Josh Nelson: Outstanding. Talk to me a little bit about, now that you've run this for both plumbing and HVAC companies, some of the successes. How is this working out in the marketplace? Not just for you, Gene, but for some of the other clients that you've implemented for?


Gene Slade: Just to protect the names of the people that are out there that I'm working with. In one instance, I was talking about Dallas. I've got a contractor in Dallas that the year before he reached out to Lead Ninja. He was a newer business. He'd done $600,000 in revenue for that year. Pretty respectable.


Josh Nelson: Not bad. Not bad.


Gene Slade: Pretty respectable. He was hesitant to get on Lead Ninja System. Actually, he heard the podcast that we last did. He called us from that. I just talked to him two days ago. It was the 7th of the month. He'd done $100,000 for the month.


Josh Nelson: For the month.


Gene Slade: In seven days. Seven days. He's tracking at about $3 million right now.


Josh Nelson: It totally changed his business completely.


Gene Slade: In seven, six months, he went from $600,000 to tracking at over $3 million. That's 5X.


Josh Nelson: That's unbelieveable.


Gene Slade: 5X, in six months. It was immediate.


Josh Nelson: That's really the reason I wanted to get Gene back. This is the reason I wanted to get this to you and really to more other plumbing and HVAC companies, because I'm seeing this type of success happen. It's completely different than what's really available on the marketplace. That's really why I wanted to emphasis this a little bit more heavily.


How about an HVAC example?


Gene Slade: That was HVAC.


Josh Nelson: That was HVAC. How about a plumbing example?


Gene Slade: Plumbing. I've got a contractor in Greenville. Our media buy is about $900. That's what we're spending on the radio. I told him, we should be looking at somewhere between 9 to 18 new customers a week. The very first weekend, he said that his phones started ringing before we gave out the telephone number.


Josh Nelson: People were looking it up somehow?


Gene Slade: I don't know. They found him. They were like, "We're listening to the radio. You're the kind of company that we want to do business with. Can you come out and take care of us." He said that he was prepared ... a lot of us contractors have spent money on advertising. We get these advertisers that tell us, "You know, it's going to take some time for this to build up. It could take 60-90 days before you really see any results."


He was sitting there with his wife ready to answer these phones and he says, "Sweetie," they're praying about it and everything, he says, "Sweetie, I just want you to know, I'm prepared for there to be no calls today."


Josh Nelson: Despite the investment and the build up and all that sort of stuff.


Gene Slade: Yes. By the end of the hour, they'd had 33 telephone calls.


Josh Nelson: Were they prepared to handle those calls?


Gene Slade: They were struggling. They were really struggling to try to answer them all. We coached them afterwards. Everything's recorded through call recording software. We were on the phone with them, going back and forth, going, "Okay. Listen. You've got to log on, see anything that you've missed. Listen to the messages. Listen to the call recording. Make sure you got everybody." I mean, they were like, he's calling me after the show going, "This is unbelievable. Just unbelievable."


Josh Nelson: Wonderful to have that kind of impact. If you think about the impact it has on his family and his team.


Gene Slade: That's the whole thing. It's not just him and his wife. It's his team. The possibility now, especially with some of the training that we provide the technicians, I mean, I've seen guys that made $40,000 a year in installation that are now making a quarter million dollars a year as technicians.


Josh Nelson: Nice. That's really what it's all about, touching lives.


Gene Slade: Changing them, man. Forever. It's teaching somebody how to fish.


Josh Nelson: That's beautiful. That's beautiful. I'm really excited about this program. I'm excited about the impact that it's having. I think it might be a great fit for you if you're looking to drive more leads, if you're looking to drive more calls. Maybe you've tapped into the internet to the fullest extent and you're doing other things. I'm certainly not saying not to do that stuff, but this is a great additional strategy that's completely different than what most of your competition is doing.


If somebody wants to talk with you or someone on your team and learn about how they might be able to implement this, what's their next best step? What should they do?


Gene Slade: I'd go to Put your contact information in and somebody will call you.


Josh Nelson: So, that's You'll gain access to him. I'm sure there's additional details on the program. Probably your next step is to get in touch with someone at Lead Ninja. Let them talk with you about how this would apply to your business and take it from there.


Gene Slade: Yes.


Josh Nelson: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us on this, on this edition of the Plumbing and HVAC Marketing Podcast. I hope you've gotten value from it. If you'd like to learn more, if you'd like to subscribe to future episodes, you can find all the details on this page. Again, that's Here with Gene Slade. Awesome stuff.


Gene Slade: Thanks.


Josh Nelson is a marketing expert that specializes in helping Plumbing Business increase their sales & grow their business by more effectively MARKETING. He is a recognized speaker, author and regularly presents at PHCC, ACCA and Plumbing Contracting Associations. His articles have been published in Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine, Contractor Magazine and HVAC Insider. He is the author of The Complete Guide To Internet Marketing for Plumbing Contractors.

Plumbing Marketing Profits – who has written posts on Plumbing Marketing Tips, Ideas & Strategies for Plumbers | Plumber Marketing.

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