Conditioned to weather turbulent times

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Jim Steward never expected to get his multimillion-dollar heating, ventilation and cooling business back when he sold it to a national company in 1998 in a cash and stock deal.

He was ready to move on. The third generation sheet metal and HVAC industry operator wanted to help deserving local nonprofits — and to devote more time to flying planes and building his own aircraft.

But when the new owner filed bankruptcy in February 2003, Steward got back to work.

Seven years later, not only has HVAC Solutions Inc. survived setbacks and outlasted competitors, but will top $8 million in revenues again this year.

And in his spare time, Steward still spearheads an annual “In Their Memory” air show at the Colorado Springs Airport that benefits both his service club and area kids’ projects.

He recently took a few minutes to tell the CSBJ about his business.

As a business owner, why did you decide to help start the Pikes Peak Mechanical Contractor’s Association?

It all came about in the early 1990s following the death of a family due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The city suddenly decided that local heating contractors weren’t doing their job. City Council directed Colorado Springs Utilities to get into the HVAC business. Those of us in the industry didn’t think we should have to compete with the city. Not only did we invite CSU to provide training to our members, but we also instituted a certification program, Mech 4, designed for mechanical contractors, plumbers and those in the heating industry — anyone who works on appliances. We also provide six hours of continuing education on Pikes Peak Regional Building code updates and regulations. In fact, we invite Regional Building and Utilities to teach some of our classes.

How long have you been in the industry?

All my life. My granddad owned a sheet metal business and my granddad began installing gravity furnaces. Later I worked for my dad after school in the family business and eventually went to work for a plumbing contractor in Denver before returning to Colorado Springs to start my own business.

Today about 80 percent of our business is new commercial work and 15 percent is residential replacement or add-on air conditioning. The balance is HVAC service.

You’re an avid pilot. Do you fly for your work?

Not really. It’s mostly a hobby that started in the 1960s. My goal was to become an airline pilot, but back then there was a slump in the industry so I became a flight instructor instead.

You’ve weathered a lot of up and down economic cycles. How did you do it?

First I have to say that this current down cycle is the worst I’ve seen so far. I’ve lived through the gas moratorium in the 1970s when the city wasn’t allowing anymore new gas taps. That’s when we shifted from gas furnaces to electric. Then we became the “foreclosure capital” of the country in the 1980s. Fortunately we hadn’t built our business like so many other contractors had on “Star Wars.” That was before the Challenger explosion, when all the local builders thought Schriever Air Force Base was going to become the back-up to Houston with its space shuttle and Star Wars program. The community was tremendously overbuilt. Once Star Wars was abandoned and new construction stopped, a lot of our competition just disappeared.

Audio excerpt of the interview with Jim Steward.