Photo by Donald A. Promnitz From left: Tyson Freeman, Jeffrey Stamps, Jessne Flores, Annette Morris, Tom Howard, Mary Aganza, Ben Nuno, Jared Vawter and Marlon Lizardo stand for a photo. Lee’s Air has grown at a rate of 128 percent since 2015, and engages in a program that puts its employees through college.

published on November 30, 2018 - 7:00 AM
Written by Donald A. Promnitz

When Tyson Freeman was getting his degree in mechanical engineering from Fresno State, he and his classmates would often discuss the careers they wanted to pursue upon graduation.

Freeman wanted to work for Boeing, but his boss at Fresno-based Lee’s Air Conditioning, Heating and Building Performance, Owner and President Tom Howard, showed him some of the projects he had been working on, and recruited Freeman to help. At first, Freeman was hesitant about the opportunity, but over time, his outlook began to change.

“I started to see the impact and the power that a small business could have on the local community, and it started to resonate with me,” Freeman said. “And I realized that I could actually have an effect on peers and family members of the area, and I really liked that.”

He credited this impact with giving him a greater sense of purpose in his degree. After graduation, he even received a tour of Sargento Foods Inc. in Wisconsin (arranged by Howard). Freeman ultimately decided to stay on, now serving as the general manager for Lee’s Air.

Freeman, however, also received his degree with Howard’s help. In fact, he’s one of more than a dozen employees since 2009 to be put through college or career education through Lee’s Air in a program that covers not only tuition, but also books and parking. They receive this aid under the condition that the employees pass their classes, which are relevant to their work. This has led to an investment of $145,814 in professional development, not counting in-house training.

The reason for this program, according to Howard, is twofold. While he does pay for tuition in large part because it’s a service to those working under him, it further serves a pragmatic, business-oriented end.

The Valley – with its blazing-hot summers – is flush with air conditioning repair businesses.

“In our industry, we’re really lacking on skilled labor and skilled talent,” Howard said. “There are about 230 companies that have licenses in the City of Fresno. I would feel comfortable with about four of them working on my house.”

Howard added that having a skilled workforce results in fewer warranty calls, which can take up as much as 5 percent of the air conditioning company’s revenue. And while Howard may spend $40,000 in tuition reimbursements, he can also save hundreds of thousands in the warranty calls, and also reduce the turnover rate.

To further help keep people around, Howard added that he tries to make the working environment as enjoyable as possible, including a break room decked with massage chairs for his employees.

“I remember when I was a kid, I thought, ‘if I ever owned a company, I’d want to make it a company that’s profitable, but I also want to make it a place that I would’ve wanted to work when I was an employee,’” Howard said.

However, the program doesn’t just extend to the service field. The Lee’s Air program will sometimes provide on-the-job training for the employees’ desired careers. For example, Lee’s Air bookkeeper Marlon Lizardo has seen his own responsibilities increased in the office. This extra work, he said, has helped him in his goal to become a certified public accountant.

“[Howard] has made it known that that is what he wants from me,” Lizardo said. “He wants me to grow in the field.”

Meanwhile, Lee’s Air has seen a period of rapid growth. Since 2015, the company has seen its revenues increase by 128 percent, bringing in $12.6 million last year. According to Inc. 5000’s list of the fastest growing companies in America, they placed No. 4 in the Central Valley.

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