By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
It’s been 40 years since Del Ray HVAC installer R&B Heating and Air Conditioning first started heating up, and things haven’t cooled down much since then.
Founders Bryan White and Ron Todt – whose initials provided the company its name – met while working for another local heating and cooling company in the 70s. In 1980, after making it to the top of the talent pool at that company, both men decided to take a shot and kickstart their own operation, with the help of White’s wife, Mary, who quit her job to work as the company’s accountant and bookkeeper.
Each of them brought their own talents to the table: Bryan White brought operational knowledge and an interest in HVAC, Todt brought his knowledge of working in the field and expertise in refrigeration and Mary White was a skilled accountant.
“Without the three of them, they probably would never have been able to lift off the company,” General Manager Mike White, Bryan and Mary’s son, said.
In the early days of the company, the founding trio did everything themselves. R&B was as classic a small, family business as there was in Alexandria.
“[Bryan] was the one who ran all the calls and did all the work, while Mary ran the admin work until they grew,” Operations Manager Phann White said.
Bryan White later brought on some of his brothers and the company gradually grew. In the mid- 80s and into the 90s, R&B hit its stride and expanded quickly to more than 40 employees before scaling back down.
“We had probably up to 12 techs and 12 crews for install, but they didn’t really want to get that big because they wanted to stay true to their roots,” Mike White said.
Even when R&B expanded beyond the immediate family, it maintained a tight-knit company culture, prioritizing deep connections with its employees and customers over extreme growth.
“We like being the neighborhood company that everybody just thinks of when they want to think about HVAC,” Phann White said.
Although times have changed in the HVAC industry, R&B’s approach to service and human connection has stayed the same.
“I think it’s just about how we treat the company like we treat our family,” Phann White said. “Everybody here is a really tightknit group. Everybody knows everybody. As long as they do their job, we make sure they’re appreciated. … You can pay anybody anything, but if you show appreciation, they stay with you longer and it shows through their work.”
It’s often a cliché for businesses to use a family metaphor, but R&B’s longstanding employees and customers speak to the company’s authentic use of the word.
Mike White spent summers doing ride-a-longs with his uncles who worked for the company and has been working with the company for 25 years. Phann White has been with the company for 19 years. Most employees have been working with R&B for at least 10 years.
That level of loyalty extends to customers both in the city and, increasingly, in Washington D.C. as well. Phone calls with customers regularly become personal conversations about the various goings on with children and grandchildren. Customers will often ask about employees who left the company years ago. R&B employees have even gone to their customers’ funerals.
R&B’s approach to everything, from an emphasis on word-of-mouth advertising to local installations, has been, and continues to be, community and customer focused.
“We take care of our own,” Phann White said.
The company’s focus on certain HVAC offerings, specifically the Unico system that’s meant to be installed in older, traditional homes without the need for remodeling, has also helped R&B carve out a niche in Alexandria and D.C.
“At one time, we were the number one Unico installation company in the area for the mid-Atlantic, and I still think we’re top seven of all the companies that sprouted up doing it,” Mike White said.
Focusing on Unico system installations has led to some high-profile projects for R&B, including museums, large historic estates and even the homes of former U.S. presidents.
Although R&B’s company culture has remained largely the same over the past 40 years, the company has had to adapt to changing trends in the HVAC industry and technology.
Phann White has been responsible for updating the company’s operations, transitioning from the founders’ old school, pen and paper approach to modern technological practices.
“This is the first year we went mobile, so we’re ticketless now,” Phann White said. “All the technicians are just doing it from their devices. Last year, I got them to finally do credit cards on the spot now and things like that.”
The past 40 years haven’t been entirely smooth sailing for the company. R&B has had to reckon with a dwindling pool of trained professionals in the field, one that, fortunately, has been eased by a renewed interest in trade schools.
“That’s the most challenging part right now, is finding employees and people who want to learn and don’t mind a little hard work,” Mike White said. “But a lot of the guys here, they’re up for a challenge. That’s one of the best parts about it.”
R&B has also had to face the 2008 market crash and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, R&B was able to keep all its employees during the pandemic and has had no infections among its staff, according to Mike White.
It’s not ideal that the company’s 40th anniversary has fallen in the middle of a pandemic, but R&B staff hope to continue providing the community with the same level of quality service for years to come.
“We just hope to be here another 40 years and just stay a part of the community, which is the most important thing for us,” Mike White said.