What’s Going On: For Duncklee, learning to deal with people a key to longevity
Jonathan Duncklee says it’s often exhausting to juggle the demands of customers with the needs of his employees and the necessity to keep up with technology at Duncklee Cooling & Heating, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary in business.
The second-generation owner of the Stonington-based company says the key to his business’s success has been in staying current with new technologies in the field and in connecting homeowners with various programs through the Inflation Reduction Act and various energy-reduction incentives.
“We’re in a high-tech business,” he said in an interview with me at his 6,400-square-foot complex on 3 acres off Taugwonk Road.
Duncklee, whom I run into frequently at the many chamber meetings he attends, said another key to his success has been in hiring the right people and incentivizing them to stay.
“I’m a soft skills guy,” he said, referring to his ability to manage interpersonal relationships. “I can teach the technology. ... What’s a great employee? Soft skills are at the top of the list.”
Duncklee, who is of Portuguese descent on one side of his family and proudly displayed a citizenship card he recently procured from his grandfather’s country of origin, currently has about a dozen employees, some of whom have stayed for decades. He offers $3,500 to employees who have stuck around 35 years, and also serves up a variety of other awards for longevity usually around Labor Day, plus offers bonuses around the holidays.
Such far-sighted management has helped Duncklee’s company earn Employer of the Year honors in 2012 from the Greater Mystic Area Chamber of Commerce and Small Business of the Year plaudits in 2019 from the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.
One of the biggest changes in the HVAC business through the years has been a large increase in air conditioning and energy-efficient heating installed into new homes, he said. He added that homeowners also must be talked through an exponentially higher number of choices than they had in years past.
“Transactions aren’t simple anymore,” he said. “This is not the same business it was when my father started.”
The business started in 1973 as L.H. Duncklee Refrigeration Inc. when Jonathan's father Les left an established contractor in the area to launch his own company. At one time, employees numbered nearly 40, but during the financial collapse of 2008 Jonathan had to severely cut his staff and decided to concentrate on residential customers rather than fighting for commercial and industrial work, as his father had done.
“He let me transform and shift the business to get out of the drama and high-risk stuff,” Duncklee said.
The company, he said, became a leader in promoting ductless technology which is now prevalent in so many homes because of its cost-efficiency and ability to be implemented in specific rooms rather than throughout the house, keeping costs down for consumers.
“That was a game-changer,” he said.
Duncklee said switching to residential customers has been a sweet spot for the company, allowing him to offer a concierge service that now puts him in the “indoor comfort business.”
Les Duncklee died in 2014, not long after the company’s 40th anniversary celebration, and Jonathan has since put together a Founder’s Room with memorabilia that includes several variants of the company uniform shirt as well as pictures and testimonials.
“If it wasn’t for him,” he said, “who knows where you’d be. ... He saw something in me that I never saw in myself.”
Duncklee said he promotes a professional atmosphere, providing branded vans and uniforms for employees to wear on the job as well as a well-run back office with up-to-date software to promote smooth communication between technicians and customers.
But he also knows when to change things up, such as his decision to build a kitchen in his offices during COVID. He also instituted a pet rotation that allowed employees to bring in their furry friends. Duncklee’s own dog Jessie has been a fixture at the shop for the past decade.
Duncklee says he also likes to be flexible when employees are going through a difficult time, such as the impending loss of a parent. Still licensed in his field, he’s also been known to go out on jobs to help when an extra hand is needed.
“Whatever needs to be done, you go out and help,” he said. “You have to know every aspect of your business. ... I still enjoy what I do.”
Duncklee also is very active in the community, attending many business-related meetings to network but also helping out with nonprofits such as Waterford Country School.
“It’s the giver’s gain philosophy,” he said. “It’s very symbiotic.”
Duncklee also has been known to advocate for small business, spending time in Hartford to help tweak legislation to give owners a level playing field. He cited an instance of a healthcare law that favored companies with 50 or more employees, which he was able to help change to help smaller firms.
“I see things that are wrong, things that don’t make sense, and I change them,” he smiled.
He loves to meet with out-of-region competitors as well to compare notes and get updates on best practices.
“I’m a guy who builds alliances,” he said. “We all have the same problems.”
He also likes to empower employees to supply answers to complicated questions, feeling that they feel more integral to the company if they are allowed to solve issues on their own. It’s the kind of philosophy that many micromanaging company owners could never learn, yet it seems natural to Duncklee, whose own father entrusted him with so much.
Duncklee is one of those guys who is almost universally liked in the business community, a guy who tries to find work-life balance by going on a boat ride or for a swim, but who probably in the back of his mind is always trying to solve or anticipate problems.
“I get enthusiastic about anything and everything,” he admitted to me. “I see sunshine on a rainy day.”
Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. Reach him at email@example.com.
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