Family is the secret to Pharos’ success
Through 35 years, two companies, and a leadership transition to a second generation, Bill and Nancy Pharo have built Pharo Heating & Cooling and Pharo Marine by treating everyone like family.
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Now in its second generation, Pharo Heating & Cooling is a family business that has survived and thrived by making its employees part of the family.
This isn’t unique or unheard of, but in the case of the 35-year-old Waunakee company it’s all part of what’s allowed Pharo to weather multiple recessions and add the spinoff Pharo Marine.
Pharo Heating & Cooling wasn’t owner Bill Pharo’s first foray into the heating and cooling industry. He got his start years earlier working with his grandfather, father, and two uncles in his grandfather’s business, Pharo Plumbing and Heating.
When that business dissolved in 1975, Bill found other work, but after meeting his wife Nancy in 1982 and getting engaged, Bill got serious about the prospect of starting his own business. Despite a disadvantageous market at the time, Bill wanted to build something for his family’s future. “Interest rates were 15%–16%, nobody had money, it was a crazy time,” Bill says. “I decided to throw my hat in the ring and started bidding on jobs.”
He placed that first bid in November 1982 and landed his first small job in December. The first big job came in February 1983, for Don Simon Homes (now Veridian Homes). “That job with Don Simon gave us the stability we needed to officially get started as a business,” notes Bill.
From there, Bill focused on doing what he did best. “I had the mechanical aptitude and focused on getting jobs done right. I was pretty good at everything but the paperwork, and that’s where Nancy came in with her great organizational skills.”
Nancy was working as a speech pathologist, but as the business quickly grew in that first year, she became involved in managing the business, helping wherever she was needed.
“I remember late in the summer of 1983, I was a few months pregnant with our first son Clint, feeling sick as can be, and there I was holding up ductwork for condos that were being built in DeForest,” Nancy laughs. “At the time, we weren’t thinking about what this business might grow into. Bill and I just did what needed to be done.”
Work picked up and in February 1984, Bill and Nancy celebrated their first year as business owners, as well as becoming first-time parents. When their second son, Andrew, was born in 1985, the business continued to grow and they made the decision for Nancy to join the business full-time in August of that year.
Sons Clint and Andy went on to grow up in the business. Again, that’s typical of many small, family businesses, but in Pharo’s case the longevity of many of their employees meant they were more like an extension of the family — “uncles” who taught the boys much of what they’d learn of the trade.
A number of Pharo Heating & Cooling’s 22 employees have been with the company for more than 15 years.
“When I first started with Pharo, I told them I could come on board for a few weeks to help them out,” says Ryan Olson, a 23-year veteran of the company. “Before I knew it, a few weeks turned into 23 years! There’s so much camaraderie with everyone. We really have fun together. Bill and Nancy throw parties for the staff and we have cookouts. When it’s someone’s birthday, Nancy makes them a birthday cake and we celebrate. Nancy has never missed a person’s birthday. That says a lot about the kind of people they are.”
Dennis Schutz has spent his entire career with the Pharo and is still with the company today. “I’ve been with the company nearly 30 years. I remember times when projects maybe took us four days, and now that project could be done in a day and a half. Over time, we’ve gotten better equipment and better as a team.”
The respect is mutual for the Pharos. Bill says, “The credit really goes to the employees, and the longevity of so many of our staff. Our employees are great. They work hard, and we strive to treat our staff as equals.
“Hiring your first employee is probably the scariest thing you’ll ever do as a business owner,” adds Bill. “I remember looking back when we had eight employees and thinking wow, this is as big as we’ll ever be. Here we are today with 22 employees!”
It was always important for Nancy and Bill to spend time with their kids, and they supported staff in doing the same. Ken Ransom, a 20-year employee, notes he never had issues getting to his son’s ball games growing up. “We worked hard, but they (Bill and Nancy) always supported us. One time my son’s team made it to a national tournament, and on short notice they were accommodating so I could be there for his games.”
In addition to their family values, Bill and Nancy also imbued the company with a strong ethic for high-quality work and doing the right thing, largely growing the company early on through word of mouth and repeat business. “I can’t ever remember a time where we said we’d be there, and not shown up,” says Bill. The Pharos strive for accurate scheduling and have never held up a closing because they weren’t done when they said they’d be. That has sometimes meant working late, even on a weekend. “If that’s what it takes to get it done on the timeline we promised, that’s what we do.”
The Pharos’ work ethic and business savvy hasn’t been lost on employees. “It’s not all about giving to the employees; they are smart business people,” explains Ransom. “They know how to balance running it like a family and treating everyone fairly, while building a successful business. I respect that about them.”