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.
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.”
Focused on the future
While Pharo Heating & Cooling has grown steadily over the years, it hasn’t been without some bumps in the road. Starting the company during a recession was certainly one of them, but so was economic downturn from 2007–2011.
At the time, Pharo had contract work with an area builder that had to downsize to one contractor. “Thankfully, they chose us,” notes Bill. “If we wouldn’t have gotten that work, we would have had to let more people go. Experiences like that force you to constantly look back to make sure you’re always doing a great job and being innovative.”
During that time, the Pharos also pursued state weatherization contracts, which was entirely new for them, and became a contributing factor that helped keep steady work for techs. Another key to success during this time was continued advertising. When other HVAC companies pulled back on advertising, Pharo increased marketing efforts to gain market share.
Bill says that while those years were difficult, they were also the most satisfying because it forced the company to evolve and grow into new lines of work. The Pharos did what they could to retain as many of their employees as possible, and it proved that even in challenging times, they could succeed and survive.
It was during the Great Recession that sons Clint and Andy also joined the family businesses. “We never pushed them to join the business,” says Nancy. “It was always their decision. They both just came back, and it makes me proud that they chose to.”
Clint chose to join the family business during his undergraduate years at UW–Oshkosh. Graduating in 2007 wasn’t an ideal time for anyone in business, but he knew it was what he wanted. “A lot of my friends couldn’t find a good job coming out of college,” Clint explains. “By then I had my mind made up to go into the family business, regardless of how difficult it was going to be.”
Today, Clint works as the operations manager for Pharo Heating & Cooling, running the day-to-day operations and meeting with customers to develop estimates, while Bill is phasing out a bit more each day, enjoying more time on the golf course and with his three grandsons.
Andy enjoyed the boat side of the business, Pharo Marine, which was started in 1989 as an extension of the Pharos hobby.
“We were power boaters and loved being out on the boat as a family from Friday afternoon through Sunday,” notes Nancy. “We put up the original 8,000-square-foot building for Pharo Heating in 1989. We had extra space that we didn’t know what to do with, and that’s when Pharo Marine started to evolve. The idea was to be able to provide service and get parts for our own boat, as well as a few select friends. We then started selling BAJA boats and that led to where we are now, where a hobby has turned into a thriving business. Here we are 30 years later, selling pontoon and Lund fishing boats.”
Pharo Marine employs seven people: four full-time service techs and one full-time salesman, along with a service writer and Andy as manager. Both businesses are in the $2–$5 million annual revenue range, notes Nancy.
“Running both businesses can be challenging as they are both operated out of the same offices,” Nancy adds. “We’re constantly switching up from heating to marine, answering questions for employees and customers. There is no doubt having Clint head up Pharo Heating and Andy head up Pharo Marine helps take some of the pressure off Bill and I.”
Most days, you’ll still find Nancy in the office, managing the books and ensuring that no birthday goes missed. “I love what I do,” she says, “and I need my people, so I plan to be here for a long time to come. Plus, it’s really fun to watch my sons as they grow in leadership every day.”
Bill has all the confidence in his sons as they carry on the family name. “They came into these businesses in the worst of the economy, and they’ve worked to grow each business,” he says. “They’ve gone through the worst of the worst, and my hope is that the values stick with them for a long time, through the ups and downs.”
When asked what they want to be remembered for, Nancy says, “That we were honest, we did the work right, and that we treated our customers and staff well.”
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