by Richard Harshaw

Each year, I review the statistics on the HVAC trade in America and each year I see the same basic data.  To be sure, from year to year, the numbers change—but only a little.  Over the last 30 years, I have not seen so much as a 10% swing up or down from the performance benchmarks of our trade, and that bothers me.

You see, for decades, the net profit after taxes in this trade has run under 3%.  For all the hard work contractors put in, to only keep 3% of what they bill out doesn’t seem fair, does it?

The math is simple—and ruthless.  Profit is what is left after overhead and costs are subtracted from sales.  In my consulting practice, I find that most dealers have pared about as much overhead as they can.  (To be sure, there is some waste here and there, but it is often not enough to make a big difference to the bottom line.)  They have also gotten their costs down about as low as they can (to the grief of many manufacturers).

So why is there so little profit?  One of two reasons—the sales are too small to begin with, or the control of direct labor is a shambles.  I’ll return to the labor control in a later column.  For this column, I want to focus on the stunted sales too many contractors put on the books.

When I speak about sales being too small, I am not speaking about the quantity of jobs a contractor does, but rather the size of the contracts on those jobs.  Too many contractors end up selling their work and material too cheaply—way too cheaply.  This can be due to fear of losing a job (a lot of contractors I have worked with are paralyzed by this fear).  But it is usually the result of ignorance about job pricing.  I am not being cruel when I speak of ignorance, because ignorance simply means one doesn’t know how.  There is nothing wrong with that, but once you learn how, if you go back to your old habits, then you deserve the moniker– Stupid– because then you aren’t ignorant anymore!

I have taught job pricing in hundreds of workshops to thousands of contractors, and when I toss out a job to bid, only about 4% get it right the first time.  (By the end of the workshop, all of them get it right.)

Here’s a case in point.  Suppose you have a job to bid and that the materials (equipment, piping, wiring, ductwork, and so on) comes to $3,478.  Suppose also that you estimate labor to take 4man-days at a cost of $250 per man-day (that’s about equal to about $21 an hour plus bennies).  You want 10% net profit on this job, and your accountant tells you that your overhead (which does NOT go on the job estimate as a line item) runs, on average, 24% of sales.  How much should you bid this job (not getting into the messes taxes can cause)?

Some people would solve it this way:

Materials = $3,478.

+ Labor = $1,000.

Total costs = $4,478.

Multiply that by 34% (24% overhead plus 10% net profit) to get $1,523.  Added to the costs, bid the job at $6,001.

Clever, but wrong.  Others would take the $4,478 in costs and multiply by 24% (giving $1,075).  Adding to the costs, they get $5,553.  They would then multiply THAT by 10% (to get $555) and then add it to the subtotal to get a bid of $6,108.

Also clever, but also wrong.  The right answer is $6,784, but it doesn’t matter because the job would probably go for $5,078 because some idiot bid just enough to cover his costs and make $600 “profit.”

If you’d like to discuss job pricing in more detail with me, drop a note to Mr. Lackey (the publisher at and he will forward your note to me. I will try to respond to your question specifically, and if I get a number of similar notes, I’ll write an article to cover it.

Until next month, sell your socks off!  But do so at the RIGHT PRICE.  Otherwise, you’ll just be barefoot, and winter is coming…