In Bret Melrose you can still see a lot of the 6-year-old boy who followed his dad around the family business just because he “liked being with his dad” back in the 1970s when Fayette Heating and Air was a hard-scrabble start-up.
Over 40 years later the 47-year-old Bret is still boyishly worshipful of his father, Allan, and of the company he built from nothing but his own dreams and $500 in his pocket.
In the late 1960s, Allan Melrose was sent on assignment from Huntington, W.Va., for United Fuel (now Columbia Gas) to Lexington to install air conditioning at IBM. Allan liked Lexington so much he decided to stay when the job was finished. He took a job at the Army Depot. A “functioning alcoholic,” Allan decided to quit drinking, just as his wife was diagnosed with melanoma cancer and he started his own air conditioning business in his garage – on April Fool’s Day 1971.
A recipe for disaster? No, the flip side — a test of fortitude and faith.
The story ends well. Allan never took another drink. His wife, Bret’s mom, is alive and healthy, at 75. And the business he started on a shoestring is today the largest heating and air conditioning business in the state of Kentucky and is in the top ½ of 1% of the heating/air conditioning companies in the nation.
His son truly believes there was some divine intervention involved in the whole thing.
Bret Melrose is genuinely faith-driven – no particular denominational allegiance, though he is a member of Southland Christian Church. He describes himself as a “Jesus-follower.” He doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve. Instead, he carries it comfortably as part of his whole being. And it drives the man who drives his business, who believes in treating his employees right, in being fair and forthright with his customers – and in giving back in the way that is expected of those who have much.
These were the lessons he learned at his dad’s side in those early days, as he followed him around the small shop – 3500 sq. ft. – in the Davis Bottom area on Merino Street. Eleven years later the company moved to a 15,000 sq. ft. facility on Midland but outgrew that in just three years.
Today, Fayette Heating and Air and its related businesses occupy 50,000 sq. ft. in a complex that can accommodate its service vehicles, dispatching, accounting, executive offices – and the all-important training facilities that are key to customer-service and communication skills training.
“When I wasn’t in school or playing ball,” Bret says, “I was in the shop with my dad.”
At 16, he ran his own service truck. He worked every job in the place – including the warehouse, where he was a “terrible sheet metal cutter,” and sweeping out the storeroom. He learned the business from the ground up, just as his dad wanted him to. By the time he graduated from Transylvania University with a degree in mathematics – he has a facility for numbers, just “likes them” – he was playing a leadership role in the family business.
“I remember my dad grabbing me by the ear – literally – when I was 12 and marching me to the garage. ‘You see all these people,’ he said. ‘If they don’t work, we don’t make any money. . .Take care of your people!’
“I’ve never forgotten that,” says Bret.
The confidence his father placed in him – and the lessons he learned in the process – have served him well as the “second generation” head of a family-owned enterprise. “I’m a dreamer,” he said. “I don’t believe in failure – just another opportunity. My dad taught me well.”
Not that they always saw eye-to-eye as they worked shoulder-to-shoulder. “He’d fire me about five times a day and rehire me just as many times,” Bret recounts.
He recalls vividly the first time he bid on a job on his own. The company lost $40,000 on the deal. In trepidation, he faced his dad. But the surprising question was, “Did you learn anything?” Of course he had, Bret remembers explaining. His dad’s response, “Well, the education was worth the $40,000.”
Then there was the time about 25 years ago that father and son definitely didn’t agree on starting a service division. The company only serviced what it installed, and father didn’t want the aggravation of fixing other people’s problems. Son thought differently, and when his parents were abroad on a vacation, he purchased a truck and had it fitted for service calls.
When Allan returned, he was – his son recalls – a “bit upset” and “had a few choice words,” but the foray into service proved prescient and is today a mainstay of the business.
On his retirement 17 years ago, Allan walked away from the business and never looked back – especially not to look over his son’s shoulder. Bret was 30 years old. “I would go see him to talk over a particular problem. He’d listen but say nothing except, ‘You’ll make the right decision.’”
Before Allan died seven years ago, Bret bought the business from him, taking it out of the estate and solidifying his ownership and his ability to move forward in his own way. That he has done.
From a $4.5 million company in the 1980s, Fayette Heating and Air will have revenues of $15 million this year – and another $3 million from the two-year-old plumbing division, H2O Maestro Plumbing, Bret started. He has hired outside managers who are specialists in their areas – he doesn’t need the expertise in the base business, which he knows first-hand, from the ground up. “I hire people who know how to run businesses,” he says.
They have a huge enterprise on their hands: 120 employees, 80 trucks plus six plumbing trucks. They make 28,000 service calls a year. Just dispatching all those service vehicles requires careful planning – and close attention to cost controls and details.
Bret Melrose is all about “service” – being the best at it and building a company culture around it. Call the company and the greeting you’ll get is: “It’s a great day at Fayette Heating. How can we make you smile?”
Bret knows that when people call, they aren’t smiling about the problem they’re having. They need service they can depend on and service people they can trust in their homes. He has established a drug-free, felon-free workplace, does random drug testing – and he emphasizes training, training, training – in communication skills and service skills. “Our attitude is – how can we make this a good experience for our customer,” he says. He and his management team meet briefly every day to review “Daily Management Essentials” to assess where they are and where they should be.
“We are dedicated to doing it right,” he says, “to doing the right thing. If we mess up – we’ll make it right. That matters.”
‘Doing the right thing’ extends mightily to Bret’s commitment to ‘giving back’ and to building a philanthropic component into the company’s culture.
He remembers discovering the quiet, but significant giving his father did – and the impression it made on him to learn of it. He is genuinely teary-eyed in recalling his father’s compassion for those less fortunate. And because the company has achieved such prosperity, he has upped the ante.
Personally he has served on a plethora of nonprofit and community service boards and supported them financially. He and his beloved Great Dane, a therapy dog who died a year ago, were regular fixtures at Hospice and wherever children could be helped.
“The more I give, the more I get,” he says, growing teary-eyed once again remembering the emotions of giving the gift of free heat (and air) to needy families at Christmastime. For five years, the company has given away at least five heating/air units to those in homes that do not have adequate heating. The units are installed on Christmas Eve, after a selection process that involves as many as 350 nominees. Last year, there were eight winners. His younger brother, Craig, a successful mechanical engineer in Atlanta, was visiting when winners were announced and paid for an additional unit himself. In addition, suppliers and others are chipping in, making additional winners possible.
Bret Melrose says he won’t rest until everyone who is nominated for the units receives one.
On Monday, he will announce a new philanthropic program: two Fayette Heating and Air vans have been “wrapped” in colors and graphics representing Lexington’s Susan G. Komen association and the Lexington Humane Society. Details will be announced then, but customers may request a service call from either van. Any work done by either of these vans will result in 10% of the total billing for the service call going to the charity. He has made this commitment to these charities for the next five years.
“I love what I do. I’ve worked hard and I’ve been successful. But I feel blessed.
“I want to give back. This is a great company – There is magic here.”
The dad who nurtured a 6-year-old boy’s interest in the family business would be proud.