RUSSELL"S HEATING AND COOLING
Hard work and leadership skill take Marc Sawyer to the top of this successful local business
by Candance Moore
The Sawyer family, from left: Brennan, Marc, Trinity, and Maryann
Families across Chesapeake and surrounding cities often recognize Buddy Smith as the public face of Russell's Heating & Cooling. No surprise there - his father Russell started the business in 1977. Since then the Smith name has been synonymous with stellar climate control technology.
Yet when Buddy speaks about his company's success, he doesn't mention himself. He speaks of his team, which he often describes as a "workplace family," and of those who take leadership in their jobs - no matter their position in the company. After all, as a business that kept growing through the recession and now employs 54 people, Russell's has learned to cultivate all the leadership it can find.
Behind the company's public image stands the quietly effective General Manager Marc Sawyer. As second in command, Marc plays an integral role in nearly everything that happens at Russell's, and he earned his authority by doing nearly every job. Marc's career path is a story of hard work from the bottom to the top.
This Hampton Roads native graduated high school and went straight to work, choosing to apply himself to a trade career right away. Life as an entry-level laborer was difficult at first, but, for Marc, it was an honor to earn every promotion through pure grit.
"The truth is I recommend us
not because we are perfect,
but because of how things are handled
when we are not. Our reputation is absolutely
everything, and we take that very seriously."
- General Manager Marc Sawyer
"Throughout my life I have had a few role models I could look up to," Mark reveals. "The commonality among them is their dedication to hard work and their innate ability to always find a way around whatever problem or obstacle they were dealing with. Working in a trade appealed to me as I have always enjoyed problem solving and working with my hands."
He began as a vinyl siding installer, working outdoors in brutal heat or bitter cold, building a reputation of dependability. Soon a job offer came along in the HVAC field. While Marc was still 18, he entered an attractive job in this, his preferred industry, and devoted himself to making the most of it.
Then came wife Maryann a few years later, and Marc realized his workaholic lifestyle needed some adjusting. After earning his way up to a skilled position, he was ready for more balance.
By then it was 2004, and Buddy Smith - just three years into his ownership of Russell's - had already established a company culture that emphasized family time. Marc accepted an interview to see if they meant what they said.
"I got the feeling that Russell's cared more about their employees than about making the almighty dollar," Marc says. "Over time, I have found that feeling to be more true than I could have imagined. The more that I felt they cared about me, the more I cared about the company, and the more I wanted us both to succeed together."
Marc joined Russell's as a service technician. It was a business that seemed to be outgrowing itself, and management was encouraging all employees to become natural leaders. At last he'd found a place where his skill and intelligence could shine alongside his work ethic.
Within the span of a few years, Marc moved his way up into managing service technicians, then managing installers, then managing the entire sales department. He kept himself grounded by always being willing to help with less glamorous tasks.
And Russell's kept the promise to make his family time important. Daughter, Trinity, and son, Brennan, gave his career a deeper meaning.
Marc became General Manager in 2013, and although it's a prestigious place of leadership in the company, he still shrugs off pretense. "I prefer to just be called a helper of people; helping them to be better every day at what they do," he insists.
For general managers, helping employees succeed is a large and complex task. Marc uses all of his unique strengths, from technical knowledge to personal compassion, as he develops talent within the team.
"Everyone wins when we are continually improving," he notes. "The customer, the company, and the individuals who work here."
Marc's extensive background of hard work in the field earns respect from his technicians. He collaborates with Buddy to improve processes in ways that makes sense for everyone. When he meets a new technician with a spark of leadership, he is eager to reward ambition.
Although Marc can't have direct contact with every customer, his influence is visible in every transaction. Positive customer reviews pour in for Russell's, citing skilled and amiable technicians, fair prices, timely appointments, flawless installations, knowledgeable advice, and digital efficiency. Much of that is due to Marc's leadership.
Yet surprisingly, Marc spends most of his days studying the rare complaints. He embraces negative feedback as a source of improvement, and he relishes a chance to impress customers by turning a setback into a victory.
"The truth is I recommend us not because we are perfect, but because of how things are handled when we are not. Our reputation is absolutely everything, and we take that very seriously," he adds.
With hot summer weather finally appearing in Hampton Roads, Russell's is set for another season of business growth, and Marc faces the responsibility to have his team prepared. Although the business is adept at handling urgent situations, Marc encourages customers to schedule summer maintenance early. As a husband and father himself, he insists he would rather perform lower-cost maintenance service than to see a family suffer through the heat.
Speaking of families, Marc returns to his favorite thing about Russell's. Even as general manager, he leads his team proficiently while balancing a happy home life, and his two school-age children continue to shape his priorities along the way.
"The best decision I ever made was getting married to Maryann and starting our family," Marc shares. "My second best decision was to work at Russell's. We are an amazing team."
Russell's Heating & Cooling
1100 Executive Blvd.
Chesapeake, VA 23320