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Leader takes his company to new heights

His business may be continuing to heat up, but one could describe Timothy Confer as cool.
“Life’s too short to be stressed out every day,” said Confer, president of Northern Air Systems Inc.
He has reason to be laid back-his business is growing.
A former sheet metal worker, Confer, 40, started Northern Air in 1999 with a handful of employees in half a garage on Burroughs Street.
Since then, the company has grown to 44 employees in two buildings on Pixley Industrial Parkway, plus offices in Buffalo and Syracuse.
Northern Air does custom metal jobs, such as ductwork, for most heating, ventilating and air conditioning sheet metal contractors in the area. Northern Air’s ductwork has found its way into numerous Wal-Mart Stores Inc. locations, Rochester-area school districts, Target Corp. stores, U.S. Postal Service offices and New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
Other customers include the Rochester-based NexPress Solutions LLC.
Confer is pushing to increase business overseas. The current local business climate needs to improve, he says.
“The local economy needs to get rocking here,” he says.
But the area’s economy does not appear to have hurt Northern Air. Both the number of employees and sales have risen. Confer expects the company to log some $10 million in sales over the next year, up 30 percent from last year.
The company also makes specialized cooling equipment for mobile medical devices, custom air handlers and chillers and other sheet metal work. Northern Air has a five-year exclusive contract to make specialty cooling equipment for mobile medical systems for Ak Specialty Vehicles LLC. The company, based in Harvey, Ill., is a mobile medical unit manufacturer.
The cooling systems primarily are used for magnetic resonance imaging scanners that can be fitted in vans and trucks and taken on the road. Small rural hospitals, for example, use them to reach out to far-flung members of the community.
Each unit meets stringent medical requirements for temperature and vibration control and dependability 24 hours a day, Confer says.
In addition, Northern Air makes wireless communication and diagnostic devices, called Wireless Guardian Systems, which send information by robotic voice and e-mail on each mobile unit’s health to the technicians who serve them.
In the past two years, Northern Air further expanded its capabilities by adding a new factory direct center and an online ordering system.
The business has a strong presence overseas, mainly in Europe, but also sells its products to customers in Australia and Korea. Confer is putting a new emphasis on expanding sales in Asia. The company uses a combination of distributors, direct sales and online sales to fuel international sales growth.

Growing up here

After graduating from Hilton High School in 1983, Confer attended Monroe Community College for electrical engineering. He quickly determined, however, that he would rather get a job than continue in school.
“I wasn’t college material at the time; I preferred the hands-on approach,” Confer says.
He got a job as a commercial electrician working on custom air conditioners and cooling equipment at the now-defunct Schneider Sheet Metal Products in Rochester. He spent roughly two-and-a-half years there honing his skills and then went to work at Cassidy Plumbing and Heating, now Kennedy Mechanical Plumbing and Heating Inc.
After that, Confer decided to work for himself as a heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractor.
When a recession hit and business slowed, however, Confer added educator to his list of professional responsibilities, teaching electricity at Board of Cooperative Educational Services No. 2 in Spencerport while running his HVAC business on the side.
Confer taught high school students commercial and residential electricity for a decade at BOCES. During that time, he received his teaching certificate from SUNY College at Oswego in 1994.
When his HVAC business began taking off again, Confer returned to it full time.
Due to the growth, he needed bigger digs and Northern Air was born. He started in a roughly 10,000-square-foot space at the industrial park.
Some three years later, in 2003, Confer added the 30,000-square-foot facility that now houses most of Northern Air’s operations. The smaller building now mainly is used for a warehouse.
There are also offices in Buffalo and Syracuse where employees sell wholesale equipment to customers such as HVAC contractors. That venture, called Northern Air Technology Inc., began roughly two-and-a-half years ago. There are three workers in Buffalo and one in Syracuse, although another will be added soon, Confer says.
He would like to finish his post-secondary education, noting he was close to receiving a bachelor’s degree in education at Oswego. They were credits he received after nearly 10 years of night classes.
“Someday I’ll finish it up, but I’ve been so busy with the business,” Confer says, adding that he is interested in pursing a master’s degree in business.
In the meantime, he attends educational seminars.

Finding balance

The Greece resident also is busy with his family, something he believes is a top priority.
“You still need a life,” Confer says.
To balance work and family, he sometimes will come into the office later than normal, but stay longer when the normal workday is ended. Other days, he does the opposite-coming in early and leaving early.
That flexibility is something he believes is important for all the employees, many of whom have their own families.
Confer recently went through some personal life changes. Last October, he married his wife, Barbie, in a ceremony in Hawaii. The two met five years ago. Barbie now works at Northern Air as an administrative assistant.
He believes in having fun in one’s free time. He has a vacation home in the Thousand Islands and enjoys boating, motorcycling, snowmobiling and jet skiing.
“I love every kind of toy,” he says.
That includes a Honda Valkyrie. Confer has been riding motorcycles since he was 12 and has visited 43 states on his bike.
The balance between learning and having fun is evident in Confer’s office. Trade publications and other educational reading items are mixed among a radio and pictures of Confer’s family.
While Confer has worked hard to grow his business, he credits others for its success.
Confer has a rapport with staff, treating them equally.
“The people here are very customer-oriented. They focus on giving customers the best value for their dollar,” Confer says.
One reason for the small turnover and happy employees could be Confer’s business style.
A reader of and believer in Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Confer feels it is important to give employees input in the business.
“People can speak their minds whenever they want,” Confer says. “I don’t care if you’re a floor sweeper or second-in-command, say what you want, but do it professionally.”
Those who work with Confer spoke of his sense of humor and described him as a good guy with a big heart who is also determined, headstrong and dynamic.
“He’s a great visionary,” says Steve Oleksyn, Northern Air’s sales and marketing manager. “I think that’s one of the reasons for his success. Plus he’s quick to pursue a potential opportunity.”
He points to Confer’s decision to purchase the larger facility when it became available as an example of his quick action. It was a move that was needed for the growing company, Oleksyn says.
William Bosy, the company’s comptroller for the past seven months, said he came on board because of where he feels Confer can take the business.
“There is a great potential for growth here,” Bosy says.
Confer says the best part of his job is when everyone is satisfied-“when the product is out the door, finished on time and the customers and employees are happy.”
The worst part? Red tape and people who make things unnecessarily difficult, he says.
Edward Burns, owner of MechTech HVAC Inc., is one customer who enjoys Confer’s direct approach.
Burns has been doing business with Confer for nine years, since when Conifer was just getting the business off the ground.
“He’s come a long way,” Burns says, noting that Confer’s attention to detail-including the need to have high-tech equipment-helps keep him at the head of the industry. “He’s done quite a lot from where he’s come from.”
In addition to the business relationship, Burns calls Confer a friend.
Burns said he can count on Confer and Northern Air to deliver products in a timely manner, even when Burns’ job is out of state.
“You need a vendor to get you the parts and with Tim, I don’t have to worry,” Burns says.
(adeckert@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

06/24/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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