Published May 12. 2013 4:00AM
Stonington - For Jonathan Duncklee, the upcoming 40th anniversary of a second-generation heating and cooling business is all about embracing new technology.
"We have had to keep up with technology over time," Duncklee said.
Duncklee was among the first to embrace ductless heating and cooling, and the company is looking to install a solar-electric system in its own 6,400-square-foot facility off Taugwonk Road.
Duncklee Cooling & Heating, which was known as L.H. Duncklee Refrigeration Inc. in 1973 when Jonathan's father Les launched his own company, has seen its share of changes over the years. Originally focused mostly on commercial installation, with a staff that once numbered close to 40, the family-run business now includes only about a dozen employees while being devoted mostly to residential customers, though Duncklee does have a fair share of commercial and industrial work as well.
When long-time manufacturers started to leave the region in the 1980s and 1990s, the family had to make a dramatic shift in its business, Duncklee said.
Duncklee, vice president of the company, worked with his father on weekends, during school vacations and over the summer learning the trade from the ground up. He said there was no official handoff of the ownership mantle, but he slowly took the reins over the years and Les, who still works at the company, seemed happy to let go.
"He allowed me to make changes," Duncklee said. "I would make decisions, and he would support it."
Some of the changes were difficult. A major downsizing that followed the financial collapse of 2008 was particularly painful, when he had to let go a whole layer of middle management.
"It was a scary time," he said. "My phone wasn't ringing at all."
Using what he calls a drama-free calm and assertive method of management, Duncklee effected a full turnaround by last year, when he was named Employer of the Year by the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce. In Duncklee's citation, the chamber noted that he gives longtime employees special recognition that includes cash, computers and even ocean cruises.
Duncklee credits the turnaround on the caliber of his employees and his strong connection to the community. He has been involved on a variety of boards such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters and with projects such as the Hygienic Art Park in New London and Coogan Farm in Mystic.
"I try to be very visible," Duncklee said. "It does pay dividends when you're slow."
Duncklee's ability to quickly incorporate new technology into his heating and cooling business has paid dividends as well. At the invitation of suppliers, he visited Japan in April 2012 and Korea in October 2012, coming home with a new respect for the graciousness of his hosts.
Duncklee said he always seeks out American products first, but some technological advances are coming from overseas these days, and he must keep up with them to stay competitive and provide customers the best products available.
"If you don't change, you're out of business - no doubt about it," he said.
One change Duncklee has noted in his business is the emphasis, particularly in high-end homes, on air conditioning. While central air was almost unheard of in the 1970s, it has become a must-have today, he said, and installations occur year-round, not just in the warmer months.
Another big change has been the Internet, and Duncklee has been ahead of the curve there as well, having recently developed a mobile-friendly site in recognition that many people find heating and cooling technicians through their iPhones and other similar devices.
"We get a tremendous amount of business through the Internet," Duncklee said.
And while the Internet has been seen as a negative for some types of businesses, Duncklee said it has made his job easier.
"I love an educated buyer," he said. "It's a relief."