Jason Gassmann becomes new owner of Bell Brothers Heating & Cooling.
Bob and Maurice Bell started their Bell Brothers company in 1955, coincidentally the same year CEO Chuck Gassmann was born. But it’s no coincidence that as Gassmann turns the reins over to his son, Jason, the core principles the Bell brothers espoused are still the foundation for the company’s success.
“I got to know Bob when I was working for Carrier,” Chuck says. “When Carrier was going through some corporate changes in 1995, I approached Bob and his son, Grant, who had joined the company. I told them my options were to move or change jobs, and I didn’t want to leave Des Moines. It took them about 10 seconds to suggest we work something out.”
Gassmann joined Bell Brothers, buying “a little sliver of the company” and partnering with the Bells to continue growing the business. “I partnered with Grant until 2011,” Gassmann says. “During that time, I bought all of Bob’s stock. At that point, I knew I was either going to buy it and take it to the next level or move on to something else. Bob was 89 then and still coming to the office most days in a suit and tie. Grant was president and majority stockholder. I approached Grant about buying the company, and he decided the time was right for him to sell his interest in the business.”
When Gassmann took over in 2011, he did so with a 10-year plan, to achieve some specific goals and then either sell the company to his son, Jason, or to another buyer. “Bell Brothers started in the coal days after the gas lines started going in around Des Moines. Bob would go door to door to sell gas conversion kits to homeowners as the gas companies moved into the neighborhoods,” Gassmann says.
Bob was such a personable salesman that homeowners would invite him in for dinner or drinks before he left. That neighborly reputation enabled the company to continue its growth through the ’70s, when modern furnaces and central air-conditioning systems became the norm.
Gassmann had several goals for his 10-year plan, all of which were based on the Bell brothers’ legacy of leading the industry and doing it in a way that maintained the company’s reputation as trusted neighbors. “Those goals included transforming our facility, hiring and equipping the best-trained people in the industry, and becoming leaders in the market, setting the standard for service and business practices,” explains Chuck.
The Bell Brothers offices on 6th Avenue were expanded and remodeled shortly after Chuck took over the business. The facility now boasts an extensive training space, including a variety of hands-on stations and a classroom for the company’s apprenticeship program.
“We embarked on developing that training center a few years after I bought the business,” says Chuck. “Our Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program has been full every year since it began in 2015 (see Educating the Next Generation).”
To further develop that leadership role, Chuck brought his son into the business, encouraging and observing him, to see whether Jason would be the right candidate to take over when Chuck’s 10-year plan came to a close.
“I’d worked here summers during high school and during college,” Jason says. “But when I graduated from Northwest Missouri State, I really didn’t have any interest in the business. I wanted to be a sports agent. But that required law school, and I had even less interest in that.”
Jason wasn’t sure he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he joined Bell Brothers and began working on the company’s residential new construction accounts.
“New construction is one of the toughest markets for HVAC,” Jason says now. “But the builders I worked with taught me a lot about how to run a business, how to treat customers, and how to be loyal. That experience, and my years playing football in college, had a huge impact on how I lead now—that understanding of team building and supporting the overall goals while doing your part.”
Jason says they had some really good years in new construction sales, but when the bottom fell out, he learned some hard lessons. “Imagine being 27 years old and having to cut half your staff,” he says. “It was definitely a learning experience. We had to reorient ourselves after that. On top of my other work, I started working as a project manager on the commercial side, too. Then Dad encouraged me to focus on the HVAC replacement market for existing homes.”
Jason wasn’t keen on that at first. He recognized that consumer sales was a completely different ball game than commercial and new construction. But his dad was right. “The second I started doing retail sales, I was in love with it,” he says now.
Having already managed the new construction, the commercial, and the replacement sales, Jason was named sales manager for Bell Brothers in 2012. That’s when Chuck’s 10-year plan and transition became clear. “I bought into 40% of the business in 2015 and became vice president then. In 2017 I became president,” Jason says.
Like his father, Jason has some specific goals for the company as he moves forward. “I’ve spent the entire last year working on developing my management team and transitioning the company to my leadership. Bell Brothers is going to be run differently under me with no partners, and my dad has advised me a lot in how to go about that. My key managers have only been with the company a few years. As I was looking at building my team, I knew these guys understood where I wanted to take the company, and they wanted to be a part of that.”
Steve Terry, former service manager, is now VP of Construction and Service. Gassmann has restructured other positions to create a construction and services management team that will help lead the company toward those new goals.
Chuck worked full-time through the end of 2019. Jason has been the sole owner since. “I like it being on my shoulders,” he says. “I have a plan and a philosophy for running things. But the one thing I won’t change is that we are always going to be the leaders in the industry.”
Bell Brothers has added a new product line, a company that Jason describes as the technology leader in the industry. And the apprenticeship program continues to draw talent that the company nurtures.
“We have several niches that we’re focusing on, including the commercial side that we’ve been really good at for a long time,” Jason says. “We started a commercial plumbing department three years ago, and that’s really taking off. Our electronic record and communication system was the first in the area. We’ve improved on that and are introducing a completely new software system this spring.”
Chuck’s detailed 10-year plan not only gave him a road map for continuing Bell Brothers’ growth, it set an example for Jason to follow in mapping out his own goals. And it enabled the two to design a transition plan that smoothly transferred the company and the leadership into new hands.
“Everything has gone so well that Principal Financial interviewed us for the Principal Podcast,” Chuck says. “Principal is using our transition plan as the model for its financial advisors across the country.”
The heating and cooling industry has changed dramatically since Bell Brothers opened its doors as a coal distributor in 1955, but the company has always led by example. Chuck and Jason Gassmann have carried on that legacy. In many ways, they’re still the guys that homeowners would be willing to invite in for dinner. Bob Bell would be proud.
Educating the Next Generation
Bell Brothers’ commitment to education began with its apprenticeship program in 2015, but it goes beyond that now. For Chuck Gassmann, the commitment extends into retirement. “In order to get people into the industry, we have to start educating them about the opportunities when they’re in 7th and 8th grades,” he believes.
Chuck serves on the Advisory Council for Des Moines’ Central Campus Construction Trades program, is Vice President of Iowa Skilled Trades, and will continue his work with both.
The Central Campus program uses Bell Brothers’ apprenticeship program as part of its pre-apprentice curriculum. One of Gassmann’s projects has been advising on the HVAC and electric lab currently being built at the Central Campus facility. “It’s a way to give back to the industry that’s been very, very good to me,” Chuck says. “It’s something I love. I want to see the next generation excited about all the opportunities in the skilled trades.”
The Bell Brothers apprenticeship program is one of those opportunities. Classes are kept small intentionally to allow instructors and students to work closely together. The challenging curriculum develops highly skilled techs. The apprenticeship is a four-year program, which includes classroom work and on-the-job experience. Graduates of the program who attain their journeyman license are then eligible for tuition reimbursement from Bell.
Jason explains, “If they work for us one year after getting their license, they earn 50% of their out-of-pocket tuition. After the second year, they earn the remaining out-of-pocket tuition. So they earn while they learn, gain experience, and end up debt-free with the potential to earn $100,000 a year as a skilled HVAC tech.”
To improve the odds of success even more, Bell Brothers offers a test prep class at the end of the four-year program so students have a greater chance of passing the extremely difficult Journeyman exam.
To learn more about these programs, check out these websites: