In the 1970s, when Larry White was laid off from his position at a commercial air conditioning company, he needed to find his path. After taking a couple of jobs in manufacturing, Larry missed the world of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and always looked for an opportunity to get back into the business he spent 12 years in. While at the time he didn’t know he would be the founder of what is now Comfort Air, an opportunity to start his own business presented itself when his brother introduced him to geothermal heat pumps—a new heating and cooling technology at that time, and the most energy-efficient option on the market.
“My brother worked for Georgia Power, and when he built his home in 1977, they put him on the trail of this water- sourced heat pump,” says Larry. “It was super efficient. And I started taking a look at it wondering if I wanted to pursue doing something with it. I was fascinated by the technology.”
After a conversation with a manufacturer of this new product, Larry’s future seemed clear. Though he was making pretty good money at his union factory gig, the thought of getting back into the air conditioning industry on his own terms was too much to pass up. Thanks to a special connection to these new water-sourced pumps, Larry’s future company would have a unique place in the Savannah market that his potential competition simply wouldn’t have.
After saving up some money and selling the house he built, Larry moved onto a smaller plot of land with an old metal maintenance shed in the back. It was out of this that Comfort Air first opened their doors on the morning on Sept. 1, 1978, just over a year after Larry had discovered his love for heating pump technology.
“I had to downsize before I could open the company. I built my house myself, so when I sold it and bought something smaller, I had a decent amount left over,” Larry says. “I then put that money in the bank so I wouldn’t have to draw a salary for two years. It was tough. You always lose money when you’re starting out, but I did it all right.”
At that time, Larry had only one truck and one employee. Together, they handled all of the sales, installation, and repair tasks of their customers. Things grew very quickly, and by 1980 Comfort Air had hired more people and moved into a new rental location. By 1983, the company had 10 people on staff, multiple trucks on the road, and had moved to their present home on 9 Executive Circle in Savannah, GA—a building that Larry and the company built and own outright.
“I got a small business loan in 1983 and I built the building,” says Larry. “We didn’t have a mortgage or any kind of debts, so getting a loan wasn’t too difficult. To this day, we have no debt—we have a line of credit, but no debt. We were finally getting out of those early days where you’re just making contacts and building clients, and we were becoming more prosperous.”
While things were going smoothly for Comfort Air during the early years, changes in the market and exhausting work with commercial and new construction contractors were starting to take their toll on their bottom line. As commercial contractors dodged paydays and acted as middlemen between Comfort Air and the consumer, Larry’s business was starting
to become stagnant. Determined to turn things around, he started toying with ways to change their model.
“Contractors operate on your money, and after you invest, you have to chase them down just to get your cut of a job—it’s
a nightmare,” recalls Larry. “In the 80s, we’d have some years where we’d make $100,000 and the very next year, we’d lose $200,000. So, in 1987 I said to myself ‘I’m either going to fix it or I’m going to give it up.’ I joined a franchise called Service America out of Ft. Meyers, Fla. ... that was like a major learning experience.”
Larry borrowed a $100,000 to keep the company going. Following the recommendations of Service America, Comfort Air changed its business operation to focus on residential maintenance. By working with customers directly without the buffer of a middle man, Comfort Air was able to service their clients better and educate them about money-saving alternatives.
When asked if he thinks a switch to direct customer service and providing energy- saving maintenance was what saved his business, Larry’s answer was simple and to the point: “I do.”
After the hardships of the 80s, Comfort Air has seen steady growth and success by developing a strong connection with loyal customers all over the Savannah, Pooler, Bloomingdale, Tybee Island, Rincon and Landings areas.
Larry says, “It’s amazing how much customers will begin to trust a company’s service once they see real savings on power bills.” For this reason, Comfort Air is able to call over 5,000 loyal customers a member of their extended family.
While the offer to sell the company has appeared on his desk multiple times, Larry just brushes them into the garbage. Comfort Air is more than just his place of work—it’s the place he met his wife, Sandra, when she got a job as a dispatcher there in 1990. It’s also a place where his stepson Jason works in sales, and his grandson Jared drives out to tune-up the customers’ HVAC systems every day.
“After I retire, I want this to continue; I’ve built something that’s lasting and we’ve weathered the test of time, you know? We’re going to keep this one in the family, and in the end that’s better for everyone—especially the customers.”
As for what the future holds, Comfort Air will continue to grow steadily and focus primarily on residential customers in his part of Southeast Georgia. While there are
over a hundred companies to compete with, Larry believes creating lasting bonds with the people they service will help them gain word of mouth recognition.
“In this business, word of mouth is everything. That’s how you get customers and keep them,” Larry says. “In the end, our continued success will come from our customers being happy. We can improve what we’re doing, but I see no reason to change our model again anytime soon.”