2023 a milestone year for Arkansas HVAC leader

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 3,257 views 

Bill Harrison, chairman and CEO of Little Rock-based Harrison Energy Partners, started the business in 1983. (PHOTO: Cindy Momschilov)

Bill Harrison will celebrate two milestones in 2023 — the 40th anniversary of his company and his 80th birthday.

At an age when most people are gleefully jumping headlong into retirement, Harrison isn’t walking away anytime soon as chairman and CEO of a company he’s helped build into one of the leading heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) businesses in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

“When we [have] our 50th-anniversary party, then I’ll hang it up,” Harrison joked during a recent interview inside the Bell Engineering Center at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “Nowhere near thinking about it right now.”

Harrison Energy Partners (HEP) — formerly Harrison Trane Service Co. and Trane Arkansas — provides commercial and industrial HVAC systems, sales and services. The company represents more than 30 product lines for customers across multiple industries, including mechanical contracting and consulting engineering firms, K-12 schools and universities, manufacturing plants, hospitals, banks and property management companies.

Harrison launched the business in 1983 in Little Rock and expanded to Northwest Arkansas in the late 1980s. There are additional offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, thanks to a critical partnership established in 2017 naming HEP an authorized manufacturer’s representative in Oklahoma for Daikin, the world’s largest manufacturer of air conditioners.

“That [Oklahoma] market is probably about 30% larger than Arkansas,” Harrison said. “We were a $50 million a year company in Arkansas. We should be $65 million a year in Oklahoma.”

More than 175 HEP employees — many of them with the company for over a decade — provide equipment sales, maintenance and repair services, HVAC controls, parts and product support.

“The secret to the growth of our business has been the fact that we’ve had some wonderful people who chose to associate with the company,” Harrison said. “We’ve tried to create a culture where people are truly empowered. We’re not hierarchal at all.”

Harrison said the worst thing he could do as a leader would be to give responsibility to others and then tell them what to do.

Mike McClellan started with the company in 1989 as a salesman and has been president and COO since 2010.

“He [Harrison] trusts the leadership to do their job,” he said. “He doesn’t treat anybody like they’re working for him. He gives you opportunities to be your best. He is always welcoming and warm and has been like that every day I have known him in my 30-plus years of working at Harrison Energy Partners.”

Harrison grew up in North Little Rock and was part of the third graduating class from Sylvan Hills High School in 1961.

He studied industrial engineering at the UA in Fayetteville, one of many family members who’ve matriculated there. His mother, who was a schoolteacher, graduated in 1935. Aunts, uncles, brothers, in-laws and his wife also were Razorbacks.

“We put four kids through the university between 1984 and 2000,” Harrison said. His wife, Margaret, is a 1966 graduate of the College of Education and Health Professions. “Now, my first grandchild has graduated, and my second is a sophomore in accounting. Her little sister will be here next year. There were 18 of us lined up, rooting on the Razorbacks [football team] at the Liberty Bowl.”

The UA remains a central point for Harrison. He and his wife have been inducted into the Towers of Old Main, a recognition society for the university’s most generous benefactors. Their family gift in 2013 helped transform an obsolete computing research laboratory in Bell Engineering Center into the Bill and Margaret Harrison Family Video Conferencing Facility, with state-of-the-art software and equipment to help students expand their research.

The College of Engineering named Harrison a distinguished alumnus in 2011, and industrial engineering is a family affair. Bill’s late brother, Crofford, received his industrial engineering degree from the UA in 1969, and two of Bill and Margaret’s four children earned industrial engineering degrees there — Angela Harrison Kuli (1992) and Drew Harrison (2000).

“The university is a draw that keeps the family pulled together,” Harrison said.

After earning his degree in 1966, Harrison attended a graduate engineering program for HVAC manufacturer Trane and joined the company’s sales office in Shreveport, La. He spent 17 years there before being awarded the franchise in 1983 to represent Trane’s commercial business in Arkansas.

“I found out in June that by Aug. 1, I had to have a going business in Little Rock,” he recalled. “Since I grew up here, I at least knew what interstate to take to get here.”

William A. Harrison Inc. (d/b/a Harrison Trane) opened with eight employees, including a young salesman named Jim Bradford, who is still with the company and heads up the Northwest Arkansas office in Springdale.

Bradford worked for the previous Trane franchise owner since 1978. He said he knew Harrison’s reputation.

“To hear that Trane had appointed him as the successor to my previous boss was a positive in my mind,” Bradford recalled. “If I were going to jump from the company, that would have been the time to do it. The more I saw who he was, the more thrilled I was that he would be my boss.”

Bradford said his desire to move his family out of Little Rock to Northwest Arkansas in 1988 underscored the positive work culture Harrison created.

“We wanted to move, but he had nobody that would be able to step into my shoes for what I had been doing in Little Rock,” Bradford explained. “Yet he supported it and allowed me to move. I had been calling on Northwest Arkansas as a salesman for several years, but this was more of an experiment to move and begin working here. Really, at the time, it was out of my garage.”

From those humble beginnings, HEP moved in 1995 to a more prominent address at 2499 S. Maestri Road in Springdale, where approximately 40 employees work.

“It’s been very successful,” Bradford said.

Harrison has held several leadership positions in the HVAC industry on both state and international levels, most notably as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) president in 2008-2009.

That stint helped form the idea of rebranding the company’s name to Harrison Energy Partners in 2011 to accurately reflect its scope of services.

“I met with people all over the world who were dealing with HVAC issues, and they were all concerned about the impact the buildings that were being designed, constructed and used were having on the environment,” he said. “In most developed countries, buildings use about 40% of the energy. And responsible for about 37% of greenhouse gas emissions. We were doing a lot of study about how we can impact that and make it better.”

Harrison said the objective of using less energy with fewer emissions requires three things:

  • Build better buildings.
  • Convert from gas/electric heat to electric.
  • Make the electric grid more renewable.

Harrison said all of those things are possible. With approximately 35 degreed engineers, HEP is working on them, continuing a 40-year reputation of helping their clients.

“Energy is our middle name,” he said with a smile.