Company with national reach makes Sheffield Lake its home

Photo by Michele Murphy
Rob Falke, left, and Dominick Guarino built their Sheffield Lake-based National Comfort Institute into the country’s largest independent training and technical support organization for heating, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical contractors. They are building a new $2 million training center and headquarters on the site of the former Abbe Road Lumber on Abbe Road.

By MICHELE MURPHY

SHEFFIELD LAKE – One is the son on a New York restaurateur who finished high school in Rome, where he said he perfected his quest to learn how to take things apart and reassemble them. He returned to America for college with one suitcase and $100, then worked in research and development for two firms before becoming a technical writer and editor for Cleveland-based Penton Publishing Co.

The other grew up in sunny, central California where he built a promising commercial real estate career. When his father, an experienced sheet metal worker, purchased his employer’s heating and cooling business, he abandoned his pledge to never work with his dad, instead joining forces to help a business in need of a re-boot.

Despite such different backgrounds, the two came together in Sheffield Lake to create National Comfort Institute.

Twenty-five years later, Chairman and CEO Dominick Guarino and President Rob Falke have built their company into the country’s largest independent training and technical support organization for heating, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical contractors.

They have trained 25,000 professionals to use their air measurement and balancing system to ensure homes and businesses’ heating and cooling systems run safely, comfortably and efficiently.

Guarino recalled his “aha moment” occurred while sitting in a Fairview Park home with an older couple who were unable to use their living room because it was too uncomfortable for them. He said the industry had made advances to ensure furnaces and air conditioning units ran safely and efficiently, but that did not guarantee comfort.

At the same time, Falke was handling the management side of the family’s HVAC business. He and his dad were stumped by the inability of efficient equipment to balance heated or cooled air throughout a home or business. Falke’s “aha moment” came when he happened upon an air balance hood, a tool that measures air. When he made the discovery in the 1980’s, the instrument was new to the industry.

Not knowing about their mutual interest, Guarino in Cleveland and Falke in California, undertook a quest to create a method to integrate comfort with efficiency and safety.

Technical writer-turned editor Guarino had become fascinated with the HVAC industry as a result of working on an industry publication. Falke recalled writing one of those articles. It was on air balancing, he said. Air balancing is an industry technical term that means testing, diagnosing and properly adjusting the flow of air throughout a home or building.

Guarino recalled his editor urged him to get on a plane to meet Falke. “He’s on the same quest as you are,” he recalled being told.

Both men laugh about their first conversation, which lasted all night. “We clicked,” said Guarino.

They teamed up to discover, then teach, how safety, efficiency and comfort could be achieved in the HVAC industry.

“We were different,” Guarino said of his long-time collaborator. However, they were alike in their determination to, not just write about the industry, but influence it. “We were a way for them to stay on the cutting edge,” Guarino said. “That’s how NCI came to be.”

From the start, the two believed that safety, comfort and efficiency came only through measuring for it, adopting the motto: “If you don’t measure, you’re just guessing.”

After two to three years of developing a way to measure air and system performance, Falke moved his family to Cleveland. “I think my daughters have forgiven us,” he laughed, acknowledging challenges of moving mid-high school.

In the early years, Falke said the academic and scientific communities roiled against them, calling them “dreamers.” Over time, their method became more widely accepted. Falke said today “they are fully integrated with what we do,” citing this as NCI’s biggest achievement.

As proof of this acceptance, Guarino said they initially offered a few training classes a year. By 2002, it had grown to 70 or 80, he said. Today, they offer 200 classes annually at the Sheffield Lake headquarters, their 11,000 sq. foot training facility in Los Alamitos, Calif., and across the country. Their most recent classes were held in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Atlanta, Denver, Chicago and Mobile, Ala. The training and certification they offer is recognized throughout the industry. Guarino added the company is the only one in the country providing carbon monoxide training and certification for the HVAC industry.

Curriculum development and all aspects of training are handled by Falke, while Guarino manages all aspects of their business operations, including sales and marketing. Falke said he and Guarino have comfortably divided the duties of running a growing company that began with three employees in 1994 and has grown to 33 employees. Guarino said annual revenue for the privately held company has grown 10 fold.

While Falke does not seem one to boast, Guarino was anxious to boast about his partner. For the past two years, Falke has volunteered hundreds as a committee chairman for ASHRAE, an organization for heating, refrigeration and air conditioning professionals. When the group’s work is completed early next year, the industry will have its first international standard to measure the efficiency of an installed air conditioning or heating system. Falke said this is significant because there are large efficiency discrepancies between lab tested systems and installed systems in a home or building.

Guarino said the industry achieved the goal of creating an efficient unit, whether a furnace or air conditioner, in the ’70’s and ’80’s when America experienced its first energy crises. NCI’s efforts the past 25 years to train and provide technical support for professionals who work on systems – ducts, registers, grills in addition to equipment – have added the additional component of comfort by measuring the amount of air needed in each room.

Falke, whose office walls and tables are filled with instruments to measure air, some dating back to the 1700’s, takes pride in NCI’s reputation as a learning organization. For him, testing and diagnostics is fun. He said he likes to watch as others are sparked to find a solution after discussing a problem with them.

He also heaps praise on Guarino noting that it is rare in their industry for a partnership to last 25 years.

“This partnership built a company that is leading our industry to a new level of efficiency and comfort never before possible…all from Sheffield Lake, Ohio,” he said.

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