The force behind the family business
Natalie Tevis talks business, community
By Meredith S. Jensen
AMESVILLE—Natalie Tevis will tell you she isn’t really one for the spotlight. In fact, she says one of her best skills is the ability to put the right people in the right places at the right time. But something as simple as that can be key for small business growth, and without her, Airclaws, a heating and cooling business in Southeast Ohio, wouldn’t be where it is today.
Tevis’ husband and business partner, Will, started out in construction, but got into HVAC when the company he was working for made the switch. In 1994, he split off and started Airclaws. For the first 15 years, they were strictly commercial before entering the residential market.
Developing the business meant recruiting the family. Will’s eldest son, Ryan, works there as well as his daughter, Adrienne, and her husband Ray. (Middle child, Caleb, lives with his family in North Carolina.) Tevis said working with Will is great, but downtime can be tricky.
“We work well together because we have different skill sets,” she said. “The problem is that’s what we talk about at dinner and after dinner, and as soon as we wake up in the morning. So we have to make very conscious decisions not to talk about work.”
Growing up in Meigs County, Tevis didn’t have her goals set on running a small company. Her father, who started Quality Window Systems Inc. in Pomeroy, Ohio, always had his own business, so she saw the struggles of running it and raising a family firsthand. Instead, she was called to help others navigate their lives.
“I like teaching people how to cope with things and counseling them,” she said. “I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and became a minister at a young age, so my focus was always my ministry and reaching out to support people.”
She spent most of her 20s-30s ministering and living simply, two qualities that helped turn her into the businesswoman she is today. When she and Will reached a point where the small company needed to grow, Tevis took the opportunity to turn her counseling skills into customer service.
“In a lot of ways, it helps because I want to help people. That’s what our business does. We’re trying to help people make the best decisions they can make with the money they have.”
The attention to customer satisfaction is reflected in the support of the surrounding community. Three years in a row, local newspaper the Athens NEWS named Airclaws best local HVAC business, as well as several other titles throughout the years, including first runner up for best local ad campaign, and first runner up for Tevis as best local entrepreneur and business owner. In 2017, local environmental and social justice nonprofit Rural Action awarded Airclaws’ efforts with its Sustainable Business Award, which caught Tevis pleasantly by surprise.
“We try to do things where we are contributing to energy savings,” Tevis said. “We got a grant to get solar panels on our building so we run a lot of our electricity from the panels. It’s not just our business practices, but who we are and who we want to be – valuing that energy and contributing to saving the environment.”
Tevis likes to spend time in that environment and enjoys running half marathons and other races. She also loves listening to audiobooks and podcasts, especially “How I Built This” with Guy Raz, a podcast about entrepreneurs and idealists, and their creation processes.
“The stories are mostly the same,” she said. “There’s an idea, you put a lot of work into it, and then there are problems, then you overcome those problems and that’s what brings about success. We run into things all the time here, whether its related to employees or the weather, we’re always dealing with something. If you let that get to you, you quit. When you think about quitting, that’s the time to push harder.”
As the new driving force behind the business, Tevis began going to meetings, classes and trainings, and partnered with an organization that helps HVAC businesses grow. With Tevis’ efforts, Airclaws went from averaging seven employees to 22 full time positions.
“We wanted to change the structure of the business,” Tevis said. “For many years, it was been based on [Will] – his personality, his selling, his management. We thought if we want to have a real sustainable business, we have to have structure so somebody else can do it. Whether we sell it, whether one of the kids takes over, whatever it is, we have to have it set up so it isn’t just dependent on him. That’s why I started taking over that part of it; to build structure.”
At one of the Bryant dealer meetings, Tevis noticed something interesting about the Medal of Excellence winners. All the male dealers received red jackets while female dealers received something else, like jewelry or a shawl. Tevis sought to make a change and have the jackets made available to everyone, including herself. She was the first female Bryant dealer to receive a red jacket when Airclaws won its very own Bryant Medal of Excellence.
“If that is the identifying mark of award-winning excellence, then why not have it for women, too?” she said. “Other women agreed with me; they just never spoke up.”
Tevis wants to make sure Airclaws earns all those awards, and the public’s trust in their product and values. Giving back to the community and her customers is a priority. Airclaws sponsors the local elementary school’s spring carnival, donating set-up and tear-down labor, prizes for the auction, and more. The company also helped pay to have the park’s basketball court repaved and are working now to finance a dog park. And as for customers? Each month, Tevis sends out boxes of goodies from a local bakery to new customers, complete with a thank-you card signed by everyone who worked the job.
“[The boxes] cost more than if I were to outsource it, but I feel like the value is higher,” Tevis said. “People here understand what it is to get a box of something from Fluff. To get a little tin of cookies from Indianapolis isn’t going to mean as much. It might be nice, but we’re a local company and we try to do as much as we can for others as well.”