Sitting Down With Rick Houghton of Pelican Aire

We recently sat down with Rick Houghton of Pelican Aire to learn more about his amazing organization and why he chooses to work with Arctic Industries. A slightly edited transcript of the conversation can be found below.

Hello Rick – Please tell us the story, how Pelican Aire came to be and how is your organization structured today?

“Well, Pelican Aire is 30 years old as of last October. It’s myself, my wife, my two daughters and a crew of a whole bunch of amazing people.  We started out with me and a truck. My wife’s cousin encouraged me to make use of my license, which I thought was crazy because I didn’t feel like running a business.  That’s literally how it started, and we just ended up growing slowly. I started out doing fast food refrigeration for McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell’s. At one point, there were 72-76 stores, and only three of us were taking care of service on all those stores which meant- you start at six in the morning, you get done whenever you get done, you change out compressors in the middle of the night and that sort of thing. It really was a lot of fun!  Joanne’s been with me- well, we’ve been married 43 years and working together for 30. She’s been the real stable part of our company, and to put up with me that long, I’d say we’re pretty fortunate! She basically runs my service department and all human resources, I cover the install part of the company, my oldest daughter Renee takes care of AR (accounts receivable) and AP (accounts payable) and she’s also secondary qualifier. My youngest daughter runs dispatch.

Being in Florida, can you give your perspective on the unique variables of your market?

“The tourism business in Florida is huge. The other day- we were driving around town after we visited one of our sites, and I’m just looking at all these people and I’m thinking I should roll down the window and tell them thank you for investing in Florida, because without them Florida would be suffering. There’s a lot of commercial outfits moving to Florida. It seems you go through the I-4 corridor there and you see the massive warehouse buildings and things of that nature that are going up. The growth has just been phenomenal. The demand for good quality equipment is high, but I would say tourism is the biggest driver.”

What is your team’s key to success with some much changing: inflation, supply, lead times, etc?

The key to our success is our people, and that’s not a canned speech!  We couldn’t do all this without all our great folks. I was always told; you don’t have to know everything but surround yourself with people that do and/or that have the information and the knowledge that you need. We’ve been very fortunate in that aspect; my installers love what they do. I still don’t mind getting up at five in the morning to come to work and stay all day long. I feel guilty when I take time off and a lot of my guys do too. Our team is the key to our success, it’s simply the people. Plus, we do a lot of training, and we bring in a lot of young guys. I’m impressed with the kids that are coming out of high school nowadays. A lot of them go on to learn a trade after they graduate, they’ll come to us at 19 or 20 years old, and jump right in. It’s been a really rewarding experience thus far.”

Please tell us about the Pelican Aire 3-year plan.  Where would you like the organization to be at that time, added personnel, territories, products?

“I’m 63. I’m assuming that probably by the time I hit my 66 and eight months or whatever it is Social Security says, I would likely be able to go ahead and step out and start spending more personal time with my wife. My expectation is that my daughters will step into the driver’s seat and run Pelican Aire. I feel responsible for a lot of these guys and their families, so I don’t want to go ahead and sell the company. We’re slowly trying to go ahead and have a successful, stable year this year. Next year, we’ll talk about more growth and more sales as far as the volume is concerned, but the three-year plan is to make it there and let the team that we put together actually run the day to day themselves, without Joanne and myself.”

Supply Chain & Inflationary components have made it more difficult to keep long term relationships in-place in the business world, would you mind telling us about your relationship with Arctic and how you are working with the Executive Team now?

“Arctic and Pelican have known each other for at least at least 15 years or so. Arctic has always been very good about referring customer service folks that needed help- Arctic would always throw Pelican in there. It was always easy to work with Arctic because I can purchase your equipment directly and get support if needed. Usually, the only stuff we get involved with is replacement market, as far as Arctic is concerned, because a lot of our customers are the food service equipment companies.  Our relationship with Arctic has always been strong the team is easy to work with, even when circumstances presented challenges. We’ve watched a few people transition through, but there’s still some of the old crew still there at Arctic. When needed, turnaround time is always quick and the quality of the product is excellent. We’ve always been very proud to be able to install Arctic equipment.”

Your thoughts on recovery of the market as COVID lingers?  Which product lines will perform better than others in 2022 and 2023?

“We took a pretty big hit when COVID hit because all of my projects at Disney and Universal shut down completely for a good two or three months. We had to search to keep ourselves busy during the pandemic. The recovery was slow for two years, but this current year is just looking fantastic. Of course, the lead time on our walk-in coolers and freezers is getting longer, and that’s no fault of Arctic’s, but I’m getting purchase orders for jobs that aren’t going to be starting until August or November of next year. Food service is bouncing back, and the market is still strong as far as commercial buildings, hotels, and hospitals go.”

Demand seems to be up in Cold Storage is up, do you believe this continues?  How can Pelican Aire work to capture more of the Walk-in Cooler market?

“I certainly hope that it continues to grow and continues the path that it is on. Our relationship with a lot of our equipment dealers that we do work for, has always been very good and continuous. Most of my stuff is referral, so I’d like to think that’s going to help us get to the next level as far as sales are concerned. As far as the industry is concerned in the cold storage situation, the doors are always opening for us in different parts of the cold storage industry. A considerable amount of our business is food service, but there’s others that we get involved with as far as medical is concerned amongst other things of that nature.”

What are the most challenging elements of selling a Walk-in?

“Number one, it’s kind of comical because a lot of the customers don’t understand how much it costs. When you hit them with a number as far as what it’s going to cost to purchase the walk-in and what it’s going to cost to do the installation, a lot of them just kind of fall out of their chair. That’s not a reflection on Arctic or any other manufacturer, it’s just the reality of purchasing a walk-in cooler/freezer- they can be expensive.  The other major challenge is coming up with a product and a design that fits exactly what they need. I would say it’s just the shock element to the customer because it seems like they don’t have any concept of how much this is going to cost. They don’t prepare themselves for the capital expense, and so you try to convince them that it makes more sense to replace the product they currently have, rather than just try to put patches on it and make do with what they already have.”

Is there anything else you would like partners, customers, or vendors to know about Pelican Aire?

“We’ve gotten better every year and we get better every day. Quality is everything to us!  Quality and honesty is really what I think Pelican is all about, and I think people would be very pleased to make use of our services.”

Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us, Rick!