Chapter VIII • A Cool Idea
Sweet Success • The Albert Sweet Story
Chapter VIII • A Cool Idea
During his stint in the Army, Al had wondered if his job at the Dan Miller Company would still be available to him when he returned from duty. As a back up plan, he had toyed with the idea of staying on in the military, even though he was well aware of their ‘disdain’ for the entrepreneurial spirit. Ultimately though, there would be no reason for concern. Upon his arrival, Al found his old job waiting… and even more besides…
Before I went into the service, I had been making pretty good money. I think I had about five thousand dollars saved up. At the time, I knew that Dan Miller was short of money. So when I left, I loaned him all the money I had. And when I returned, he immediately repaid the loan.
I wasn’t sure if my old job would still be available. But not only was it waiting for me, Dan now wanted me to be sales manager of the two stores. Suddenly, I was making good money again.
But soon, Al would find himself at another crossroads which required making an excruciatingly difficult decision. Could Al actually bring himself to leave the Dan Miller Company? Dan, after all, was family.
Little by little, I took over more and more responsibility until I was running the company. I’d gone as far as I could. So I told him I wanted to leave and go into my own business. He offered me half the company to stay, but I turned him down. I said I would be available to him anytime and to call if there was a problem. It was a hard thing to do, but we remained good friends until he died.
Bob Lodge had started an air conditioning company with Dan called AIRCO and I went to work there. We had an office on Hollywood Way in Burbank. I fell in love with the air conditioning business and enjoyed working in it. This was when air conditioning was in its infancy.
Meanwhile, Al purchased a new house for himself and Diane on Vanscoy Avenue in North Hollywood. It was the perfect house for a young couple, except for one thing…
It was a new house. The next door neighbor, Don Edwards, happened to be the builder. It had two bedrooms and a den. It was a very nice house. However, it didn’t have air conditioning. I didn’t realize that you really needed air conditioning if you were going to live in the San Fernando Valley.
By then, I was in the air conditioning business and had been around a lot of the installation jobs. It didn’t look like brain surgery. So I got the equipment and installed the air conditioning system myself with the help of a friend of mine. We did all the duct work, and everyone thought I was a genius. That taught me that I could do almost anything if I put my mind to it.
With Al now part of the AIRCO team, the company began doing spectacular business. However, never once did he suspect that working with air conditioning could land him in hot water…
Somebody from Hammer Engineering on Burbank Blvd. came into our office. They had a three thousand square foot engineering company and wanted air conditioning put in. It was a big job for us. We had just come out with the Mitchell Model QR200. So I went ahead and sold them an air conditioning system.
But I learned too late that with this unit, once the air goes through the evaporation coil, you can’t allow any pressure against it. In other words, they couldn’t be used in conjunction with any of our duct work because the system would freeze up. Anyhow, the system didn’t work, and now I’m feeling terrible.
But it gets worse. It turns out that the owner of Hammer Engineering had a brother who was a judge on the Burbank court. He starts looking around and discovers that I never pulled a permit. I didn’t even know you needed a permit.
So now I might be going to jail! I meet with the head of the building department and luckily, all I have to do is apply for a license. Fortunately, we were able to quickly fix the system.
To insure that nothing like that would ever happen again, Al immediately began attending evening courses at UCLA so that he could learn as much as possible about air conditioning. Nevertheless, when it came to business, things always seemed to work out well for Al. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when Al’s run-in with the building department turned out to be a blessing in disguise…
The head of the department introduced me to some people and one thing led to another. I wound up becoming a heat pump air conditioning specialist, which led to a joint venture with the Edison Company. And when you have the blessing of a company like Edison, you’ve got all kinds of credibility.
Not one to let the grass accumulate under his feet, Al decided it was time for another change. Al had been alerted to a good deal on a new house, and of course, he was never one to pass up a good deal…
A friend of mine found a house across from him in Sepulveda which was much bigger than ours, maybe two thousand square feet. It was a foreclosure and it didn’t take too much money to get into. So I put my house up for sale, and it turned out to be a meaningful experience.
I sold the house to a very nice Italian family. I liked the people and they liked me. They would invite me to dinner. I gave them my home phone number and said that if they ever needed anything to call me. For a few years after they moved in, they would call and I’d come by. It was a pleasure. Twenty years after that, I went by the house and the people were still there. They were just so nice. The Bible and the Torah say to treat others the same way you want to be treated. And it works.
Having relocated his place of residence, Al determined the time was right to likewise relocate his place of employment. It turned out to be a very smart move. His decision to leave AIRCO and team up with a gentleman by the name of Sandy Elster would ultimately lead to more financial success than either he or the Elsters could have hoped for.
I decided to leave AIRCO and go into business for myself. I went to my best customer, Marvin Wagner, and asked if I could bid on his air conditioning systems. He was doing shopping centers and commercial buildings. Marvin introduced me to Frank Elster who was a school chum of his who had a food service equipment company. They did refrigeration for restaurants – you know, walk-ins, reach-in ice machines, etc. They were starting to get into the air conditioning business and were making all kinds of mistakes.
Frank Elster thought I was the tooth fairy because I was picking up on those mistakes and resolving the problems. He said, “You seem to know what you’re doing.” So Frank introduced me to his uncle Sandy Elster who was the principal of the company. He suggested that we form a partnership. I insisted on being an equal partner because I remember someone important telling me that anything other than a 50/50 partnership meant you were nothing more than a high class employee.
Sandy said he’d have to go home and think about it. I think he offered something like a 60/40 partnership, and he’d even put up all the money. But after the weekend, he called and said, “You got a deal.” It turned out to be a win/win situation. We were soon doing about two million dollars a year, which back then was a lot of money.
Sandy Elster was Al’s senior by more than fifteen years. He was a strong businessman, yet very different from Al in a number of ways. But rather than causing problems, these differing personalities seemed to complement one another.
Al immediately began to shrewdly steer the company in a direction the Elsters had wanted to explore but had previously been unable to grasp, which was to provide air conditioning for restaurants. Such a scenario opened up a whole slew of new challenges. Yet Al unreservedly was more than willing to confront any trials head on.
When I became a part of Elster’s, I decided to focus on restaurant air conditioning systems because it was such a challenge. First off, why is air conditioning for a restaurant so much more difficult than any other application? The answer’s very simple.
Let’s say you have a restaurant with the same amount of square footage as a shoe store. The shoe store may end up with six or eight people in there at a time, while a restaurant could end up with a hundred forty people. Each person that comes in gives off heat, and that heat has to be removed. Plus, you’ve got an open kitchen right there with broilers and fryers and all kinds of heat producing equipment. And remember, you can be just as uncomfortable with too much cold air blowing on you. So the challenge is to deliver large quantities of air with a carefully designed air distribution system.
We ended up doing about five or six hundred International House of Pancakes across the country. Other clients included Denny’s, Sambo’s, Sizzler and Del Taco. We were the best there was. There was no one else who specialized in restaurant air conditioning systems.
We also did all the Hamburger Hamlets. There, you had exhibition cooking with twenty or thirty people seated at the counter right in front of the exhaust hood. Smoke from the broiler was being pulled up into the exhaust hood. So you had to provide sufficient make-up air to accommodate that exhaust, or else you would lose all of your cold air and waste a lot of money.
Overcoming such obstacles required thinking outside the box, and Al was just the man to do it. In fact, his ideas were so revolutionary, that over the next few years, more than a dozen patents would be awarded to Al for his ground breaking ideas.
One of my patents was for the Eltec Hood, which was the single most important invention I ever created. I was able to separate the kitchen area from the remainder of the restaurant by providing a negative pressure environment in the kitchen or with exhibition cooking.
So how did I come to invent it? Well, I didn’t know any better. Everyone said it couldn’t be done. In fact, people use to say I had hearing aids fitted with “no” filters. In other words, I couldn’t hear the word “no.”
I’ve got a number of other patents, but the Eltec Hood was as profitable as all the rest put together. It changed the dynamics of our ability to produce kitchen comfort at a fraction of the cost of any normal system.