Shop Talk

Backstory: Garner HVAC company revitalized after owner hits $4M jackpot

Jimmy Kennovin works on an HVAC unit. His company struggled through the recession and decline in housing construction until he won $4 million in the lottery.
Jimmy Kennovin works on an HVAC unit. His company struggled through the recession and decline in housing construction until he won $4 million in the lottery. TERI SAYLOR

Deluxe Home Comfort, a longtime Garner heating and air conditioning company, was riding the wave of the housing boom and doing fine until 2008 when the housing crisis struck and the economy bottomed out.

The slowdown in business nearly shuttered the company and took it to a low point from which owner Jimmy Kennovin thought he’d never recover.

“Business went from grossing $200,000 a month down to $10,000 a month,” Kennovin said, sitting in his small, cluttered office that’s behind his house.

On Sept. 9, however, he went to the West Garner Road Grocery Boy Jr, bought a $20 scratch-off lottery ticket, and won $100.

Thinking this could be his lucky day, he used his winnings to buy two more tickets. The first one was a bust. But when he played his second ticket, he hit a $4 million jackpot.

Rather than take the $200,000 per year payout over 20 years, Kennovin elected to collect the lump sum of $2.4 million and pocketed $1.7 million after taxes.

“The lottery gave me a fresh start,” he said. “It has taken the stress off of me and has given me some freedom.”

Kennovin said he has invested about 15 percent of his winnings in breathing new life into his business, primarily through increasing his advertising and marketing efforts.

A month ago, he hired Anna Fragiorgi, who has a background in digital marketing and social media and owns Clayton marketing and advertising firm Silver Gate, to manage the office and handle the accounting.

She is helping to finish a new website for Deluxe Home Comfort, setting up a variety of social media platforms and working on moving the company’s profile to the top of search engine rankings. Until now, Kennovin had relied on word-of-mouth marketing and Yellow Pages advertising to build his client base.

“Anna is bringing me out of the Stone Age,” he said.

At 50, he is recovering from his second hip replacement. While he admits he’s starting to slow down, he said he’s not ready to sit around his office. He spends his days calling on customers, prospecting for new business and performing testing and maintenance services.

Kennovin was managing a warehouse in his hometown of Sayreville, N.J., when his uncle, Bill Paulus, recruited him to run Deluxe Home Comfort, which he had bought from Norman Utley in 1992, when Utley retired.

Paulus owned and operated Paulus Heating and Air Conditioning and needed someone to manage his new company. Kennovin, who had experience as an electrician, accepted his uncle’s offer.

After about 20 years, Paulus sold Deluxe to Kennovin, closed his other company and retired.

The housing boom of the 1990s provided steady business growth, and Deluxe Home Comfort was serving the new construction market as well as the client base Utley had built and nurtured over 40 years. At its peak, Deluxe had 20 employees.

Over time, the company’s aging client base declined as longtime customers died or moved to retirement facilities. Construction slowed along with the economy, and business dried up.

Before winning the lottery, Kennovin was down to just one employee.

But he wasn’t ready to give up. He turned his attention to selling maintenance contracts and installing retrofits – or replacement units for old, declining HVAC systems, and he focused on keeping his phone ringing.

The economy has improved, business is slowly returning and Kennovin now has six employees.

He hopes his fresh marketing approach will lead to stability and more business. Currently, his profit margins range from 8 to 10 percent.

“If I make 10 percent at the end of the year, I’m doing well,” he said.

Kennovin’s lifestyle has changed little since he drew the lucky lottery ticket. He plans to take his family on a long-overdue vacation, and he sleeps a little better at night.

He likes the small home in Garner he shares with his wife, four kids and two dogs. His neighbors don’t mind if he keeps his company vehicles parked in his driveway, and he has no interest in moving to a fancier neighborhood, where his equipment may not be welcome.

Some of Kennovin’s best customers live on his street, and he shares his neighborhood with other HVAC businesses, describing them them as “friendly competitors.”

He said people ask him all the time whether he plans to stop working and enjoy his lottery winnings, but he doesn’t want to retire.

“I’m not ready to give up,” he said. “This is my last chance to turn the business around.”

And on the off chance he could get lucky again, he still buys a lottery ticket from time to time.

Reach Teri Saylor at Find her on Twitter @terisaylor.