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“At one point my mother made a rule that there would be no talking shop at the dinner table,” says Tara Smith, General Manager of Mr. Furnace / Furnasman New Homes in Winnipeg. This mostly applied to Tara and her father Bryan Klinkhammer, but it would be hard to stick to today, given that there are so many family members working in the same business. Tara’s brother Jeff and father Bryan still work there, her mother did previously, and her husband Greg, son Carter and nephew Josh, are also part of the team. “It’s a family affair.”

Tara’s brother Jeff Sheldon is the Plumbing Manager and co-owner, her husband Greg Taylor is the New Home Heating Manager and mother Sharron Klinkhammer is now retired but remains part of the ownership team. Tara’s son Carter is a business school grad working on the sales side, and Josh is a gasfitter. In addition to blood relatives, Tara says that “many of the company’s 30 employees have been there for ten or fifteen years, so it feels like one big family.”

The story began when her father purchased Great West Heating nearly 30 years ago. He brought his daughter into the company and taught her the business, which they decided to sell during the mergers era in the early 2000s. They both stayed on as employees but soon found that “it felt too corporate. It was losing its family feeling.”

“We take pride in being part of the community and being close to the customers. We don’t have an answering service in Texas that doesn’t really know what it means to people when it’s minus 30 in Winnipeg.

We support local clubs and sports teams and I like to know all the staff and talk to their wives and husbands. At one point I went back to school and learned payroll and accounting and that served me well during the merger years, but after a little while I realized that accounting was boring for me and that I’d rather be working with people and be a problem solver.”

“So I moved into human resources, then operations, where I was in constant contact with employees and customers. I like people better than numbers. Admittedly numbers can be more consistent than people, but I thrive in the hot seat and I enjoy the rush you get from solving problems. I love it when a customer calls back and says ‘Thanks, I don’t know what I would have done without your help.’”

After the merger, her father exited first, buying Furnasman New Homes, which specialized in heating and plumbing systems for new construction. A few years later Tara established Mr. Furnace. In 2015 the two became one, completing the reunification of father and daughter and their companies. Tara is the general manager and her dad is still actively involved in managing the company, doing estimating, budgeting, planning and community initiatives.

Asked what it’s like being in charge of everyone, including her older brother, Tara jokes, “Well I was already bossy when I was five years old, so I guess it comes naturally to me.” She has been on the Board of the HRAI Manitoba Region for nine years and is currently the Chairperson. She also became a member of the HRAI National Board last year. Tara says she wishes she could somehow instill the confidence she has today into young women entering the HVAC field.

“Having confidence is important for any female in a male-dominated profession. You need to know your worth and your strengths and do your homework so you’re not afraid of the tough questions. Then, if you don’t differentiate by gender, generally men won’t either.” Tara has acquired a great deal of experience, working in all parts of the business, including short stints on service trucks and equipment installation projects.

She says over the years there have been a few instances when she was on the receiving end of gender-bias, such as being called “Babe,” and the odd phone-in customer saying “Is there a man there that I can talk to?” “Usually it would be older people, because they were born in a different time and a different world.” On one occasion the ‘man’ issue was pressed, so Tara switched the call to a male service person, but it was soon rerouted back to Tara, who was more knowledgeable on the subject at hand.

Tara’s leadership has gone beyond technical expertise and day-to-day operations, as she has instilled a win-win-win customer-employee-company attitude in the recombined firm, and has made some bold strategic moves to grow revenue. Last month we reported on her trailblazing construction heat initiative, which is now bearing fruit.

She is considered one of the dynamic contributors at the HRAI and says: “One of the industry problems is that there is a big underground market with unqualified, unpermitted, unsafe work going on. It drags everyone down with it because it makes it harder for the good firms to charge the right price for our work. Through the HRAI we can address this problem and educate the public about the value of qualified technicians and safe working practices. The HRAI is important.”

Asked for one last piece of advice for women who aspire to advancing in the HVAC business or becoming a leader like Tara, she says “Learn everything you can and earn your stripes, then don’t be thinking ‘I hope they like me.’ Think instead ‘I’m a valuable contributor and I’m going to be fine.’”

Congratulations to a very valuable contributor, Tara Smith at Mr. Furnace in Winnipeg, Manitoba.