Northern Air Systems leader a man in motion
By: Velvet Spicer October 25, 2018
Tim Confer has gone to great lengths to ensure the future growth of his business, from extending its global sales footprint to serving multiple industry sectors ranging from media to medical to the U.S. military.
In fact, Confer jokes that the “sun never sets on a Northern Air system.”
Tim Confer is the president of Northern Air Systems.
“We’re in Europe, Australia, Brazil, Russia, Asia, all over the world with all different types of equipment,” says Confer, founder and president of Northern Air Systems Inc., a Gates-based manufacturer of specialized HVAC systems. “Everything from medical to military to aviation, oil and gas. We circle the globe with specialized equipment.”
The company he founded 20 years ago to build specialized air conditioning and chiller systems for mobile medical trailers has grown to one with roughly 100 employees and two locations in Gates and a facility in Baton Rouge, La. Confer is negotiating an expansion at the company’s Buffalo Road manufacturing plant and discussing the possibility of opening a small plant in the U.K.
Confer expects Northern Air to surpass $20 million in sales this year.
“It’s fun stuff,” Confer says of his 20 years as an entrepreneur and the company’s growth during that time. “I travel the world. I literally can land in just about any country or any part of the world and go have a beer with a friend—someone I know through business. We’ve developed a lot of real close relationships around the world.”
From teaching to leading
As a teen, Confer’s first job was at the North Greece burger joint, Schaller’s Drive-In. One of his bosses was a “character” who liked to show the kids what working hard and working fast was all about.
“If you weren’t going fast enough he’d come out and go faster than you just to prove that it could be done,” Confer recalls with a laugh. “He taught work ethic, no question about it.”
Growing up, Confer wanted to do electrical work—his high school yearbook states his future plans were to be a “rich electrician”—and that’s what he did for a time.
“I’m not an electrician anymore, but if my maintenance guys were out in the shop and they couldn’t bend a piece of conduit or didn’t know how to run a wire to a motor, I’ve many times jumped on a lift with them,” he says.
He then made the move to education, teaching a high school Board of Cooperative Educational Services class in residential and commercial wiring for a decade. It was during that time that Confer began doing contract heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) work.
“And through a series of things I ended up working on this mobile medical project with a bunch of guys that came from one of our employers years ago,” Confer says. “I ended up keeping the contract on the mobile medical stuff.”
That led to the 1998 founding of Northern Air Systems, building specialized air conditioning and chiller systems for medical trailers for GE Healthcare, Siemens Medical Solutions USA Inc. and Philips Health.
“These are trailers that drive down the road with MRI systems in there, PET/CT systems—some of them are surgery labs and they move around the country and service smaller communities,” Confer explains. “Once we started building those it kind of got us going.”
And like in many markets, medical business can be cyclical.
“So we started to build for the oil and gas industry specialized equipment for the drilling rigs and hazardous locations,” Confer said. “One of our good customers builds a lot of those blast proof buildings. That’s a very special air conditioning system that goes in those types of locations. We prevent things from blowing up and people getting injured.”
Northern Air also builds air conditioning equipment for the television broadcast mobile business. With much of the production of big sports games and events being held on-site in TV stations’ mobile units, those units, and their valuable electronic equipment, must be cooled. Confer’s company ensures that happens.
“If you watch the ball drop in New York City every year, we are cooling that production trailer that feeds the video to the world,” he says.
Military applications are a growing business, Confer says. Northern Air cools shelters and electronic enclosures, as well as mobile training simulators for aircraft. The company also makes cooling for aviation systems, including for the F-35 fighter jet.
Since founding Northern Air in a small building on Burrows Street in the city’s west side, Confer has continuously grown the business, outgrowing its space a few times now. Its current location is a 45,000-square-foot space on Buffalo Road, which Confer hopes to increase in the near future.
Northern Air also occupies space in Pixley Industrial Park, where its duct business, Northern Air Sheet Metal resides. That side of the business feeds contractors with custom and one-off designs. The company’s third facility, which opened roughly six years ago, is located in Baton Rouge. That location does minor HVAC work and converts regular air conditioning units that you’d buy off the shelf to explosion-proof units.
Confer says the ability to offer a number of different products capable of being used in numerous industries and around the world helps ensure the company has staying power, despite economic ups and downs, tariffs and regulations.
And, he says, a lot of dedicated people help with the company’s success.
“We have a pretty high retention rate. There are a lot of 20-year people here and they know the business very well now,” Confer says. “There are about eight of my ex-students that are still here after almost 20 years.”
Challenges and opportunities
Northern Air’s Vice President of Operations Will Rausch, who has been with the company some 14 years, says the biggest obstacle the company faces right now is the opportunity for growth.
“We’re in a spot where we are going to be growing tremendously, so just keeping up with the technology, as well as the rapid growth is going to be the biggest challenge for us,” Rausch explains. “We’re staffing up, we’re investing in new equipment, new software and training for our people to be ahead of that.”
Confer agrees, noting that like with any company, changing technologies can make or break the business.
“You have to be ready to change your products and adjust for the times,” Confer adds.
Finding staffers trained in vocational fields also has been an issue, Confer acknowledges. To grow, you need the people. Higher taxes and government regulations also can get in the way of growth, he says.
But there’s not much that keeps him up at night, Confer says.
“I think the key is to have the right people in the right place,” he says. “As you get bigger it does slow down the process of change because there are more people involved and there’s more dynamics to what you do. I would say it’s not terribly overwhelming because we’ve got good people in place.”
Northern Air’s first official employee, Kirk Hoak, says that when the company does face a problem, it’s all hands on deck.
“Everybody has input, everybody comes together. It’s not just one person saying this is what’s going to happen,” says Hoak, the company’s production control manager.
“Everybody takes pride in what we do here.”
And the fact that Northern Air doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket means the company can weather most storms, Hoak adds.
“It’s people. It’s resources. It’s technology that we have,” Rausch says of the company’s successes. “But mostly people, talented people.”
Confer enjoys challenging people to come up with new ideas or better ways of doing things and doesn’t think of himself as a micromanager or as terribly hands on.
“I kind of have the Steve Jobs attitude: Let’s be ahead of the pack on everything.
Sometimes I stress people out that way,” Confer admits. “And people have to rein me in once in a while. Because in today’s world we have more ideas and things we want to do than actual resources to commit to all those things.”
The best part of his job, Confer says, is the relationships he’s built with both employees, customers and others he comes in contact with on the job. EEP Quality Group owner Jeff Mucha, who met Confer through a mutual acquaintance some time ago, worked together on quality at Northern Air while it was going through a growth spurt, says Confer is all about action.
“Nothing grows underneath his feet. (He’s) always forward thinking, solution focused. He has a different tolerance for risk than most, but you’ll find that it’s always calculating,” Mucha explains. “A lot of folks have that willingness to take risk, but maybe not as calculating…. One of his strongest traits is calculating risk but he’s willing to take that step.”
Confer also has a strong complement of people, Mucha adds.
“I walked in there 10 years ago seeing a handful of faces, and I walk in there today and most of those faces are still there,” he says. “That’s a testament to the business.”
Off the job
Born and raised in the area, Confer grew up in Hilton and now lives with his wife, Amy, on Lake Ontario in Parma. Confer has two daughters; Courtney, 20, and Stephanie, 24. Stephanie and two of Confer’s stepsons work at Northern Air.
In recent years, Confer has spent a great deal of time tending to his younger daughter, following her near-fatal car accident that resulted in traumatic brain injury. He is beginning to enjoy again some of the outdoor activities he loves. Confer skis, snowmobiles, boats and rides motorcycles. The family has a second home in Ellicottville, Cattaraugus County, that they enjoy year-round.
A favorite family memory is of cycling with his father, who died at the age of 66, Confer says.
“My father and I always did a lot of stuff together,” Confer recalls with a smile. “We rode our motorcycles to California and back when I graduated from high school. (We) rode 7,000 miles in 18 days.”
Confer says his biggest accomplishment has been the ability to make a few lives better.
“The core people that started with us years ago are almost like family,” Confer says. “There’s a lot of guys that aren’t rushing out the door to get away from each other at the end of the day.”
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