In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting a provider who is defying stereotypes and making her mark on the facilities maintenance industry. Elaine Huffman has been the majority owner of Tropical Air of Central Florida since 2012, when she and her son—a licensed HVAC technician—took it over from a provider who had previously worked on her home. Four years later, Tropical Air joined the SMS Assist network of providers. While Elaine works mostly on the company’s financials, her husband, son, and crew of six technicians serve both residential and commercial customers for new installs and repairs of HVAC units.
We asked Elaine about her experiences working in the industry, the challenges she’s overcome, and the advice she’d give to women looking to enter the field.
What is your favorite thing about working in the HVAC/facilities maintenance industry?
I had a customer call me a couple of weeks ago, and she explained to me that she was having trouble looking at her thermostat because it’s up on the wall and she’s in a wheelchair. I said I would move that thermostat down for her so she could see it. Those are the kinds of things that make me happiest. It makes it easier to come into work every morning knowing that [my employees and I] try our best to take good care of our customers. Our mission statement is to do the right thing by the customer.
What is one of the most challenging things about working in the industry?
We had no background in HVAC—[my husband] and I come from a financial and an educational background. I would hear from the technicians, ‘They’re never going to make it. They have no background. She’s a woman.’ They kind of made jokes about it, but people didn’t know me and didn’t know how important it was for me to succeed. We are very successful … and I think it’s because I looked at all of them and said, ‘You’ve got this wrong. I’m going to make this work.’
How would you say you’ve overcome this challenge?
I think for me to overcome it, I just had to overlook it and say, ‘You’re either going to let me in or you’re not, and it’d be in your best interest to because I’m not going anywhere.’ I didn’t let it get to me, but sometimes it still does. It’s still a man’s world no matter how much we want to say it’s not, in a lot of respects. I just had to let it slide off my back and say, ‘You’ve got to live with this. We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.’ That’s the only way I could seem to get through that challenge. It’s not every day anymore. In the beginning it was, but it’s not like that anymore. I think I’ve earned that respect.
What strengths do you feel you bring to your role and company ownership?
I’m always going to overcome any obstacle that comes my way. I think my biggest strength is that [I feel] the rules are the rules, and there’s no gray area. You have to follow them to the very end. I don’t ever want anybody to say to me that I’m not [honest and fair].
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in the past eight years of working in the industry?
You have to know how to answer the right questions and answer them correctly. It’s very important that if you want to come into this industry, you do your due diligence. I’ve learned a lot over the last eight years about how to fix an HVAC unit, and I’m very proud of the fact that I know how to explain to my customers what’s wrong with their air conditioner.
What advice would you give to other women looking to enter this field?
I’d say go for it and don’t let anybody stop you. We had a great female technician here last year. We hired her with no experience right out of school. I told her not to give up. That’s been my way of thinking since, I guess, the day I was born—that there’s nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it, and that’s what I tell people today.