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2010 Business Leader of the Year - Jim Reynolds

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As CEO of Total Comfort Solutions Inc., Jim Reynolds is in the problem-solving business. With 80 percent of Total Comfort’s business in the commercial/industrial sector, Reynolds’ company solves heating, ventilating and airconditioning (HVAC) problems in existing buildings for a variety of clients across South Carolina and portions of Georgia.

It was solving a problem for his own company that sparked a new passion in Reynolds. When Total Comfort couldn’t find enough qualified technicians, Reynolds sent his workers into Columbia schools to teach students about HVAC careers and got students excited about education.

In the process, Reynolds developed a strong belief in advancing education and workforce development in South Carolina. Now, Reynolds spends his time encouraging the business community to take a more active role in the classroom, all in an effort to give South Carolina students, and the businesses they will one day work for, a brighter future.

Video — 2010 Business Leader of the Year

Early mentors

Reynolds was born in Columbia in 1951, where he was raised with his two older sisters, Anne and Gayle. He enjoyed taking part in church activities and serving in the Boy Scouts. Reynolds’ father, James D. Reynolds Sr., was an accountant. He met Reynolds’ mother, Evelyn, and they got married a year before World War II. He then shipped off with the Navy to the Pacific and was away for two years.

Reynolds said his dad was a great mentor, especially from a business and leadership standpoint. “He chaired the United Way campaign for Columbia. He had leadership roles at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club. I grew up seeing a role model for civic leadership from Dad,” said Reynolds. Reynolds said his mother also was a wonderful role model in terms of values and the way she treated people. Every time Reynolds and his sisters would leave the house, his mother’s last words were, “Be sweet.” “She just meant always be considerate of other people. That message that we got over and over became part of our values system. We learned the importance of being nice to people and treating people with respect. That’s been a real key to success in life and in leadership roles,” said Reynolds.

In his early school years, Reynolds was a C student until he met his sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Kempson, who made learning exciting for him. “All of the sudden, I excelled. She got me excited about school and confident about achieving academically,” said Reynolds. After graduating from Dreher High School in 1970, Reynolds attended Davidson College. He then moved to Atlanta for a banking job and met Judy Gerald, who was a nursing student at Emory University. The two got married, and Reynolds earned his MBA from the University of Virginia.

The Cola Years

Whenever Reynolds and his wife go to a restaurant and order a Coke, they sometimes are asked if Pepsi will suffice. The answer is always no. Instead, they opt for water. Why such dedicated brand loyalty? Despite his young age, not long after obtaining his MBA, Reynolds got a job at the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Boston, where he started out as a management trainee. His first assignment was running supervisory training, which allowed him to meet numerous people in the company. He was then made the director of marketing.

Reynolds was part of a team tasked with the lofty goal of doubling Coca-Cola’s market share in the New England region, where Coca-Cola was not as dominant as it was in the South. Reynolds worked hard, coming up with marketing plans, pricing, branding and packaging strategies. He worked closely with route drivers and branch managers. Within four years, the company succeeded in doubling Coca-Cola’s market share. “It was so much fun being 28 to 30 years old and having that kind of responsibility,” said Reynolds.

While Reynolds and his wife lived in Boston, their daughter, Kathryn, was born. Frigid temperatures and deep snow led to Reynolds and his wife missing the warm weather of the South, so he transferred to Coca-Cola’s Atlanta Bottling Company, where he was named vice president of sales and marketing. It was there that Reynolds faced his biggest challenge with the soft drink giant. “One Saturday, they called in the presidents and sales VPs of all the large bottling companies in the U.S. There were about 100 of us,” recalled Reynolds. “They put us in this room and didn’t tell us what it was about. Then the chairman of the company stood up and said, ‘We’re changing the formula of Coke.’ Everybody gasped.”

With Pepsi gaining market share and winning the majority of taste tests, Coca-Cola decided it was time to change its formula to resemble the sweetness of Pepsi, leading to the creation of the now infamous New Coke. With many consumers outraged by the change, Reynolds had to step up and work through issues with many unhappy Coca-Cola vendors. “New Coke lasted seven weeks, and I didn’t sleep for seven weeks,” said Reynolds.

Despite the stress, Reynolds credits Coca- Cola with developing his leadership capabilities and management experience, allowing him to get where he is today. “That gave me the confidence and the ability to become an entrepreneur and build a business,” he said. “I benefited from being given a lot of responsibility. When you get good, bright people, you have to give them responsibility and let them grow, and that’s been a secret to Total Comfort’s success – recruiting really capable people and giving them the responsibility to run a business.”

Heir Conditioning

After a 10-year career with Coca-Cola, Reynolds returned to Columbia to become the president and a partner of Total Comfort. Steve Frame, the founder of Total Comfort, hired Reynolds to take over the business so he could retire. Frame spent nearly a decade carrying out the transfer of ownership while he taught Reynolds about the business. “When it was time for Steve to retire about five years ago, we completed the transfer of ownership. At that point, we had built a young management team of four guys. They worked together great and became partners, so now we have five owners. Now that’s my succession plan, for them to acquire the business over the next eight years,” said Reynolds.

Total Comfort Solutions has offices in Columbia, Greenville, Charleston, Florence and Augusta. The original residential portion of the company, Total Comfort Services, is in Columbia and has installed more Lennox solar powered heat pumps in Columbia than any other city in the U.S. Due to the high demand, a solar division has been added to Total Comfort Services. A number of Total Comfort Services’ customers are adding solar panels to their roofs, allowing them to generate enough electricity to sell power back to SCE&G.

Reynolds, who’s been with Total Comfort Solutions for 21 years now, believes his company is different from the competition due to its ability to solve problems. For example, Columbia College’s old HVAC equipment was making the residence halls uncomfortable, but the school did not have the funds for the needed upgrades. Total Comfort Solutions, with its business partner, Linc, went through the campus and identified energy savings that allowed Columbia College to pay for the updates to its mechanical systems.

“The reason our commercial customers use us is because they have a problem, and we’re the best in the market at understanding what the problem is and developing a solution. We do that, and then we have customers for life,” said Reynolds. “As their needs change over time, we change with them.”

Discovering his passion

The solutions company had a problem. Total Comfort Solutions couldn’t find enough capable technicians to staff the company. Reynolds realized they had to get young people interested in HVAC careers. While serving as chairman of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, Reynolds began working with the Midlands Education and Business Alliance (MEBA) to take technicians into the classroom.

“The algebra teachers loved for us to come in because they said the students would say, ‘I’ll never use this in my life,“ said Reynolds. “The technicians would demonstrate how they use math equations to diagnose a problem with a chiller at a hospital and get it back online. When the technician would say here is what I love about my job, out of 30 kids, two or three would say, ‘That’s me! I love being outdoors. I love tools and working with my hands. I love fixing things.’” At the time, Midlands Technical College’s HVAC program was at half capacity. Within four years, the program doubled, and now there is a waiting list for the HVAC program. “By getting into the education arena, we were able to educate young people about a different career opportunity and tap into those folks for whom that clicked,” said Reynolds. But something clicked inside Reynolds, too. He started hiring interns in high school and college, putting the students through college and making sure they were trained with the skills needed to be Total Comfort Solutions employees. “Now, about 25 percent of our technician staff has come to us by that route,” said Reynolds. Reynolds saw how getting involved in the classroom was beneficial to his business. His crusade to get businesses more involved in education and improve workforce development began.

He got involved with the New Carolina Education and Workforce Development Task Force, which he chairs along with Don Herriott, director of Innovista Partnerships, at the University of South Carolina. The task force tackles important education goals, such as increasing the pipeline of high school graduates prepared for higher education and careers, supporting the commercialization of research to create high-wage knowledge jobs in South Carolina and connecting the adult workforce to education, training and careers in the knowledge economy. Reynolds is also past-chair of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce’s Excellence in Education Council, a vehicle for influencing results oriented improvement of education and workforce development through proactive advocacy of statewide education policies, focused research dissemination, sponsored initiatives and activity monitoring. “The unique thing about the Chamber’s education committee is that’s where we get the business leadership that understands the issues, reaches out to the education community to develop strategies and builds collaborations and working relationships to implement those strategies,” said Reynolds.

Reynolds was appointed by the governor to serve on the Education and Economic Development Act Coordinating Council, which has established 12 Regional Education Centers (RECs) across the state to connect the business community to the education community. In addition, he is past chair of the Midlands Technical College Foundation Board and past chair of the Midlands Education and Business Alliance.

Changing the Conversation

Despite the accomplishments South Carolina has made in the education arena, Reynolds realizes there is much work to be done. Reynolds believes one of the biggest challenges facing education in South Carolina is changing perceptions. He said this work must begin with South Carolinians. “Most people in South Carolina are still convinced we’re ranked 50th in the nation in every education measurement because that’s what they read 10 years ago, and they haven’t read much to contradict that. The fact is we’ve improved dramatically over the past 10 years. If you’re going to change the perception of South Carolina to the outside world, you have to start with self-perception,” he said. “You do that in a business. If you start a business, the first people who need to buy into it are your employees. Once they understand it, they can communicate it to the rest of the world. It’s important from an internal standpoint to make our citizens aware of the progress we’ve made in education so they have the confidence that we are good enough to compete globally, and we can get better.”

Reynolds is doing his part to change the conversation, constantly traveling the state to speak to business leaders about the improvements that have been made and how businesses can continue to help.

No bucket list required

When asked if there is anything Reynolds would like to do that he has not already done, the answer is no. “I never made a bucket list. I wanted to have a great family, and Judy, Kathryn and I have that. Family is number one. The business is number two, and that has been successful. The third is community. I’ve been very fortunate to be asked to play leadership roles in education, which I have passion for, and I see results from that,” said Reynolds. Reynolds said educators have taught him to appreciate everyone’s talents that can come together and make business and education more successful. “Everybody is smart somehow.

The way that I’m smart becomes my measure for everybody else. We all do that,” said Reynolds. “But, people are smart in different ways, and all of those different ways have value. Some people are smart with their hands, and some are smart with people. Some people are street smart, while others are smart with math and computers. It takes all of those to make the world work. Recognizing everybody’s ability to be smart and to be effective is important in building a business and in working in a community.” Matthew Gregory is the multimedia coordinator at the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and editor of South Carolina Business.