By Tamara O'Delle
Location: Frederick, CO
Ownership: Paul Harter & Community Foundation of Northern Colorado (Donor Advised Fund)
Paul Harter left Chrysler to lead northern Colorado’s Aqua-Hot, where market-leading products are manufactured with community in mind.
For Paul Harter, President/ CEO of Aqua-Hot Heating Systems, a sense of community is everything. “In a nutshell, we build specialty heating products for heavy vehicles, RV’s and off-road vehicles.’ he says. “But, we are truly about community and family. What we really do is provide folks a great place to work and provide our customers with great solutions to their problems.”
In 2006, Harter was burning-out working as an executive for the Chrysler Corporation in Rockford, IL. Needing a change, he contacted an executive recruiter specializing in manufacturing and offered specific instructions. “I wanted to find a manufacturing company in Colorado where the owner is ready to retire and I can come in as a GM and eventually buy the company.”
Timing was everything. Harter was in Fort Lupton, Colorado the next day interviewing with Aqua-Hot owner Hap Enander.
Six weeks after his meeting with Enander, Harter went to work as the GM for Aqua-Hot and moved his family to Johnstown. Six weeks after that, Enander handed Harter the keys and told him he was going on an extended vacation. “I had drawn up an extensive six to twelve month transition plan to present to Hap and he just laughed and said he knew I could handle whatever came up,” Harter says.
“In the 80’s, we invented the Aqua-Hot hydronic heating system to deliver quiet, efficient heating in the living area and deliver continuous hot water for motor coaches. Over the years that heating system has been improved and adapted by our in-house research and development division to heat the cabins and trailers of UTV’s, RTV’s, tractors, truck and heavy equipment.” Harter continues, “The RV market continues to be our largest customer and includes Fleetwood, Winnebago and American Coach. But with the promotion of alternative fuels, we are seeing more school bus companies, garbage trucks and big rigs using our products.”
Aqua-Hot hydronic heating uses tubing to run hot liquid into heat exchangers that disperse heat into occupied areas. Coils, with potable water, wrap around the boiler to transport hot water to faucets and appliances. Liquid is heated by the vehicle's engine system, the Aqua-Hot boiler system or AC shore power – or a combination.
Harter has also focused on innovations in the factory experience for employees. Ergonomic professionals advise workers on proper set up of workstation, floor space and warehousing. Color adds to the factory aesthetic, with bright colors replacing drab gray. An on-site gym and personal trainers are available to employees. Nearly all his employees actively participate in a wellness program that includes general health education and nutritional education as well as physical education.
An on-site Work/Life Partnership navigator is available for employees for mental health or other life issues. And, Harter works closely with Jobzolgy to ensure the right people are in the right jobs. Harter states, “We want the people who work here to WANT to work here. I don’t want them to feel trapped to work here.”
The occasional, spontaneous nerf gun battle emphasize the point. “Work shouldn’t suck,” Harter quips, “you should work with people you like. Have fun. Be smart, work hard, and have fun!”
Creating a community extends beyond the walls of Aqua-Hot. “Fifty per cent of our suppliers are located along the Front Range. We’ve assembled a group called ‘Red Operations’ and it is made up of key people from our Gold and Platinum Level suppliers. We meet regularly, as projects require, and the team has a say in our product which gives them buy-in and helps all of our businesses in the long run,” explains Harter. “Having suppliers in our backyard gives us shorter lead times, synergy and collaboration. We are working hard to get 100% of our suppliers in the U.S.”
Challenges: Harter says, “Our challenge is that we need to expand our product line. We’ve been a one-trick pony for a long time selling to RV companies.”
Opportunities: “Local and regional collaboration with other manufacturing companies. That’s how we’ll grow and expand our product line. I don’t have to know everything about everything when my partners are in my backyard,” states Harter.
Needs: “We need to stay engaged in the local manufacturing community. Find the time, make the time. I’m trying to build something that will be around for 100 years. I’ve got to get out of being dragged down by daily tactics and look at the bigger picture,” says Harter.