Sebastian Munera and Ricardo Ardila have known each other since their college days at Florida International University, both earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. They worked in the HVAC industry for many years, including industry giant Carrier.
As they were contemplating leaving their leadership roles at their companies to start their own business together to provide commercial HVAC services, they took their time to explore their options. The Florida Small Business Development Center (FSBDC) at FIU Business has provided guidance and assistance at different stages.
“We wanted to have our own business to be able to utilize all of that experience that we gained on the technical side and also on the leadership side. And we also wanted to start moving away from the export market because most of our experience was in the export market and we have lived here in Miami for decades,” Ardila said. They wanted to serve their hometown.
At first the pair thought they would acquire an existing business. “That was really, really challenging because sometimes it’s very difficult to understand and quantify the value of an existing company. We figured that we had to start from scratch, and that’s what we did,” Munera said.
They incorporated their HVAC business serving commercial customers in 2021. In addition to themselves, they employ three full-time technicians and a number of subcontractors.
Their Doral-based company, Air Changes Mechanical, targets large customers because the company has clearly defined its lines of business. “We focus on only commercial with big facility management companies and construction companies,” said Munera. “Knocking on their door when they have so many different vendors already established was pretty challenging to be able to get those first small opportunities where we knew that we had to make the best of it. And we are very much oriented towards providing exceptional customer experience. Once we finished the first projects, it’s been a constant flow of opportunities from those customers. We’re very lucky to be able to tell that story.”
Customers include Cushman and Wakefield and Brickell 701, a LEED certified office tower. The Colonnade in Coral Gables, and most recently Baptist Health.
The business partners have been working with the FSBDC, which offers no-cost business consultancy to small businesses in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, since 2019.
There they connected with Ray Juncosa, an expert in finance and access to capital who recently was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for helping small businesses raise over $50 million in capital.
“We went to the meeting, and it’s one of the moments that I remember the most from this process because Ray was very, very knowledgeable, but most importantly he saw our potential and he wanted to help us create the business,” Ardila recalled.
At first, Juncosa helped the managing partners try to acquire a company. “We were looking at several acquisition scenarios that, unfortunately, at the last minute the seller bailed out for one reason or the other. It got very, very frustrating and they still were persistent. They wanted to have their own business and if you think about it, it’s kind of a gamble. Stepping away from nice cushy salaries,” Juncosa said.
Juncosa helped the partners gain a bank loan of over half a million dollars. “Typically banks, in all honesty, they’re not too keen on startups,” Juncosa said. “But Sebastian and Ricardo had the experience, the education, the background and I just felt that they were very sharp, very ethical.”
A challenge for a lot of small business entrepreneurs is their lack of financial literacy, but not with Munera and Ardila, and their professionalism and discipline are particularly admirable, Juncosa said. “Air Changes is a great example of a success story because it wasn’t a walk in the park… I think they’re going to continue to be very successful. They have the right chemistry, together with the engineering.”
Air Changes was awarded a large contract with Broward County that was executed in June, and another one in the works with the City of Fort Lauderdale, the business partners said. The company has also worked multiple times with the Florida Department of Transportation.
Their experience getting the first government contract was atypical, almost easy, Ardila said. While it was always part of their plan to pursue government contracts, in November 2021 when they received an invitation to bid on a government job, they were at a very early stage. “We thought we’re not going to get this job, but let’s go get it. Let’s just gain the experience of going out there participating,” he said.
And they got the job, within three months of starting their business full throttle. Then they came in second place on a second bid and ended up getting that one too, when the winner bowed out. “Our experience working for the government has been very, very positive,” Ardila said.
Adds Juncosa: “The beauty of these contracts is some of these are actually recurring revenue.”
Indeed, Air Changes has been able to transition to where they want to be, with maintenance type of relationships with their customers to keep the revenue flowing, the partners said. Air Changes was profitable last year and will be this year as well.
What’s next for Air Changes?
Air Changes implemented a platform to control all of its service operations as well as project management, CRM and accounting integrated into it, said Munera. “This is going to give a lot of value to our company because that’s how you start establishing processes and becoming more efficient with a very concrete way of operating.”
Ardila and Munera have some advice for other entrepreneurs starting small businesses.
“Make sure you do good planning, and you secure the funds that you need to be able to start a business, but at the same time, take care of your personal needs, your family,” Ardila said.
Adds Munera: “Obviously at the beginning you feel like you want to offer a wide range of possibilities. But to be able to stand out and be the best at what you do, you’ve got to be more focused.”