Corrections or additions?
These articles by Barbara Fox were prepared for the April 20, 2005
issue of U.S. 1
Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Life in the Fast Lane
Chalk up another victory for father-and-son businesses. Joe and Scott
Needham of Princeton Air Conditioning have won the state contest for
the Small Business Person of the Year. James A. Kocsi, the U.S. Small
Business Administration’s New Jersey district director, is scheduled
to present the award on Wednesday, March 20.
The Needhams have one of those feel-good stories that is a pleasure to
tell. Joe Needham’s father had founded a trucking company in 1921, and
the vagaries of the business were a frequent topic at the dinner table
on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The oldest of seven, Joe went to St.
Joseph’s College, Class of 1953, and then joined his father’s
business, staying with the business even after it was sold.
"But I came to the conclusion I should get out of that business, a
24-hour a day operation that was highly unionized. I spent 25 percent
of my time on arbitration," he says. Also, truckers have scheduling
problems. "One day you have more than you could handle, the next day
you would be slow. Your profits were tied to the economy, and you were
at the mercy of the customer."
In 1970, at age 38, Joe Needham decided to leave trucking and put a
second mortgage on his West Windsor home. With that $10,000 stake he
bought a Trane air conditioning dealership. (Trane had no major
dealerships in this area, and the factory that now has the Trane name
in Trenton was owned at that time by General Electric.) "In the 1970s,
the growth curve on air conditioning was tremendous," he remembers.
Now Princeton Air has 42 employees in a 10,000 square foot
office/warehouse on Everett Drive, and 20 vehicles serving 6,000
clients in three counties. Annual sales are $4.7 million. In addition
to central air conditioners and gas or oil hot air furnaces, the firm
sells large commercial systems, control systems, thermostats,
humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and indoor air quality products. The
technicians are trained in a half dozen brands including the two best
sellers, Trane and Lennox, plus Sanyo, Honeywell, Unico, and
Some of the company’s growth can be attributed to Joe’s son Scott, who
was named president three years ago. The second oldest in a family
with five girls, Scott majored in architecture at Rhode Island-based
Roger Williams College, Class of 1980. He worked as a ski instructor
and as a junior architect but soon lost his interest in low level
work, and joined his father’s business in 1987. (Scott says his
familiarity with reading blueprints comes in handy when he works with
builders and architects.)
Now Joe is the CEO who owns 60 percent of the business and runs the
residential division. Joe is married to Joan Needham, a hand-made
paper artist, and they have nine grandchildren. Joe’s brother Don also
works in the business.
Scott owns 40 percent and handles sales and management and commercial
clients. Scott’s wife, Michelle Needham, is a real estate agent with
Gloria Nilson, and they have a school-aged son.
The Needhams have managed to avoid the typical family business problem
– relationships. "We run different parts of the company, and we are
not tripping over each other," says Scott.
"We’ve always been able to resolve disagreements and go on with the
business," says Joe.
Joe says that he learned, by negative example, from his father "not to
be a screamer, not to fly off the handle. It doesn’t get you very far
Scott’s lesson from Joe was not only to be a calm boss but also to
create a culture of openness and honesty, "to allow people around you
to take risks and not be treated harshly if they make a mistake."
He cites two risky steps that turned out to be successful: buying a
commercial franchise in 1993 and offering maintenance agreements that
include all repairs. "Some contractors find that too risky, but we
analyzed our exposure and decided to sell more of those agreements."
The Needhams were nominated by the Princeton chamber, notes Kristin
Appelget, because they won the chamber’s Entrepreneur of the Year
award last year. Six years ago the winner of the chamber award, Janet
Lasley of Lasley Construction, won not only the state SBA contest but
also the national contest. What impressed the chamber judges about the
Needhams, says Appelget, was the unusual informal "board of
directors," an industry group of contractors, roughly the same size,
from noncompeting areas, called the Management Information Exchange.
The MIX members travel, every six months, to a different location. A
critique team goes in a day or two early to interview all the
employees, and the rest of the contractors have a day or two of
meetings. "We benchmark our financial statements against each other
and the team gives an honest critique. You bare a lot of issues at
that meeting and sometimes it gets a little dicey," says Scott. "The
challenge is to take those suggestions and integrate them into the
What, exactly, did the critique team say in Princeton? "In September,
2003," says Scott, "they thought one employee was not a good fit in
the organization and could be sabotaging some initiatives." That
employee no longer works for the Needhams. The Needhams did not take
the advice to unload a particular franchise, but they heeded
suggestions to put a detailed succession plan in place. "The little
ideas that the other contractors share – you can take them and run
with them. We call our R&D department "rob and duplicate."
"It’s like having nine unpaid consultants come into your business
every two to three years," says Joe, "and we are successful because of
it. I don’t understand why more industries don’t do that."
Another good move: adopting the open book management philosophy 10
years ago. At a quarterly breakfast meeting all the employees get to
see the numbers – sales, costs, and profits – to judge the impact that
they and their co-workers have on the company’s profit sharing plan.
"We learned we needed to do this from annual employee surveys," says
Scott. "This creates a forum to shout that stuff out and show our
Was it worth the time to apply to these contests? "I set aside some
time every day to march through the SBA application process," says
Scott. "It probably took a total of 30 hours between the two of us.
But it crystallized things we do that we forget about."
The SBA award criteria included staying power (a substantial history
of an established business); growth in number of employees; increase
in sales; financial strength of the company; innovativeness of product
or service offered; response to adversity; and contributions to aid
community oriented projects. The Needhams have also been nominated for
the Ernst & Young award.
Scott attributes part of the company’s success to membership in
Princeton and Mercer chambers and the Princeton Corridor Rotary. He
notes the company occupies the niche between big companies like PSE&G
and the smaller firms such as Cranbury Comfort Systems. "When you
crank the numbers," says Scott, "there is a lot of market share up for
Princeton Air Conditioning, 39 Everett Drive, Building D, Princeton
Junction 08550. Joseph Needham, CEO. J. Scott Needham, president.
609-799-3434; fax, 609-799-7036. Home page: www.princetonair.com
Earlier this month a Princeton Corporate Plaza company received word
of an $885,641 biodefense partnership grant from the National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The grant money
is expected to pay for two or three positions.
Synergy Pharmaceuticals is developing a monoclonal antibody and
vaccine against bacterial superantigen toxins. "This is something very
new in the field," says Kunwar Shailubhai, senior vice president and
principal investigator for the grant.
To head off trouble from bacterial superantigens (the particularly
lethal ones from staphyloccal and streptococcal strains), he is
working with a monoclonal antibody and an antagonist peptide. "We are
aiming for prevention and control. We are developing an antibody that
would neutralize toxins."
Synergy Pharmaceuticals developed the discovery portfolio and then
merged; it is now a wholly owned subsidiary of a public firm, Callisto
Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which trades on the American Stock Exchange.
"A biological attack that utilizes a mixture of toxins or live
bacteria readily produced in ordinary laboratories, without
sophisticated instruments, is a very real threat to U.S. citizens,"
says Shailubhai. "To handle a biological threat of this nature, there
is a tremendous need for broad-spectrum countermeasures."
The son of a government official, Shailubhai went to Udapur
University, Class of 1976, and has a PhD microbiology from the
University of Baroda in Gujarat. He came to this country to do post
doctoral work at the University of Maryland, then went to NIH and to
Monsanto Life Sciences, which sponsored his MBA. He obtained his MBA
from two institutions – St. Louis and Temple – and then joined
Synergy. He and his wife, who is also a scientist, have three
He says he moved the R&D center to New Jersey last year because he
hopes to be able to sell his tax credits. "The Pennsylvania government
didn’t offer us anything," says Shailubhai, who commutes to South
Brunswick from Pennsylvania. Gary S. Jacob is CEO of Callisto, based
Callisto is working with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston on two
cancer treatment drugs, Annamycin for relapsed leukemia, and
Atiprimod, licensed from SmithKlineBeecham, for relapsed multiple
myeloma (MM) and bone resorption.
Synergy Pharmaceuticals (KAL), 7 Deer Park Drive, Princeton Corporate
Plaza, Suite N, Monmouth Junction 08852. 732-329-2122; fax,
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