Q&A with Becky Wacker - Area General Manager with Trane

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in New England. I’m the oldest and only daughter of four kids. My passions as a kid were sports and taking things apart and putting them back together, which sort of led to my future. Both of my parents were engineers, so I came by that naturally. I ended up in Minnesota with a scholarship to play hockey at the U, and I decided I couldn’t be an electrical engineer because that’s what both my parents do. So I went with aerospace - I went way rogue. I loved my major and I really enjoyed what I did. 

[Then] I had an internship in building automation systems. It was one of the few internships that I had where I’d go home thinking about it, in a good way, where I was drawn in and I loved it. I got to try a lot of different parts -- between programming and writing code for how a building should perform to going out and helping with the install, all the way back to checking out when things were broken, what needed to be fixed or modified. And I really loved it. 

When you break it down, aside from the really cool stuff like launching rockets into space and airplanes, aerospace engineering is really all about air flow and how air is actually a liquid. Liquid and air is basically what you move around to heat and cool a building. [Also], planes are flown by computers, and so there’s a lot of programming that goes into correcting for different pieces of how you design a plane. So I did a lot of engineering for controls and programming and I did a lot of air flow stuff, so between that and my internship, I decided that was the direction in which I wanted to take my career. So that’s how I ended up in HVAC and building automation. 

2. What was your path to your current role?

I have been in the HVAC and technologies industry for 13 years, my whole career. When I first came out of school, I started out as a sales engineer, working out of the building automation realm for a major manufacturer. I spent a lot of time working with engineers in how you put together systems and how you best control the different HVAC devices out there, as well as with contractors who are going to install them. So really from a customer-focused standpoint, and then working with owners who already had a system [to figure out] what kind of changes or upgrades they could do. 

From there I pivoted more into the technology realm, all the technology that goes into a building. It was really great for me because it pivoted into not just thinking about the building but really how we use the building -- what the use cases are, the outcomes that folks are trying to achieve -- and tying in advanced analytics and machine learning. That really became a focus for me and how I’ve grown my career within the industry - that pivot into how we better leverage all the technology to think about how we make this building work better and suit our needs.

3. Tell me about your role at Trane.

I’m the Area General Manager, which means I lead the business for the offices located in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. Whether it’s sales, services, execution - it all rolls up to me, and I lead about 150 people through all those different roles. I’m the face to the community. 

4. What is a typical day like for you? 

We start every day at Trane talking about our customers. The first scheduled meeting that I have most days is talking about our customers and any issues that may have come up the past day, anything we need to rectify or solve, looking at any challenges that we may have had and planning forward for how we make sure that doesn’t happen again. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that we just have issues or problems, but we spend a lot of time making sure that we can solve anything that comes up very quickly and that we try to prevent these things from happening in the future. Customer-focus is how we start every day. 

Going on from there, I wear a lot of different hats: from sales to operations to service. We have great people working with our customers to understand what their goals are and how they want to focus [for their project], maybe it’s new construction that they’re building, or a major addition. In our service business, everything that’s out there needs to be maintained. As things wear out, as life happens - filters get dirty and valves have to change and schedules get modified. A lot of what we do on our service side is making sure that those systems are running as close to design standards as possible and that we are having great customer satisfaction for our end users who are living, working, and playing in those buildings, as well as from an environmental standpoint - as things run less efficiently, they’re going to use more energy and more natural gas, so we want to make sure that we’re being good for the environment and for our customers and their goals.

5. What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?

What I've really liked about working for Trane is, we’re a business of course, but we have really lofty goals. “Boldly challenging what’s possible” is a tagline and a way that we live our corporate mission. A lot of that is around being environmentally friendly and how we can make the world a better place for future generations. 

Over the next year, I see a lot of changes coming for the HVAC industry; more companies are looking at how they pivot more toward green energy sources, how they move away from carbon-emitting technologies. Here in Minnesota, there’s a lot of folks looking at how they move toward electrification for their HVAC systems. So that’s really exciting. I’m really looking forward to the next year; how we see the not necessarily newer technologies, but the ones newer to our market, grabbing a deeper foothold. Our utilities are doing a fantastic job of pivoting toward more renewables, so now as we look at the demand side of that - I’m really looking forward to that. 

Another change over the next year, as we bring people back into buildings and we move towards going back to our “new normal” - HVAC systems play a major role in that. We’ve seen that buildings are healthier as we bring in more outdoor air and we refresh the air that people are breathing and spending time in, but this conflicts with the design standards we’ve created over the past 10 years that focus on efficiency. 

Bringing in more outdoor air is a challenge in Minnesota -- we get very, very cold, and we get hot and humid -- so when bringing in more outdoor air, you need to really plan for how you’re going to do it and look at your systems a little bit differently than we have in the past. It’s been a big focus in K-12, as we bring kids back into schools, but it’s going to be a big focus for commercial real estate, for hotels, convention centers, stadiums, as we try to get more folks back into those buildings as well. It’ll be fun to see where the industry goes and how we adjust our building standards. New buildings are one thing but retrofits are another - it’s not environmentally friendly or economically friendly to just rip everything out, but you want to make everything both efficient and safe.

6. What is the best part of the job? 

I have a hard time picking just one! The first thing that comes to mind is the people I work with and lead - they’re incredibly talented and they’re brilliant. There’s such a broad range of what we do. From looking at a brand new building, at the beginning stages of design and understanding how the customer is going to use this, what their goals are for energy and space usage, balancing capital and operational expenses, to looking at retrofits. That’s a different challenge, where you have to work within the confines and get equipment into a space that might have been built around the equipment that was in there. 

Lastly, and sometimes the most critical, making sure that those systems are operating as they were designed, continuing the maintenance of them, and understanding the new technology that comes out. With artificial intelligence and advanced analytics, we can look at our systems and predict what problems are going to come up and even look at where we’re using more energy in a way that a building operator never would have found five years ago. It’s amazing what technology is allowing us to do to keep buildings up and running, and the talent of the systems technicians who can go out there and understand both the chillers that were built yesterday and the ones that were built 50 years ago - they’re brilliant.

The other part that I really like about the job is the tie into a higher purpose. Absolutely it’s great working with our customers and designing HVAC systems and being a business leader, but at the end of the day, Trane desires and expects more. We have things like the Gigaton Challenge, where we look at how we design our products and our offerings to help our customers save energy, and we’re tracking it with a goal of saving a gigaton of carbon emissions by 2030. That’s an awesome thing to work towards everyday - to wake up in the morning [and know that] not only am I serving our customers and the people who I lead, but I’m also serving the planet - and that underlies everything we’re working on.

7. The most challenging?

All of it? The most challenging part is always trying to get better. In the construction industry, anyone who’s ever built anything knows that it never goes perfectly; no matter how well you plan, how well you design it, there will always be some sort of challenge. And that’s part of why we start our days thinking through challenges our customers face and how we solve them, how we put backstops in our process so that those challenges don’t happen again. 

We’re great and we do great things today, but how do we get better tomorrow and how do we better serve those goals that we have? Whether it’s helping our customers design, build, or maintain their building, or meeting the Gigaton Challenge or protecting the environment - there’s always improvement that can be made, and that’s what we hold dear to our hearts. Serve our customers, serve the environment, and always get better.

8. What would you tell someone looking to work in your field?

There are a lot of different ways to join the HVAC & building technology world. Trade school is a fantastic way to join the industry - we’re always looking for good skilled technicians. My company and many perpetually are looking for a good technician; there is always a help wanted sign for that, not only for companies like mine that are providing HVAC services, but also almost any giant building will need an HVAC technician to keep it running. That’s absolutely a great way to get into the field - whether it’s commercial products or residential products. 

The other side of it is an engineering degree - mechanical, electrical, I’ll say aerospace, but that may be a little less common, industrial. Trane often hires engineers to do our engineering, whether a sales engineer or in the plant where we manufacture equipment. 

From a standpoint of what makes you successful, it’s a balance between being a really good teammate -- in our industry, there are very few things that you do without needing a team to support you or work with you -- and having a focus on helping other people, especially helping our customers, whether that’s your external customers or if you’re a building operator, it could be your internal customers.