Name: Brian Ketchen

Age: 52

Title: Co-owner, treasurer

Company: Dave’s Appliance, Winthrop

About: A family-owned appliance sales and service business.

Website: www.davesappliancewin.com

What is your biggest challenge right now?

It always goes back to health insurance, in the growth we’ve had with adding jobs, keeping benefits and trying to do right by our employees. We offer full family medical, and it’s a huge chunk of the bottom line. It’s never been an issue with taxes or what state the economy is in. The cost of retaining employees is so much more expensive than the margin that you might make.

Retention is important because we’re a technical company. Our employees are required to have some type of technical aptitude. And we’re putting our employees in customers’ homes, making sure they work right, and having service personnel on the road. This is not something someone can come in on their first week and do. It’s an investment on our part.

Our guys might start as deliverymen and their advancement is to go to service. One of our side businesses is heat pump installation. We are constantly requiring training. If we are able to retain employees, we have guys who can come in and do their job, rather than us having downtime, filling vacancies.

Potentially, we could have high turnover that could affect the product we’re putting out on the street. We’re taking care of them from a (human resources) standpoint, so they don’t have to stress and worry if the next paycheck is going to go to taking the kid to the dentist or to the doctor.

Selfishly, we have tried to preserve the health insurance benefit. It’s become a very weighty problem, and I have little confidence in the government fixing it.

In a business like ours, it’s through our group plans that we wind up supporting the system. We’re a family business so there’s no one doing collective bargaining on our behalf, so we’re in expensive, high-deductible medical plans. Through their wages and benefits, our employees aren’t eligible for what was on the (state health insurance) exchange program. The Affordable Care Act saved us, even though we didn’t have employees on the exchanges. We were paying for group plans, but the act brought in some age-specific coverages that were less expensive for younger employees, and the deductibles were capped at a lower amount.

That was enjoyable, the couple of years that was around. We didn’t send our employees out to the marketplace, but we were preserving the benefits we had.

What’s the best advice you have ever received?

Just protecting your customer and customer base. That philosophy from the top is trying to keep the customers happy at all times.

I don’t know if it was advice. Because this is a family business, I watched my father go above and beyond a lot and care for people. The world was smaller then, and life was a little simpler. My father was the best example of what customer service was. The store was open six days a week and he would work seven days a week. He would do a service call and come home with a bag of zucchini or a puppy. He would try to be loyal to the people who were loyal to him.

He is the Dave in Dave’s Appliance. He retired in 1999 and passed away in 2013.

How do you foster creativity in your staff?

Their job is important, and when they are out there doing a good job and they are trying to instill the level of customer service we’re trying to achieve, I think that that makes everyone feel better about themselves. If our delivery or service guys get good, positive feedback, they care. They want to make sure the job was done right. That’s how we created the environment here.

We want to be adaptive to the way things change. Social media and the market and competition in general has forced us to become more of an online presence and try to be unique.

We are in an old grain building. We have 35 people who work here now. We’re not a big box store, but we have to compete with them. It’s about maintaining our image when people come through the door and when our guys are on the road. We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re trying to keep up with the changes the world brings. Social media — what a tool and what a thorn it can be at the same time.

We want to stay competitive, be unique and better than the next person. It all comes back to the human resource thing, where we’re trying to treat people the best we can.

What’s your biggest fear?

The uncertainty of the global market in general, and how it affects us here in Maine. For this business to survive, the economy of central Maine has to stay status quo and grow.

My biggest fear is that we’re losing good trade jobs. As a society, we’re losing how important those trade jobs are. We’re not doing enough to foster them.

The expectation is that your child will go out of state to get a college degree and get a good-paying job. There’s no shame in doing a trade. Some employees do quite well.

If the family appliance business is dying, the trades are as well. Fear of that is good because this whole pool of people running for governor, this should be pressed to them. Our technical colleges, community colleges and the vocational institutes, we should support them. Because we’re in central Maine and just outside of Augusta, the state (government) is there. There’s a lot on a lot of those jobs. And we have a major hospital nearby. We have professional jobs clustered in the area that help us along (with appliance sales and service). We (also) see a lot of out of state investment in second and summer homes. With the service economy, we’re making those jobs more important.

Raising the minimum wage is a hard argument. There was just a piece in the KJ that raising the minimum wage up north to $10 where there is only a limited amount of money. If you’re 20, you have a job to get you through college so you can go and make a real living. You are not supposed to be pouring coffee at $15 an hour. We’re not meant to sustain that kind of economy.

Where will your business be in five years?

We are doing very well in the heat pump business, and we’re continuing to thrive. That’s given us a lot of growth back since the recession. I hope to be doing more of the same in five years and keep our employment at the same size.

Home appliances are always getting picked on. There’s a state senator from Androscoggin County that’s addressing the implied warranty law. They always talk about appliances, although it covers everything.

Tariffs — a lot of our products is foreign-made. (President) Trump has put tariffs on foreign washing machines. Our manufacturers are reacting, and they are raising their prices.

So much of the manufacturing that’s done depends on the Asian market. If the ideology is to make companies create more manufacturing jobs in the U.S., go back to question one. Companies can’t afford to insure them and pay their employees. That’s why the labor is so cheap in Mexico and Asia.

So hopefully, we’re in an environment where we can still have active trade and there’s still competition and still good demand.