Elaine Powers has never been one to back down from a challenge – let alone because someone said a woman couldn’t do it. From joining the Navy in the early 70s to co-owning and then leading a successful business in a male-dominated industry to rafting some of the most intense white waters in the world, Elaine has always gone after exactly what she wanted. More to the point, she’s gotten it.
Elaine’s parents both served in the Air Force (her mom had to resign when she became pregnant), and Elaine attended first grade in France before moving to Valdosta and, later, California. The summer before eighth grade, her dad was transferred and the family moved to a hotel in Newnan, then rented a house for two months until they found their home in Peachtree City.
“It was a bit of culture shock for an LA girl in the late 60s,” she admits with a laugh. “Newnan Junior High and Tyrone Tech (eighth grade) were both tiny and much more conservative than my old 2,000-student body middle school. I got sent home twice because my skirts were too short before we figured out the dress code!”
Elaine moved on to Fayette County High (then the only Fayette High School), where she played basketball and was on the drill team. She also met her husband Tim there.
“He was dating my best friend,” Elaine explains. “But then she decided she wanted to date someone else so she set us up on a blind date. We hit it off and that was that.”
After graduation, the pair joined the military together.
“Good jobs were impossible to find when we got out of high school,” she says. “It was 1974 and Vietnam was still going on. We enrolled at Clayton Community College for our first quarter, but one day Tim and two of our friends came in and said they’d joined the Navy. So, the next day I signed up too.”
Tim and Elaine weren’t allowed to talk during boot camp, so Tim proposed – and Elaine accepted – via letter. Their parents planned the entire wedding, which was huge, and, in April 1975, two days after Elaine finished boot camp, they were married. The next day, Tim shipped out to Philadelphia while Elaine went to Meridian, MS. Two months later, they were both stationed in San Diego, where they finished out their tour.
The couple had saved as much as possible while serving so, when they left the Navy, they bought land in South Fayette, which they later learned had belonged to Tim’s great-great-grandfather more than 100 years before. Elaine re-enrolled in Clayton State, then transferred to West Georgia College to finish her accounting degree. Tim went to Griffin Tech for HVAC, worked for another company for a few months post-graduation, then decided to open his own company. In April 1979, the pair started their first heating and air company, with Tim managing the operations and Elaine managing the business.
“We were a family company from day one,” Elaine says, “My daughter, Cherri, loved answering the phone as a kid and the customers loved hearing her.”
For more than two decades, Tim and Elaine built their business – and their reputation – in fast-growing Fayette. Elaine always had an interest in the operations side and liked staying up on codes, trends, products, and more. She regularly attended industry conventions with Tim, much to the confusion – and often, consternation – of other men present.
“For a long time, I was the only woman at those meetings,” Elaine recalls. “And a lot of the men weren’t crazy about it. It took me almost twenty years to gain real respect across the industry. And, of course, by then, there were far more women present – and even more who were working in HVAC but not active in the industry community, usually because they didn’t want to deal with the double-standards and other issues. But I’ve always felt it’s important to be involved and to be visible. I wish more women would go into HVAC. Most customers would be much more comfortable letting a strange woman into their home than a strange man, and we can certainly do the work. Chicago and Detroit have dedicated programs and classes for women to become welders and pipe fitters and they’re very successful.”
In 1999, Tim and Elaine decided to sell the business. Elaine decided to return for her master’s in business and was almost finished when 9/11 hit, changing the way everyone viewed the world.
“We just sat there that day and thought ‘we need to do something we love again,’” she says. “That night, we decided to re-open the business. The next day, we started making calls.”
Just two days later, Powers Heating & Air officially opened for business – this time with Elaine in charge of the entire operation, a suggestion that had been Tim’s idea.
“We’ve never regretted returning,” Elaine says. “We did about $200,000 that first half-year and we’ve hit $4 million each of the last several years. We were able to bring back several of our former employees and give them a job they loved coming into again. Many of our customers returned when they found out we were back. And we felt like we were really part of the community again. It’s been really, really good.”
Elaine, who finished her master’s three months after the new company opened, also started getting more involved in industry associations. Two years ago, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs appointed her to the Code Advisory Committee, which oversees all building codes in Georgia. She regularly teaches classes on code changes, Federal laws, and business management. She’s now president of the board of the Conditioned Air Contractors Association of Georgia, sits on the advisory board of Southern Crescent Technical College’s HVAC department and UWG’s Richards College Board of Advisors. She has been an active member on the board of directors of the Metro Atlanta Association of Conditioned Air Contractors (MAACA) for more than 12 years. She’s a past president of the latter, and her daughter – the same one who loved answering the phones at five and now works full-time for the company – is the current president. My sister, Donna, works here, my brothers and dad are always around to provide support and my mom was a blessing always willing to help until we lost her last summer.
“My son works here, too, and all four of us have earned the state’s conditioned air license, which is pretty unusual,” Elaine says.
“But, like I said, we’re a family company and we’re big on doing things right.”
For Elaine, family is incredibly important – and she sees it a little differently than a lot of people.
“To my mom, family isn’t just people she’s related to by blood,” Cherri explains. “Family is also our employees, their families and our customers. It’s people in the communityand friends in the industry.”
“Elaine is the best person in the world,” adds Richard Gossett, who has worked for Elaine and Tim for more than 25 years. “She’s caring, she’s thoughtful. She’s just an all-around good person.”
Elaine says they’ve always been willing to help out their employees when needed. Office workers frequently bring in their kids for a day when childcare falls through or a doctor’s appointment makes backing-and-forthing difficult. And several of their employees’ older children have worked for Powers at one time or another.
“A lot of people who work for us now also worked for us in high school,” she says. “And I have parents who are employees – or customers – come to me and say ‘I think my teen might be good at this, do you have a job available?’ I love when that happens because what we do is important. We allow people to be comfortable in their own homes. That matters. And, the state has yet to recognize HVAC as a dire needs industry because we’re heading into a major shortage. Forty percent of the current HVAC workforce is retiring in the next five years. Fifteen percent are over 65 already. This is a career with a real future and that’s important these days.”
Elaine – and her company – are doing their part to help meet the shortfall. They recently started an internship program and they’re helping the students who work for them navigate dual enrollment so they can come out of high school prepared for a job. They also keep working to help their older employees advance.
“We’ve had more than 30 employees go to another market and start their own HVAC companies,” she says. “We work hard to make sure our employees understand the business – everyone in the company is cross-trained – and that they understand the importance of customer service. So we’re incredibly proud when they’re able to take that and launch their own successful businesses.”
She’s also proud of the company’s reputation in the community, one they built by offering first-in-industry services like calling ahead to let homeowners know when a tech is on the way – and whom to expect.
“Elaine truly stands behind her company and the Powers name,” says friend Joel Willis. “The company’s service guarantee is personal because it’s also Elaine’s guarantee. I’m proud to call her a person I can trust and, more importantly, a friend.”
“Elaine is incredible,” adds Sherry Hardwick, who’s known Elaine for almost 40 years. “She’s involved with so many different groups, she loves her work, she’s dedicated to her family and friends, and she’s always taking or teaching classes or trying something else new. I don’t know how she does it all.”
Getting it all done has been a bit tougher this last decade. In 2009, Elaine was diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, a protein disorder that causes tumors and solidifies organs until they eventually can’t expand and contract.
“Most people have never even heard of amyloidosis,” she says. “There’s been very little research until the last few years and really only two major treatment centers, the Mayo Clinic in Texas and Boston Medical Center.”
There’s also no cure. Radiation did not work for Elaine, so she now visits Boston up to six times each year for procedures to help keep the condition under control. She’s undergone experimental resectioning nine times, and she’s had to make several lifestyle changes.
“Tim and I used to love whitewater rafting,” she says. “We’ve done the Bio Bio in Chile, the Zambezi in Africa, the Colorado River and many others in the US. We love travelling, period. We’ve been all over Europe, to Australia, to South America, Africa – and we took the kids on road trips across the USA and to Africa. I started sea kayaking and I kayaked around Crete and in the Baja Peninsula but, I can’t travel as well as I used to. I’ve actually been very lucky. My amyloidosis is only in my bladder – it hasn’t spread, which is very unusual – and when I was diagnosed, the internal bleeding was significant, they didn’t think I’d live long. That was nine years ago. I’ve had terrific support, a lot of people praying for me, and I’m doing very well. I’ve been taking 500 milligrams of green tea every day for about a year and it’s helped so much I’m going to be part of a study group.”
Overall, Elaine says life is pretty darn good. The business is booming. Her family is thriving. She’s more active in the industry and community than ever. And her first grandchild arrived just this year. All of it, she says, is because she followed her dreams from the beginning – even when people said she couldn’t.
“If you have a passion for something, don’t let anyone tell you no,” she says. “The only person who can really keep you from doing something is you. It might not be easy to get what you want, but what in life is? Do it anyway. It’s worth it. I promise.”