Fifteen years after graduating from Tidewater Community College with a certificate in Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration, she owns Sweetland’s Heating & Cooling in Norfolk. The company is regularly recommended on Angie’s List and was a 2012 winner for Best Contractor.
“If you like to dissect things and like solving problems, this is a good field to be in,” Sweetland says. “It demands a lot of critical thinking.”
Her path to entrepreneur is a circuitous one. Sweetland’s early career centered on helping animals as both a disaster relief coordinator and campaign liaison for PETA and a cruelty investigator for the SPCA. She also held jobs as a service manager for a Ford Dealership and worked in parts at a salvage yard – all blue collar work that dates back to the days when she preferred a softball mitt instead of the Easy Bake oven she received for Christmas.
“Ever since I learned how to change my brother’s oil in his car, I was hooked,” she says.
HVAC/R intrigued her the most, given the challenge and diversity the field offers. “You have to know about thermodynamics. You have to know about electricity. You have to know a little about carpentry, a little about plumbing and about psychometrics, which is the study of air.”
The TCC program laid the foundation for her career and business. “The classes were hands on,” she says. “All of the terms I learned in the book – evaporation, condensation – made sense to me.”
Sweetland was the lone female in the HVAC program; the industry is still dominated by men. But she notes it can be a rewarding career for women who shouldn’t be daunted by the heavy lifting that can be required.
“I can do almost everything a guy can do,” says Sweetland, a regular mentor in TCC’s Women Can! Conferences that present career opportunities for women in nontraditional fields. “If something is too heavy for one person, you ask for help. It’s no different than hauling young children around.”
Sweetland also developed a mentor in Harlan “Skip” Krepcik, current program head for what is now HVAC/R. “TCC has developed a stellar program with him in charge,” she says. “The greatest amount of help I’ve ever been offered is by Skip Krepcik. I wish I knew one tenth of what he knows overall.”
Sweetland worked at various companies before starting her own, including time at Sweeney Mechanical. Her interview for that position called for her to take a boiler apart, clean it and put in back in place within 45 minutes. She nailed it, impressing owner Ron Sweeney, who told her he had never had someone do as well.
After a successful career with Sweeney, Sweetland decided it was time to launch her own in 2003. She started by sending out letters to 240 people, thinking she had plenty of time to prepare.
“Within three days I had 40 responses, and that was it,” she says. “I just hit the ground running.”
Today Sweetland’s Heating & Cooling employs four full-time staff members and one part-timer; Judy oversees every job. Ninety-seven percent of her business is referral.
“Ethics, integrity and the quality of what we do set us apart,” she says.
Sweetland is grateful for all that she learned at TCC — “and for giving me the direction and the basic knowledge that I use every day. It’s my foundation.”