Refrigeration Unlimited Inc.

Turnkey refrigeration solutions from grocers in the western United States
Written by: 
Jeanee Dudley
Produced by: 
Victor Martins

Rick Patrick and Kurt Knutz founded Refrigeration Unlimited Inc. (RUI) in 1993 as a small refrigeration contractor based in Seattle. What began as a five-man local operation has grown to a national business with 80 employees. Today, the company serves customers in more than 10 states, providing diverse refrigeration design-build services to a wide range of grocery retailers, distributors and food service operations.

In 2011, Rick and Kurt retired, leaving the business in the capable hands of Kurt’s son, Adam Knutz. Adam grew up in the business. After graduating with a degree in manufacturing engineering focused on mechanical principles, Adam was on his way for a career in another industry when his father offered him an opportunity at the family business. “I jumped in,” he explains. “Growing up around this business, I knew enough to be dangerous, but I kept up with my education. I worked my way through different roles here, starting on the construction and service side and working through operations to where I am now.”

He takes a lot of pride in the company his family has built. In a competitive market, he says his team stands out because of a strong dedication to quality work. “Everyone who works here wears multiple hats,” he elaborates. “I think that derives from a small company mentality. We have built a reputation for quality service and hands-on follow-through on our projects and services.”

A unique business structure

RUI has evolved significantly over the last two decades. When the company first opened its doors, the focus was exclusively on supermarket refrigeration. Now, the team offers commercial refrigeration, store design, heating, air conditioning, electrical and industrial ammonia services to customers throughout the region. With a headquarters in Seattle, the business also has satellite offices in Boise, Idaho and Anchorage, Alaska.

“Now we can design and build a whole store,” says Adam. “Often when a chain comes to us, we work with them to determine their needs and design a layout, and then we procure equipment, offer an installation package and provide long term service for the project. We have become a one-stop shop. Anything with refrigeration, we do it. Our previous work includes cold storage facilities, distribution centers, small convenience stores, and even the cooler in the back of a restaurant. Everything we do is in the commercial market; we do not do residential work.”

The company performs 80 to 90 percent of supermarket refrigeration contracts in Washington, Alaska and Idaho. “I don’t think there’s any supermarket chain in our service area we don’t work with,” adam says. “We have worked for Kroger, Fred Meyers, Safeway, Wholefoods and Costco –all of the major chains. We also work with many small independent stores and markets. We cover these three states from a 24/7 service response standpoint, but we cover 10 or more other states from a new installation, construction and remodeling standpoint.”

A changing market

Adam has trouble choosing a favorite project. “When you like your job, everything is exciting,” he says. We have a relationship with some local independents in Washington that have recently partnered with grocer out of California. These stores are pretty high end and it has been fun working with them. They are open to trying new things. They are in a more creative niche that makes the store feel different than big box chains.”

Aside from these creative differences between projects, Adam and his team are always working to keep up with major technological advances and legislative changes. The EPA has been working to upgrade regulations as to the types of chemicals that can be used in refrigeration as well as energy efficiency requirements. Adam and his team have been performing a lot of retrofits as the company’s customers rush to meet regulations. His employees attend regular training in order to keep up with these changes and other advances in cooling technology. All in all, he says the transition has been positive for his crew, although he recognizes the burden placed on store owners.

RUI has a strong partnership with Hussman, the country’s largest manufacturer of refrigerated fixtures. This company is responsible for many, not most, of the dairy and ice cream cases found in supermarkets across the country. RUI is the designated distributor for the region. “There are a lot of new products they put out that we get to strap to our tool belts,” Adam explains. “On the energy forefront, many of these cases do not come with a door. The big roll out now is to add the company’s Ecovision doors to these large coolers. We have been doing a lot of retro fits, adding doors to all those fixtures. In the same realm of innovation, we have been adding LED lights instead of fluorescent lights to those cases.”

Steady growth

Over the last few years, RUI has experienced steady growth. Adam credits changes in technology as well as the fact that people have to eat. “We all want cold milk and cold beer,” he laughs. “We don’t want our food to spoil. We have tried to grow steadily and not take too many risks so we can continue to focus on our customers, providing and servicing products that we all need. With the economic downturn, we performed a lot more maintenance and repair work. Our customers were fixing their equipment instead of replacing it, but things have leveled out now.”

While the numbers play an important role in keeping a business alive, Adam and his team tend to gauge success on a more personal scale. “Our whole business is not so much about advertising, but about the conversations we have with the people we meet. At the end of the day, we want to see the quality of the conversations we have and see the result of that conversation. We want to keep an pen line of communication with our customers. We want them to call us if they have a question about their equipment or our services.”

Adam is incredibly proud of his team’s ability to build those relationships with clients. His long-term relationships with customers and employees are his favorite part of the job. “We have a great team –we like to have fun, but we also work really hard,” he says. “I trust our employees and it is awesome to be able to let them run with things and not have to micromanage. At the end of the day, it’s nice to come to work where everyone is on the same page, serving the same purpose, with the same goals.”

In the coming years, RUI’s capable team will continue to take on new challenges. Adam foresees expansion vertically, providing more diverse services to the areas where the company already has territory established. There is also potential for the company to grow into different states. No matter how Refrigeration Unlimited Inc. changes in the future, Adam says his team’s dedication to quality and service will remain the same.