Higgins business going strong after 75 years in Bemidji

It’s now officially known as Higgins Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration, and current owner Charlie Ward certainly understands the brand that is associated with Hollie Higgins, who founded Higgins Heating in 1946 with a building on America Avenue in downtown Bemidji. Second owner Hank Imsande and third owner Mike Norden also understood.

“Hollie was really successful and built a very good reputation,” Ward said.

Ward purchased the company in 2006 when it was located at 211 Paul Bunyan Drive NW. Hollie Higgins had moved it there in 1949 and sold the business to Imsande in the mid-1980s. Norden took it over in 2000 and sold it to Ward six years later. In 2008, Charlie purchased the former Netzer Floral building at 1632 Bemidji Ave. N from his brother, Wayne, and moved the business to that location.

Ward grew up in Bemidji and initially got into the restaurant business. His parents, Jack and Lois Ward, owned the popular Jack’s Supper Club in Wilton. “Dad called it Jack’s Wonder Bar at first because he wondered if he was going to make it,” Charlie said with a grin. “He dropped the ‘Wonder’ because he started making it.”

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Charlie bought a restaurant in Mayville, N.D., when he was in his mid-20s, and ran it for less than two years before getting out of the business. He moved to the Twin Cities and enrolled in heating and air conditioning school. He remained in the metro area for more than 30 years, working in the industry, before moving back home to Bemidji to purchase Higgins in 2006. He and his wife, Anne, were empty nesters at the time.

“It was perfect timing for us,” Ward said.

As is the case with most industries, technology is changing the way Higgins conducts its business. The efficiency of heating and cooling equipment has improved dramatically in recent years.

“The technologies that they’re doing with furnaces is just unbelievable,” Ward said. They’re 99% efficient. So for every dollar you spend on fuel, 99 cents goes into your house and 1 cent goes out the stack. That’s crazy. Back in the good old days, those fuel oil furnaces were probably 75% efficient.”

Helen Glen, who shares office manager duties with Jackie Peterson, said business has been booming, especially with air conditioning in a hotter-than-normal summer.

“There’s such a push now for air conditioning,” said Glen, who has been with Higgins for 21 years. “People didn’t need it before, because in Bemidji you didn’t have more than five days that maybe you needed cooling. That’s changed. Everybody’s offices are air conditioned, their stores are air conditioned, their cars are air conditioned, and they come home to a hot house. And that doesn’t work very well.”

Glen said despite the hustle and bustle of the business, it’s a fun place to work.

“We’re family,” she said. “That’s the only thing that describes it and keeps everybody going. With Charlie, it’s definitely family.”

Ward agrees.

“The most important asset I have is not my customer list or my bank account, it’s my employees,” he said. “I’ve been there, done that. I’ve been on the roofs before when it’s 40 below or 95 above. I know what it’s like, and it makes a big difference.”