You might say his affinity for the Bonsai arts helped channel his inner Zen, patience and attention to detail. But you’d have to ask him yourself. “I studied Bonsai for years, even went out to Oregon to study the craft,” says Tom Castagna, install department supervisor, Modern Heating & Air Conditioning, LLC, Milford, Conn.
Working part time as an auto mechanic throughout high school, upon graduation, Tom Castagna (@tstags on IG) was approached and offered a job at Shelton oil as an apprentice where he primarily serviced and installed oil-fired equipment, and dabbled in a small amount of air conditioning. “Having no knowledge of what the trade actually consisted of, nor what my new position would entail, I couldn’t resist $1/hr. more an hour than what I was then making. This started my love affair with HVAC,” says Castagna.
From there, Castagna moved to a mechanical company for eight years where he service and installed residential and commercial systems and also worked on refrigeration, ranging from kitchen equipment, vending machines, walk-in cooler/freezers to tooling/CNC machining.
Castagna has been at Modern for the last seven years where he started as lead service technician, and would occasionally install when needed, to now managing the install department for the past two years.
Along Came a Mentor
Castagna soaked up as much as he could early on as he has been lucky to have worked with some extremely knowledgeable guys in the trade. Castagna says he’s picked up something from everyone he’s worked with, whether that be knowledge of trade, or aspects of life.
“The first couple months being in the trade I rode along with a very old school oil tech named Jeff. Jeff was tough, extremely tough. My first day of work he picked me up and the first words out of his mouth as I sat in the van—pointing at the radio and all dashboard controls—’see all this, you don’t touch this, ever.’ At first, I hated this man for his short temper, general distain for the world, and teaching style, but his general knowledge and skill was something I’d never experienced before so I shut up and took it all in—the good and the bad,” says Castagna.
But it’s current boss, Matt Sando, who has molded Castagna into the man he is today. “We worked together at a previous company where we both weren’t thrilled with the direction the company was going and he knew he could do better. I remember being on a job with him days before he was leaving and he was showing me different van designs and logos and wanted help choosing. I knew once he was established, I’d be making the jump. And here we are seven years later, and the company treats everyone as a family, a modern family,” says Castagna.
According to Castagna, Sando taught him how to be a leader, and he’s matured immeasurably under his guidance. “I would like to think I’m a good role model. Trying to learn and navigate a new trade in my later teens and early 20s, along with training apprentices, was difficult to say the least. I think I may have carried on some of Jeff’s earlier teaching styles but luckily, I always had a tough group of apprentices that could endure my lack of patience. I’ve learned a lot about myself as well as a ton of life skills in this trade,” says Castagna.
Paying it forward can be just as rewarding. Setting a good example and being able to teach and watch someone’s timeline and rise to success is a great feeling says Castagna.
“As a service tech, I walked into a job with four items— a Klein HVAC 10-1, Klein wire strippers, a Fluke 902 meter and a good flashlight. Being in HVAC, we have to carry an immense amount of tools and instruments because of the variety of things we work on, but at the most basic, you can do a lot of damage with those four tools, and your mind.” — Tom Castagna
While Castagna says the industry does a pretty decent job of providing education and opportunity for all, he thinks a lot of tradesmen like to blame lack of work force on a generational laziness. “People just need to be better mentors and be more outgoing with recruiting young talent. I wasn’t looking for a job in HVAC at 17 years old, but someone approached me with an opportunity.”
However, on the flipside, people thinking of entering the trades need to have thick skin and a willingness to learn and work harder than ever before. In return, says Castagna, you can create a very comfortable life for you and your family.
Early on, Castagna did not have a healthy work/life balance. “Everything was all or nothing for me and I put it all into my work. On my ‘days off,’ I was still at the shop or organizing my van or finding something to do,” says Castagna. “But as we know, that can’t last forever; you’ll reach a breaking point. I think I needed to get myself to that point to actually realize that I needed a life outside work. I really cherish my time off now.”
His advice? “Start your day early! There’s a lot you can get done before the average person wakes up. Stay organized and MAKE TIME for yourself/family.”
And for Castagna, this includes anything outdoors—concerts, fishing, hiking, hunting, working on cars and motorcycles. Also, playing darts and billiards with friends.
Oh yeah, I hope one day Castagna gets that 90-point ride for eight seconds.