Plumbing Company’s Longevity Credited to Solid Customer Relations and Knowledgeable Staff

Frasier’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in Wisconsin overcomes a major setback to mark 100 years of being family-owned and -operated.
Plumbing Company’s Longevity Credited to Solid Customer Relations and Knowledgeable Staff
After tearing out a portion of drywall under a kitchen sink, Dan Schwanz uses a Milwaukee Electric Tool flashlight to locate a leak in a private residence in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. The lateral drainpipe behind the wall was completely rotted out, causing leaking into the basement. Schwanz replaced the portion of the pipe that was leaking.

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After nearly a century of being family-owned and -operated, Frasier’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling started to make a transition in 2014. Fourth-generation owners Phil and Joanna Frasier passed control of the company to a management group so that they could focus full-time on a second business outside the plumbing arena.

But under the new management, Frasier’s Plumbing floundered and the company began losing the critical pieces that had made it a stable part of the business community of Rhinelander, a city of about 8,000 people in northern Wisconsin, for decades. Over the course of only five months, the business saw a majority of its employees leave, including two who had been at Frasier’s Plumbing more than 20 years. One week of revenue was the equivalent of what had once been the company’s daily revenue.

The Frasiers returned to resurrect the longtime family business. “The key thing was that we lost our top revenue-producing employees,” Phil Frasier says. “We came back to a shell of a staff, many of whom we had never worked with. If there was ever a time I was grateful that I learned the plumbing trade, it was the day I came back because it was all hands on deck in order to meet the demand. Those were some very long days for our service manager, Kyle Leighton, and Joanna and I as we tried to get our arms around this very different company. In some ways, it was like starting over.”

But only three years after the Frasiers retook control of the business from the management group, Frasier’s Plumbing is back on track and celebrating the 100th anniversary of what Phil’s great-grandfather started in 1918.

“We’re stronger now than we were when we left the business,” Phil says. “We had to sort of start over, but we rebuilt our team and got through it. Now here we are sitting at 100 years in business. I would never want to go through the last few years again, but I think it gave us a new appreciation of our family business and its history and our customers and employees.”

A BEGINNING OF TIES AND DERBY HATS

Along River Street, coming into Rhinelander, stands a billboard for Frasier’s Plumbing. It shows an old black-and-white photo of the company’s founder, George Frasier, sitting atop a horse-drawn cart full of toilets and wearing a tie and derby hat. That was the plumbing attire of his East Coast origins, receiving his training through the labor guild in Providence, Rhode Island.

“When he came to Wisconsin, that was still the way he dressed,” says Bruce Frasier, Phil’s father and the third generation of the family business. “That changed rather quickly, though.”

George began by working for another firm, Meekma Plumbing, upon arriving in Rhinelander before starting his own company in 1918. Business was good until the Depression hit. The period following that downturn marked the time that the second generation of Frasier, Bruce’s father Bill, got involved in the plumbing trade.

“I remember that in order to get customers, he started installing water heaters for the public service — just to get into some homes and get the phone to ring,” Bruce says.

The company’s volume of work gradually grew, and by 1942, a second plumber was finally brought into the fold. A steady growth trajectory continued. In 1958, Frasier’s Plumbing welcomed a third generation when Bruce decided to join following a stint in the Navy and consideration of other career options. Shortly after, his brother, David, also joined the company. The transition to the fourth generation began in 1996 with Phil formally coming into the company, taking complete control upon the retirement of Bruce and David in 2004.

Frasier’s Plumbing evolved as it needed to over the years. There was a period where the company tackled any job at all that was plumbing or heating related. That meant both new construction installations and service work — even septic system installations. The company was also involved in kitchen and bathroom remodeling and maintained a retail store.

“At one time, we had over 40 people in the business,” Bruce says.

Eventually, to improve efficiency and stay competitive, Frasier’s Plumbing decided to become more specialized, opting to focus on service work. The retail store dropped off once the big-box stores emerged and it stopped being a profit center for the company. The kitchen and bathroom remodeling portion remains today but as a separate company that spun off of Frasier’s Plumbing.

Early on in Phil’s tenure as the head of the company, the decision was made to expand into the Wausau market (a city of 60,000 people located an hour south of Rhinelander). That coincided with the acquisition of another small company, and Frasier’s Plumbing saw 38 percent growth in one year. The company continued to grow until 2014 when the management group got involved.

“I’ve often thought that’s a day I wish that we could go back to,” Phil says. “But that struggle has also made us stronger than we ever would have been without it. We have learned to operate very efficiently and we appreciate each other, our customers, and our heritage more than ever before. In many ways, it has been a gift.”

REBUILDING A FAMILY LEGACY

A key component that did not go well under the management group, Phil says, was changes to employees’ pay structure. “I think they thought that they would be able to rehire a bunch of people,” he says.

Instead, about 70 percent of the Frasier’s Plumbing staff left during the time the company was being overseen by the management group and some were still departing when the Frasiers returned. Over the next 20 months, Joanna worked almost seven days a week, and occasionally through the night, to try and get the financials in order under the guidance of their local CPA firm. Frasier’s Plumbing is part of the Nexstar Network, and when a fellow member company heard about the situation, it sent two employees on its own dime to Rhinelander to help Joanna with the accounting work.

“They stayed several days and helped us. Beyond that, they also gave us great encouragement and hope that we could pull this off,” Phil says. “Nexstar is an amazing group of people that become like family. We had members reaching out to us regularly offering help.”

In rebuilding a quality team — currently 14 employees between both field and office staff — Phil says the company has relied on several different recruiting platforms. Craigslist has been one of the most effective. Every week, one of Frasier’s Plumbing customer service representatives reposts all of the company’s job ads on Craigslist.

“It’s not free anymore; you have to pay for it. But it’s still cheap,” Phil says. “It’s worked very well for us. Our last three employees have come through Craigslist.”

Frasier’s Plumbing has also found success using the websites Indeed and BirdDog Jobs. Bringing on a new hire often begins with a Skype interview since the company has been frequently finding candidates outside of Wisconsin.

“There’s not a huge base in our area to draw from,” Phil says.

If the initial Skype interview goes well and both Frasier’s Plumbing and the job candidate feel like it could be a good fit, the candidate comes in for a second in-person interview.

“We try to meet their family if we can and tell them about the community,” Phil says. “We really need people who know more than just how to do the trade. They’re going into people’s homes, sometimes when people aren’t there, so we do background checks and make sure that they’re trustworthy and have good character. We can train the trade. But some of that other stuff you can’t train, so that’s what we’re looking for.”

Rebuilding the team has been about making the company an enticing place to work for potential candidates as well. Since retaking control of the business, Phil says an emphasis has been placed on providing technicians a more consistent work schedule. Frasier’s Plumbing still considers itself a 24/7, emergency services plumbing firm, but a lot of discretion is used to determine which calls truly are emergencies that require after-hours service.

“We’re realizing that it’s important for our guys to have time at home, so we try to have their last call finish around 4 or 4:30 p.m.,” Phil says. “It used to be that we’d have everybody available for any call that came in before 5 p.m. We’d have them just keep going, and they’d sometimes not get home until 8 p.m. We’re trying to change that and focus on our employees and their quality of life.”

Now Frasier’s Plumbing codes all calls on a 1 to 5 scale to determine how critical they are to take care of immediately, and employees are trained on how to communicate with customers in order to delay service if something is not
an emergency.

“We’re still a 24/7 operation. I think we need to be. We’re just doing it a little bit differently,” Phil says. “If somebody calls and says, ‘My shower is dripping. Can someone come out? I’m willing to pay the extra after-hours fee,’ we’re not going to go. We’ll talk them through it and give them an incentive to wait until the next day. Now, if they have no water at all, we’re going to go. We keep one person on call for plumbing and one person on call for heating, and we’ll get everybody else home. Those on-call people know they might have an emergency or two to turn. That’s how we’ve been doing it instead of running every single call that comes in.”

The strategies Frasier’s Plumbing has used have led to a strong team of employees that Phil says he’s happy with, just a few years after so many longtime employees left. The company has been able to attract people to Rhinelander from in state to as far away as Utah.

Phil says, “We have one master plumber with 32 years of experience who loves to do plumbing service work and wants to retire in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Another guy came in two years into his apprenticeship and is interested in both heating and plumbing. All of a sudden, we’ve had several people deciding to relocate to Rhinelander who also came with a tremendous amount of experience. Our internal staff is performing at a very high level and they are streamlining and improving our systems regularly to better meet the needs of our entire operation and our customers. We also have a 10-minute daily huddle by phone with our internal staff to go over our three-day pace report and any actions that may need to be taken. When Joanna and I are gone with Fellowship Adventures (their other business),, we know our team and our customers are in great hands. We have a good team established right now, and we’re very grateful.”

DEVELOPING CUSTOMER TRUST

No matter how much experience a new employee might come in with, though, they’re immediately put into a 10-day onboarding process that Frasier’s Plumbing uses through a model from the Nexstar Network.

“Our service manager, Kyle Leighton, is tough on it,” Phil says.

He recalls a day where he came into the office and there was a job that needed more manpower. He noticed a new employee and asked Leighton if that employee was available to help out. Leighton explained that the employee was in the middle of his 10-day onboarding process.

“I said, ‘Let’s go, he can do that tomorrow,’” Phil says. “But Kyle told me no. I’m glad that he’s tough on it and makes sure everybody goes through that process.”

That’s because a significant part of that onboarding process is training on customer relations. With all the changes that have occurred in the company over the years, one constant has been how Frasier’s Plumbing has viewed its relationship with customers.

“Developing a relationship of trust between the customer and the business is important,” Bruce says. “You realize early on that without trust, there isn’t any relationship. We always made it a point — when we made a proposal to a customer — to definitely adhere to the proposal. We would not back off. We felt it was very important to give a customer everything we said we’d do in a proposal. That only got better after we joined Contractors 2000 (the original name of the Nexstar Network). It enabled us to focus more on servicing the customer rather than just servicing the equipment.”

As an example of the company’s dedication to building customer trust, look at how Frasier’s Plumbing handles the servicing of boilers.

Phil says when he goes to a job, he can immediately recognize if a Frasier’s Plumbing technician has been there before. If so, there will be blue test plugs on the HVAC equipment where the technician measured airflow, temperature and combustion.

“We always have a performance chart for the customer that tells them everything about how the system is running. We’re not just cleaning burners and looking at it. We’re measuring the performance of the system,” Phil says. “That’s something not a lot of people in our industry do. I’m grateful that our company has always done it like that and it has stayed that way through to today. If we’re going to put something in someone’s home — plumbing or heating — we want to verify it’s doing what we said it does.”

In fact, there are customers who have built up so much trust with the Frasier name that they left the company when the management group took over.

“Then, when they heard we were coming back to the company, they came back,” Phil says. “It means a lot to the our community — more than I realized — that it’s been family-owned and -operated all these years.”

ANOTHER 100 YEARS?

To mark 100 years of being in business, Phil says one of the plans this year is to get involved in some Rhinelander community events. Also being discussed is giving a nod to the company’s origins by doing a sort of recreation of the old photo of founder George Frasier sitting on the horse-drawn cart full of toilets.

Most importantly, the plan is to mark 100 years by simply continuing to do what Frasier’s Plumbing has already done successfully for decades: providing quality plumbing and HVAC services to Rhinelander and the surrounding areas that the company serves.

“We don’t have any grandiose plans other than to just be good at what we do,” Phil says. “Our goal is to be profitable in doing that so we can properly take care of our customers and employees and protect the company. We want to make sure it’s here for the next generations.”


The evolution of technology

Frasier’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling was founded in 1918, so it goes without saying that today’s technology and available materials have significantly affected the way the company does business compared to those early days.

“When I think of technology, it reminds me of the trucks. The trucks have become much more productive than they were years ago,” says Bruce Frasier, part of the third generation of the family-owned company. “I remember when we had 6-volt systems instead of 12-volt systems. When it got below zero, we’d spend more time getting the trucks started in the morning than we did anything else.”

Bruce’s brother, David, adds: “I think about the changes in plumbing materials. When I did my apprenticeship, it was cast iron, and when my dad and grandpa were in the business, they were working with lead water pipes. Even the evolution of the tools: Think of how important the portable electric drill has been compared to a screwdriver. But that’s what we used back then.”

Now Frasier’s Plumbing takes advantage of all the modern equipment that is available, such as press tools.

“It looks really nice and does a great job. It saves about four hours of labor on a boiler install, just having these press tools,” says Phil, the fourth generation of the business.

Frasier’s Plumbing also uses GPS in its service trucks, and all of the company’s technicians are equipped with iPads for doing estimates, invoicing, and taking photos on the job.

“Then when a tech collects on a job, that automatically hits our books. All the automation and technology is pretty amazing,” Phil says. “I remember back when we had to rely on a big wall in the dispatch center. Every tech was up there, and there were different colored cards depending on the type of job. Our dispatcher would use little magnets to show where each truck was in our service area. Now all of that is handled through software. Technology is definitely the biggest change as far as operations.”
 



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