A Century of Plumbing

After withstanding the test of time, family-owned Kansas company stands poised for more growth — and eyes another 100 years in business.

A Century of Plumbing

Master plumber Kevin Griffin tightens a 2 1/2-inch RPX backflow preventer on a job site for Lutz Plumbing.

Back in 1920, when William Lutz founded the plumbing company that still bears his name, Woodrow Wilson was president, the Cleveland Indians won the World Series and women in America had just gained the right to vote.

A century later, it’s hard to conceive how much things have changed. But at Lutz Plumbing, based in Shawnee, a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, several things have remained constant: The Lutz clan, now in its fourth generation of family ownership; an unerring focus on customer service; and continued investments in advanced technology that enhance customer satisfaction and open up new business markets.

There’s also an intangible factor behind the company’s noteworthy longevity as it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2020: a stubborn refusal to quit when times get hard, says Amber Lutz-Sewell, the great-granddaughter of the company’s founder and the current co-owner of the company along with her father, Jim Lutz.

“We don’t give up,” Lutz-Sewell says. “Lutzes are known for being stubborn and hardheaded — that’s for sure.

“We’ve been through some lean times when we weren’t sure what would happen to the business, but we’ve never let anything stop us,” she continues. “Family ownership and the tradition we’ve established of helping others is very important to us. Many of our customers have been with us for 30 or 40 years, and we take a lot of pride in that.”

Statistics about how many 100-year-old plumbing companies there are in the U.S. are hard to come by. But it’s easy to imagine the list is short, especially considering the high failure rate of companies in their third, fourth or more generations of family ownership.

In bucking that trend, it certainly helps that Lutz-Sewell takes her family’s commitment to customers very seriously. It’s a mindset she learned at an early age, she says, noting the service-call ride-alongs she did with her father, starting when she was about 8 years old. They left a lasting impression, she says.

“I realized that plumbing is a 24/7 job — people need you all times of day and night,” she says. “It also taught me a lot about customer service. In this industry, you should be working for more than just a paycheck.

“You’re really helping people in their time of need,” she continues. “To this day, my favorite thing to do is to help people. We all know that we have a real impact on peoples’ lives.”

MARKETING BACKGROUND PAYS DIVIDENDS

Lutz-Sewell originally had no intent of joining the family business, though she says she never was opposed to it, either. She attended the University of Kansas, where she earned a degree in sports management. “I wanted to work in marketing for sports teams,” she says.

After college graduation and working for several years in marketing, Lutz-Sewell had a change of heart and asked her dad for a job in 2002. But her father discouraged such a move because the company was struggling at the time.

When she asked again several years later, he relented and Lutz-Sewell started out by answering phones, scheduling jobs and doing some bookkeeping and marketing work. She also revamped the company’s website, she says.

Lutz-Sewell gradually assumed more and more management responsibilities and pushed for more growth. In early 2015, the company had four employees: Lutz-Sewell, her father and two technicians. By later that same year, the company bought another service truck and hired two more employees, a technician and an office worker.

Lutz-Sewell became the majority owner of the company in 2016 and growth continued. Today, the company employs 12 people, including six technicians, and runs six service trucks: five Ford Transit Connect XL cargo vans and a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. Each truck carries about $5,000 worth of inventory, she says.

Since she became the majority owner, revenues have increased annually at about a 30% clip. “I wasn’t interested in working in the field as a plumber, so that allowed me to focus more on working on the business,” she says, explaining the revenue surge. “Dad didn’t have that luxury because he was in the truck all the time.”

To clean drainlines, Lutz technicians use Spartan Tool Model 100 (for 1 1/4- to 4-inch-diameter lines), 300 (for 3- to 6-inch-diameter lines) and 2001 (3- to 10-inch-diameter lines). The company also owns five RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection cameras and a Spartan 758 trailer jetter. For power tools, technicians generally rely on RIDGID and Milwaukee Tool products.

CHANGE IS HARD

The relatively rapid growth and operational changes posed challenges. As many people who work with relatives in family-owned businesses can attest, it’s often not easy for younger family members to get parents to buy into and implement new ideas.

“We’d always had slow and steady growth,” she explains. “My family did a great job over the years, but the company hadn’t been run as much like a business. And Dad would be the first one to admit he resisted new ideas.”

So what strategy does she recommend to others for affecting changes while minimizing adversity? While she concedes there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, Lutz-Sewell says that patience, diplomacy and consensus-building are valuable assets.

“My approach is to tread lightly,” she explains. “I don’t push things through without the approval of others. I like to have some support in my corner. To get buy-in, it’s important for other people to see as much value in a proposal as I do.”

A good example is the company’s service-agreement program, called the Lutz Loyalty Club, which went into effect in fall 2017. For a $99 annual fee, customers get a variety of benefits, including a 15% discount off plumbing services, a free safety inspection, free extended warranties on new products, free priority service and no added charge for after-hours service.

“I couldn’t get any traction on the program with Dad,” she says. “Nothing against him, but he just didn’t see the benefit of it. And at the time, he was the majority owner. But I kept hiring people who felt the same way as I did, and Dad eventually agreed to give it a try.”

So far, the program has been successful, with more than 1,500 subscribers. A key component is a reasonable price; for most customers, the program pays for itself during the year, especially if they need a big-ticket item such as a new water heater, she notes.

“It’s also valuable because it helps us maintain a loyal customer base,” she adds. “It keeps us in front of customers because they’ll call us instead of somebody else. And from a marketing perspective, it’s also so much cheaper to maintain existing customers than it is to acquire new customers.”

CUSTOMER SERVICE IS CRITICAL

A big key to the company’s longevity is a strong emphasis on customer service. Important components include well-maintained equipment that helps avoid on-the-job breakdowns, comprehensive training to ensure all technicians follow the same procedures and processes, and a customer-feedback program that helps management ensure those processes are followed and also reveals customer pain points, Lutz-Sewell says.

“We make follow-up phone calls to customers after every service call,” she explains. “It’s pretty much a full-time job for one of our employees. We’ve been doing this for nearly 10 years.

“We make more than 100 service calls a week, and we want our customers to have a consistent service experience every time they use us,” she continues. “We have a step-by-step process for service calls, as well as for how things work from the time a customer calls the office to the ‘happy call’ (follow-up) after the service call ends.”

The program started out as an effort to determine what was most valuable to customers in terms of services and discounts. But over the years, it evolved into a quality-control tool, she says.

“We try to make the happy call within an hour after our technicians leave a customer’s home, or at least on the same day, or at the latest on the next day after a service call,” Lutz-Sewell says.

ENCOURAGING ONLINE REVIEWS

Part of the service-call process includes having technicians ask customers if they’re willing to post an online review of the technician’s work. “We also ask customers for an online review when we make the happy call,” Lutz-Sewell says. “If they agree to do it, we send them either an email or text with a link.”

At Lutz, customer service also extends to helping technicians strike a good work-life balance, which keeps them invigorated about work. For example, the company currently is developing a system where some technicians would work second and third shifts, which would allow the company to provide 24-hour service without having technicians on call.

“Our guys have lives, too,” Lutz-Sewell says. “Dad taught me to always do whatever you can for customers while also keeping in mind our internal customers — our employees. Finding that balance is so important.

“Having technicians available during different shifts also would benefit customers because they wouldn’t have to pay an extra charge for after-hours calls,” she observes. “This goes back to customer service and making ourselves available for people in their time of need.”

PLANNING FOR GROWTH

Lutz-Sewell has ambitious plans for growth in mind, including doubling the number of service trucks to 12 and adding six new employees within the next three years or so.

“We also want to continue to grow our apprentice program,” she says, pointing out that the company pays for some of the apprentices’ training and education costs. “We’ve already graduated three apprentices into service trucks, and that’s how we plan to add six more technicians — by training and growing our own employees.

“We think that’s the future,” she adds, noting how difficult it is to find quality technicians. “Our apprentices have friends who see how far they’ve come and the money they’re making, so it’s starting to pick up steam.”

Does Lutz-Sewell feel pressure to keep the family business alive? Absolutely, she says. “I want to make my family proud, and I want my kids (two younger children) to see the value of working hard and helping people and treating them the right way,” she says. “It wouldn’t be much fun to be the one that brings it all down.

“On the other hand, it doesn’t keep me up at night,” she continues. “We have such good people working here and we’re all so passionate about what we do that I can’t see anything but more success in our future.”

Even for another 100 years? “Sure, let’s do it,” she says.


Professional groups provide powerful ideas for growth and improvement

As the co-owner of Lutz Plumbing in Shawnee, Kansas, Amber Lutz-Sewell has one official business partner: her father, Jim Lutz. But she also relies on dozens of unofficial “partners” via professional best-practice organizations that provide her with business strategies and tips that have moved the fourth-generation family business forward on many fronts.

“These groups help us keep a big-picture perspective,” she says. “If you have aspirations to grow, you need to have some kind of game plan for the future. These groups help you think through how that’s going to look and how to execute it.”

The two primary groups that have most benefited Lutz Plumbing are the Service Nation Alliance and an affiliated group called the Service Roundtable. Service Nation Alliance owns Service Roundtable; for details, including membership fees, visit www.servicenationalliance.com or www.serviceroundtable.com.

“We get a ton of benefits from both organizations,” Lutz-Sewell says. “They’re an incredible value. I’d advise everyone to join groups like these. They teach you how to work on the business, not in the business.”

One of the benefits of the company’s Service Nation Alliance membership is weekly conference calls with owners of similar-sized businesses nationwide. The topics covered during the calls might range from recruiting and retaining quality employees and personal professional development to work-life balance and ways to work more efficiently. The membership also provides rebates for buying certain supplies and materials; the rebates can help offset the membership costs, she says.

The company joined the Service Roundtable in 2011 and the Service Nation Alliance in 2015. The memberships in those two groups — along with past memberships in other similar groups — helped the company establish some major components of the company’s customer service efforts, including its Lutz Loyalty Club and a quality-control program that includes follow-up calls to customers after technicians leave job sites, Lutz-Sewell says.

“We’re constantly evolving and learning how to give our customers the best service experience and technology. … And these groups help us figure out what works best and why,” she says. “They definitely can help you grow.”



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