Plumbing Contractor Finds a New Way to Run the Company

Building customer trust and embracing innovative technology lay a foundation for success.

Plumbing Contractor Finds a New Way to Run the Company

Robert Werner, plumbing technician, gets his tools out of the van to work on changing a water heater at a residence in Toledo, Ohio.

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Joel George never hesitates when the opportunity arises to try something new. The founder of Drain Doctor plumbing and drain cleaning services in Toledo, Ohio, has an entrepreneur’s risk-taking instincts.

But he also has an overriding sense of loyalty to customers that sometimes leaves his employees shaking their heads.

“They said, ‘Is this like your mom’s friend or something?’” George recalls being asked after charging relatively little for a service call to the home of one of his longtime customers. “We have lots of people on our customer list who I have served for more than 10 years. We don’t charge them that much because it makes me feel better to help people doing what we are good at doing.

“I tell my employees that we are helping people. Some plumbing companies are just plumbing companies. We are a service company. Every job we do we are helping someone. Sometimes employees don’t understand that,” George says.

STARTING SMALL

Drain Doctor is in its 20th year of helping people deal with clogged drains and leaky pipes. But it wasn’t a seamless rise from launch to business success. The Toledo native didn’t even get into plumbing until after he had worked for a while at the city’s Chrysler Jeep plant and then had a stint as a sprinkler system maintenance person.

He finally entered the plumbing industry as an apprentice and worked for a couple of plumbing companies before succumbing to his entrepreneurial impulses and starting Drain Doctor. For the first seven years, he stayed small, with just one employee — and then got even smaller, working alone for the next decade as a one-man shop.

That decade included the U.S. recession after the financial crisis hit in 2008, a period of struggle for many construction and utility maintenance companies. “I knew it probably wasn’t a good idea to expand a business during a recession,” he says. “I could look around and see companies that tried to do that and filed for bankruptcy.” When the economy eventually “straightened up a little bit,” George began to develop his small company into a larger one.

Gifted with an open and inviting personality, he retains customers by quickly earning their trust. This same characteristic served him well as he made the transition from plumbing employee to plumbing shop owner. He frankly told one potential plumbing service employer just what he planned to do.

“I am coming here to apply for a job, but about a year out I’m going to start my own business,” he told his startled job interviewer. “In the meantime, I want to make you a ton of money.” His candor not only won him a job, it earned him respect that has endured through the years. He and his former employer, and current competitor, are on the best of terms.

WELL EQUIPPED

George is a certified master plumber, but he is also a licensed sewer contractor in surrounding northwest Ohio counties. His plumbing work carries him as far south as Bowling Green, 24 miles away. He performs drain work north into Michigan just across the state line from Toledo. When he started Drain Doctor, he mostly cleaned drains. Drain cleaning remains a key component of what the company does today, accounting for 60% of business activity.

His stable of equipment reflects that emphasis. It includes a new Valor drum machine from Draincables Direct, which has a 1.5 hp motor that spins cable at more than 200 rpm and will clear floor drainlines 1 1/4 inches to 4 inches in diameter. “It’s a cool-looking machine,” George says. “You just set it down and adjust it for a 45-degree angle. I’ve used it twice and love it.”

A drain cleaning mainstay is an older Electric Eel Z5 unit. Its 1/3 hp motor rotates a 1/2-inch cable to chew through impacted debris using twisted saw-blade cutter heads. The unit is designed to open lines up to 3 inches in diameter. Each work van carries 200 feet of cable for the machine.

For cutting through roots in pipes as large as 10 inches, George uses a Picote Solutions Maxi Miller. A Shark 1,500 psi jetter with 150 feet of 1/4-inch hose is frequently utilized; and for larger pipes — up to 24 inches — George relies on a US Jetting 4018 jetter, which produces 4,000 psi at 18 gpm, with a 300-gallon tank and 500 feet of Piranha hose with Warthog nozzles (StoneAge).

Cameras are used every day in evaluating the condition of pipe, and RIDGID is his go-to brand for camera work. Drain Doctor techs employ RIDGID SeeSnake cameras, one with a 200-foot reel, to peer into drainlines. To find an underground line, George grabs a RIDGID NaviTrack Scout locator. “I’ve used all kinds of locators, but I’ve had the Scout for 15 years. That thing is awesome.” When calls come in to uncover and replace underground infrastructure, a John Deere mini-excavator in the equipment yard is sent out.

With the exception of the trailered jetter and the John Deere excavator, the Drain Doctor’s equipment is hauled from job to job in style — in four new Mercedes-Benz 2500 Sprinter vans George purchased from Vin Devers Autohaus of Sylvania, Ohio. Sporting bright-yellow Drain Doctor logos and promotional messages, the vans announce to customers that well-equipped and trained plumbing technicians have arrived at their door.

But the vehicles also were chosen to send a second message, this one to George’s team of millennial employees. His message to his employees born in the 1980s and ’90s is simple: We are state of the art, so be all-in for the company.

Millennials sometimes are characterized by a sense of entitlement and a willingness to jump from job to job. George, who is 46, has methodically engaged the younger generation in conversations about work expectations. “Back before 2000, when I worked for other companies, it seemed to me people were always waiting for your job. This generation seems like it isn’t worried about losing a job.”

TEAM PLAYERS

To encourage his employees to embrace the work, George caters to their individual preferences in assigning out tasks. Even though each of his employees — which include three journeyman plumbers and three helpers — is fully capable of cleaning a drain or fixing a leaky faucet, each has a favorite work assignment.

“I have a guy who does most of the sewer lining, a guy who does most of the plumbing, another guy who does faucets — he loves repairing old faucets,” he says. “And then there’s Mr. Water Heater, as I call him. He puts in most of them for us. The other guys don’t really sell water heaters like he does.”

George reflects on the situation. “Back in the day, we did everything. ‘Here’s a call. Go do it.’ That’s how it was,” he says about an earlier era in the workplace. “In my first plumbing truck, the air conditioning was a floorboard we pulled out to get air flowing. You could see the street below. I drove that one for two years.” He realized, however, that such “good old days” talk was not likely to impress his employees, so he looked to the future and invested in the Mercedes vans.

Generational differences aside, George is not down on millennials. He believes in his team. “You have to challenge them, but they’re responding.” As for his customers, he relies on his website, Facebook and other social media to reach them. “I go online with everything.”

His willingness to try new things led him to test a pipe lining product he now swears by. Formadrain is a lining system that’s pulled into place instead of being unfolded. The environmentally friendly and thin fiberglass-and-epoxy system is steam-cured and fits so tightly against the interior of a pipe that there’s no measurable loss of pipe capacity. What’s more, it can be fully installed in just four hours. An industrial version of the system is notably impervious to kerosene and diesel fuels, even to sulfuric acid.

“I get excited about this product,” George says. “I studied liners for 15 year before I bought this franchise. I love lining. You could line the world with this stuff, but that wouldn’t be cost-effective.” Most of his Formadrain jobs are 100 feet or less.

Toledo has some 1,100 miles of sanitary sewers. “Just imagine how many miles of pipe there are running from houses to the sewer. Lining them will keep me busy right here in town,” he says. George estimates 60% of the galvanized and clay pipe in the greater Toledo area is years past its expected life span.

“I’m going to go on a mission. I’ll knock on doors and ask if I can get a camera in there and show them that lining the pipe has to be done. Maybe they’ll let me get in there before it collapses on them.”


Exciting challenges

If Joel George has a business philosophy, it might be stated this way: Be willing to think outside the box and allow yourself to become excited about your work.

The founder and owner of Drain Doctor plumbing and drain cleaning in Toledo, Ohio, certainly exemplifies both attitudes. “This industry is so dynamic,” George says. “It changes daily. Not one day goes by that I don’t see something I haven’t seen before.”

That sounds tough, but the Ohioan knows tough. He used to play hockey, where getting banged against the boards is an art form. He pushed the puck in high school and college and coached the game for a while. Toledo is in hockey country, after all, home to a midlevel professional hockey franchise.

But his hockey experience is “ancient history,” George says, even though he keeps a hockey stick in his office as a reminder. More relevant to his career success is the example his parents set during their working lives. George’s father, also named Joel, was an automotive engineer commuting 30 minutes each morning to put in 12-hour days in a Michigan plant.

For more than 30 years, his mother, Janet George, taught a cooking class in a local school. Her students were Ohioans wanting to refine their culinary skills. She teamed with celebrated area chefs to teach individual specialty dishes. Janet George, like her son, was also an entrepreneur, operating a business on the side.

So, Joel George credits his parents’ work ethic in teaching him the perseverance that held him in good stead during the early years of Doctor Drain, when expanding the business was mostly a pipe dream. Today, George has seen success with his company, and the business challenges that come his way excite him.  

“So many different tools are coming out. I find myself looking at something and I’m not sure what I’m looking at,” he says. “But you have to keep up. You don’t have a choice. You just have to try to improve how you are doing things every single day. You can’t freak out about it.”



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