Looking on the Bright Side

Kansas City area plumber bounces back from medical scare to build a company from scratch focused on helping customers with any job.

Looking on the Bright Side

  Kalen Barker, right, owner of Bright Side Plumbing in Overland Park, Kansas, stands next to apprentice James Gardner next to one of the company service trucks. Barker got help with the design of his company’s logo and name from KickCharge, a graphics design firm. 

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Kalen Barker had never really thought about starting his own plumbing company. He had moved from Southern California to the Kansas City, Kansas, area to work for another plumbing company and start a life of his own.

Things were going great the first 10 years; however, in 2018 things turned around. Barker went from having a job he enjoyed to not knowing if he would ever be able to work again because of health issues he started to experience.

After fighting through those health issues and getting back to some normalcy, Barker knew he had to make a change. It was time to set off on his own and show himself and everyone that he could do it. Amid getting back to full health and at the beginning of a world health pandemic, Barker opened the doors to Bright Side Plumbing, based in Overland Park, Kansas, in late 2020.

Today, the company continues to grow. It has three employees, two trucks and is planning the design of a third truck to be added to its fleet. Reviews online are glowing from customers and Barker is planning for big things in the future.

“It sounds absolutely ridiculous because two years ago I didn’t even know if I would be able to leave my wheelchair and work,” Barker says. “I’m just grateful to be here and be alive and serving the people as well as we can.”

PLANTING THE SEED

Barker grew up in a plumbing family with his dad owning a plumbing firm in Southern California that he worked at starting as a teenager. Watching his dad grow a successful company — Barker & Sons Plumbing — may have planted that seed deep down in Barker himself.

He moved to Kansas City in 2008 to start a family and was plumbing for other companies and enjoyed it.

“At the end of work one day in 2018, I was cleaning my truck in the parking lot and I started not feeling well,” Barker says. “One of my coworkers asked how I was doing, trying to make small talk, and I told him I wasn’t feeling so good. I collapsed and was unresponsive.”

That event started a series of about two years where Barker would have the same thing happen many times, taking him in and out of the hospital and the neurologist took away his driver’s license.

“I lost my job, I just couldn’t work,” Barker says. “We didn’t know what was going on for a long time. I saw many specialists and built up more than a quarter million in hospital debt.”

The answers finally came that Barker was suffering from an extremely rare nerve disorder. After the diagnosis, doctors were able to treat it and Barker started to see improvements day by day. In early 2020 he felt like it was maybe time to test getting back to work.

“I was very grateful to have a friend that owned a remodeling company, and he would let me work a little job here and there,” Barker says. “They would pick me up and drive me there and then back home. I had some setbacks and struggles for a while and we weren’t sure if it was going to work, but I kept getting better and better.”

THE SEED GROWS

About six months after his last medical incident, Barker got his driver’s license back. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to hold a job with someone else not knowing if his medical issues would return. He had to do something, though.

“So, I threw some tools in the back of my wife’s SUV,” Barker says. “She said no to the dirty tools in the back of her car, so we started looking around for a little trailer to haul my stuff in.”

A few weeks later the couple was buying a plumbing truck and Barker began working with KickCharge — a graphics design firm that helps with logos, websites and more. Bright Side Plumbing launched in late 2020.

While the logos and graphics for the trucks weren’t ready until April 2021, Barker was already off and running to and from jobs by then.

“We were so destroyed from my medical debt that we’re building this company up with nothing but profits,” Barker says. “We’ve been throwing all of our profits back into the business and we’ve just been flying. It’s been crazy.”

In the span of just a year, Barker has gone to two fully branded and stocked trucks, full equipment lineup for plumbing and drain cleaning work, is building up customer reviews, built his own website and continues to add customers.

FULL-SERVICE OPERATION

Barker wasn’t shy about doing as much as he could. While most companies start by doing either plumbing or drain cleaning and ease into the other service, Bright Side Plumbing took off offering both services immediately.

“We started it all right away,” Barker says. “However, I consider draining cleaning typical plumbing work. We have our inspection cameras, locators and drain cleaning equipment.”

The company primarily handles residential service and repair with two service techs and an apprentice, including Barker. They have a 12-foot Ford E350 cutaway box truck and a Ram 1500 to haul all their equipment ranging from utility locators (RIDGID) to sewer inspection cameras (Kyrie Sewer Cameras), Milwaukee Tool power tools and Knipex hand tools, and they’re outfitting another vehicle specifically for drain cleaning only.

“Every power tool I have is Milwaukee Tool,” Barker says. “I’m not trying to be a fanboy about it because I do my research. Whatever tool I think is going to serve me the best, that’s what I’m going to get.”

The company has also taken on trenchless sewer repair and replacement but doesn’t own the equipment. Instead, he rents it out along with a technician that operates the tools. “A while ago I ran into a situation where one day out of the blue, I realized that we had to do a pipe burst on a job,” Barker says.

That same day he got a call from someone selling the pipe bursting equipment, but Barker wasn’t ready to buy yet. He invited the salesperson to the job site to demo it and would consider renting it. It turned out that the salesperson rents himself out and his machine.

“He’s a semi-retired guy and for a great price I have one more laborer and a sewer bursting machine anytime I need it,” Barker says. “So, I’ve been able to spend that money that I would’ve used on buying a pipe bursting system and a new technician on other things.”

ABOVE AND BEYOND

If there were just one thing Barker would be proud of with his company, it would be that he and his crew find ways to go above and beyond with customer service. He believes that is what sets them apart from some of the competition in the area.

“I worked for many of the large companies and they really, quite frankly, changed my life and my career when I look at plumbing,” Barker says.

Barker and the team make it a priority to add as much value to the service as they can for a customer and says it’s something the larger companies can’t match. “We’re doing a lot of things we’re not charging people for,” he says. “We’re looking for opportunities to really take people over the top and really wow them.”

Baker recalled doing a water heater installation job for a customer at the end of the day. He wanted the customer to come down into the basement to see the work the team had completed, but she mentioned she didn’t like going down there.

“It depressed her because it was messy, so instead we took pictures to show her what we were doing,” Barker says. It didn’t stop there. After the job was finished, Barker offered to stay and clean the basement to help her.

“She was stressed about it and we didn’t want to leave her stressed,” he adds. “We wanted to do something to help her, whether it be move some stuff or clean it, or something. Stuff like that I really do enjoy.”

While people are shocked when they hear what Bright Side Plumbing does for its customers, Barker says that is part of how the company got its name. “That’s what we’re here for,” he says. “We’re here to provide an exceptional service and be on the bright side of things.

ACTIVE IN THE INDUSTRY

When it comes to helping the young company grow, one way Barker is making that happen is by being involved in many industry groups. Beyond informal social media groups, Barker is also an active member of the PHCC, the IAPMO and the International Code Council.

“They each have their advantages,” Barker says. “For example, the PHCC has formal training programs, like four-year apprenticeships and they have fast-tracked programs as well where you can get from a beginner to getting trained up quick.”

Not only does each organization offer resources, but they also lobby for the industry, which Barker says is a big draw. “They’re fighting for guys in the trade that aren’t even part of their membership, and I do appreciate that,” he says.

Barker says that by being a part of each organization, it adds a certain amount of credibility to him and his business.

“I love talking about the organizations,” Barker says. “I love talking about them when I’m hiring people and to my customers. For a small company owner, it helps me feel like I’m not on an island.”

BIG PLANS

With a bit over a year under his belt now with Bright Side Plumbing, Barker has some goals in mind for the next several years.

“I worked with a business coach named Tommy Mello who owns a garage door company and has gone national with it, and I like his plan for doing that,” Barker says. “Once he finds a market he wants to try, he hires a service or market manager to be in charge of each location and has just one central call center.”

He hopes to follow that business model as he gets his own company more established, but for right now, he’s enjoying life and growing the company one step at a time.

“Two years ago, I never thought that I was even going to be able to work again, let alone think we were going to have a successful company that would grow this fast,” Barker says.  

For more information on Bright Side Plumbing, visit www.callbrightside.com.



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