Using Coach Helps Plumber Get His Business Started the Right Way

Working on a business — not in it — makes all the difference for Wisconsin plumber.

Using Coach Helps Plumber Get His Business Started the Right Way

Kegonsa Plumbing owner Lucas Elsing stands in front of one of his service vehicles at his company’s shop in Madison, Wisconsin.

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When master plumber Lucas Elsing formed Kegonsa Plumbing in 2018, he was certain he had the technical skills to succeed.

“I was pretty confident in my abilities,” the 32-year-old entrepreneur says. “I always trusted that if you do quality work, you’ll always have work.”

But as for business moxie? Not so much.

“I have a plumbing background, but not a business background,” he explains. “I knew the industry and the trade, but I didn’t know about the day-to-day inner workings of running a business.”

But like the old adage points out, recognizing there’s a problem is the first step toward solving it. And for Elsing, the solution was hiring a business coach several months after he founded his company, based in Madison, Wisconsin.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I had to find out,” he says, adding that it was difficult to admit he needed help. “You can’t let pride stand in the way of success.”

Elsing worked with ActionCOACH, a consulting firm in Madison. The cost was $800 a month. “I was super nervous writing out that first check, wondering how I could afford to pay it every month,” he recalls. “Now it’s the easiest check I write.”

WORKING ON THE BUSINESS

One of the most important things Elsing learned, he says, was to work on the business, compared to constantly immersing himself in it. Essentially, he stopped behaving like an employee of the company and became a business owner, focused on things like bigger-picture items such as marketing, how to hire employees, setting goals, budgeting and strategically thinking about the company’s direction.

“Some days I still miss working in the field,” he admits. “But I also understand I have different responsibilities. I now have employees with families that depend on the business succeeding.”

Was investing in a business coach a good move? The numbers say yes. When he started out in March 2018, Elsing was working out of his garage as the company’s sole employee. Today the company has hired seven employees, runs four service vehicles and operates out of a leased, roughly 6,000-square-foot shop in a downtown Madison garage.

Furthermore, revenue in 2020 has increased roughly 77% compared to his first year in business two years ago. Kegonsa Plumbing — named after a lake in Stoughton, a town about 20 miles south of Madison where Elsing grew up — focuses primarily on plumbing installations for new construction and remodeling projects.

“When I started out, I was thinking small and envisioning small,” he says. “The coaching helped me realize I was doing that out of fear. But when you run a business the right way, you can start to think bigger. And that’s what I did.”

TRADES FOOTBALLS  FOR FAUCETS

Elsing planned on attending college and playing football after he graduated from high school in 2007. But he instead followed his father’s advice.

“He talked me into becoming a plumber,” Elsing says. “He said it was a great opportunity — a job where you could provide for a family and never be replaced by a robot. Giving up football was hard, but now I don’t regret it at all.”

Elsing started out as an apprentice at a large commercial plumbing company in Madison. After eight years, he decided to go to the other end of the spectrum and work for a small, mom-and-pop shop and do more residential work.

“I wanted to learn as much as I could about the service and remodeling aspects of residential plumbing,” he says. “I worked there for four years and then decided I knew enough that I could start my own company.”

To find customers, Elsing signed up with Angie’s List/Home Advisor. He also reached out to builders he knew and also relied on word-of-mouth references. Later on, he hired a marketing company that designed a company logo.

As a marketing “leave-behind,” Elsing gives customers a general checklist that indicates the state of their plumbing systems, including items that could eventually need attention.

“It’s part of educating customers so there aren’t any hidden surprises coming down the road,” he says. “We want to be top-of-mind if customers ever need something, but the checklist also reduces the chances of someone taking advantage of them because they have this reference in hand.”

CHANGE OF HEART

At first, Elsing decided to work solo because he figured hiring and managing employees would be difficult. But that mindset changed after he joined Business Network International (BNI), a global business-networking organization.

At his first meeting of the Madison BNI chapter, Elsing met Mike McKay, a coach at ActionCOACH. “I told him I’d never have employees, and he never lets me forget that now that we have seven employees and still are growing,” Elsing says.

McKay convinced Elsing that managing employees wouldn’t be a hassle if he created the right business culture and hired the right employees. While that may sound easier said than done, Elsing says he maximizes the odds of finding employees that are a good fit by using a customized set of interview questions.

“You have to ask job candidates questions that give you a chance to see what they’re all about — what gets them up in the morning to go to work,” he says. “After we narrow down a list of job candidates, we send them a DISC profile that they fill out online.”

DISC is a behavior-assessment tool; the acronym stands for four different traits — dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness. The DISC profile can help determine if employees are driven and detail-oriented — two important considerations for plumbing. “There are a lot of details that go into plumbing work for a remodeling job, for instance,” he says.

PROBING QUESTIONS

“If you can hire people who take accountability for their own actions, that’s huge, too,” Elsing adds. “You don’t necessarily find that out through a DISC profile, but you can ask people about how they’ve handled mistakes. If they say someone else caused it, that’s a red flag.”

“Job references will only tell you good things, so you have to find your own ways of getting information — put a little pressure on them during interviews.”

Elsing also likes to give prospective employees skills tests, such as asking a prospective estimator to build an estimate for a new-construction plumbing project, then compare the results to Elsing’s own estimate for the same project. Or give a house plan to a prospective plumber and ask how they’d pipe it out, he says.

“We also might ask them to solder a joint or ask technical questions about how things go together or what they would do under certain circumstance — basically situational plumbing,” he says.

CREATING A QUALITY CULTURE

Of course, having a great corporate culture goes hand in hand with finding good employees. Elsing says that when he finally got serious about hiring employees, he also had to get serious about creating a caring and supportive culture. And it’s not rocket science, either; just create a place where people like to work.

“I knew what I wanted to create — an enjoyable place where you’re appreciated for what you do,” he explains. “At larger companies, you often hear that you’re just a number and can be replaced. But you have to give employees the respect they deserve.

“Employees usually don’t quit over money,” he continues. “They quit because of their bosses. That’s where company culture comes into play. Everyone wants to be treated well and respected.”

One of the best side effects of creating a supportive culture is it makes recruiting employees much easier. Word gets around when a company is a good place to work. As such, Elsing says you know when you’ve successfully created a desirable culture.

“When you don’t need to run ads to find employees because people come to you unsolicited — that’s when you know you’ve done it,” he notes.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

Another key to the company’s success is recognizing business opportunities. For example, about a year ago, Elsing created a separate company called Kegonsa Remodeling and Design.

Why? Too often he’d provide quotes for the plumbing portion of remodeling projects, but clients later would tell him they didn’t hire him because they can’t find an available general contractor to manage the project.

“We were leaving money on the table — losing jobs for things we had no control over,” he explains. “So I saw an easy in to do the whole job and got a general contractor’s license. That way I can connect the dots for customers.”

Now Elsing can provide a quote for an entire remodeling job and hire subcontractors — drywallers, electricians, painters and so forth — to do the nonplumbing work.

“It’s been great,” he says of the venture. “It’s growing just as fast as the plumbing is. People usually call a plumber first because if they’re remodeling a bathroom, they think of plumbing. And a lot of general contractors are too busy to take on more work. So if we can take on that role and simplify it for them, the likelihood of us getting the job is pretty high.”

To better serve its growing customer base, the company’s fleet of equipment also has grown accordingly. Kegonsa Plumbing runs four service vehicles: two 2017 Chevrolet 2500 cut-away box vans with 12-foot-long box bodies made by Unicell Body Company; a 2014 Dodge RAM 2500 that pulls an enclosed 16-foot job site trailer made by Bravo Trailers; and a 2014 Ford Transit Connect that carries a Spartan Service storage system made by Supreme Corp. (a brand owned by Wabash National).

The company also owns a Bobcat E-10 mini-backhoe and a 10,000-pound-capacity dump trailer made by Champion Trailers.

In addition, technicians rely on two Milwaukee Tool M-Spector pipeline-inspection cameras; an electric concrete saw made by Husqvarna; a Bosch jackhammer; a RIDGID pipe-threader; and a Cold-Shot pipe-freezing kit made by General Pipe Cleaners, a division of General Wire Spring Co. Technicians primarily use Milwaukee Tool power tools, he says.

Staying ahead of the curve in terms of technology also is essential for success. New products keep emerging and customers expect contractors to be knowledgeable about them, Elsing says. As examples, he cites toilets with concealed trapways and touchless faucets.

A PLAN FOR GROWTH

Elsing has ambitious plans for further growth. Within the next three to four years, he’d like to hit $10 million in sales and hire upwards of 20 more employees. Part of that revenue increase could come through an acquisition of a trades-oriented company to provide more capability and quality controls and reduce reliance on subcontractors.

“I think it’s important to set goals,” he notes. “It’s good to have something to measure yourself against, as opposed to running around aimlessly.

“I definitely want to grow,” he continues. “And I feel that if I put the right pieces of the puzzle in as we go, that goal is manageable — and very doable.” 



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