California Plumber Finds Both Work-Life Balance and Business Growth

As the adage goes, it’s better to work smarter than harder. Here’s how one business owner increased profits as well as his free time.
California Plumber Finds Both Work-Life Balance and Business Growth
Cary Hansen

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For years, Cary Hansen felt like he owned just a job while running his business, Hansen’s Plumbing & Mechanical in Ventura, California. But fueled by a relentless drive for self-education in the ways of business, Hansen now feels like he truly owns a company — and the distinction between the two has made all the difference in terms of profitability, not to mention job satisfaction.

“When you own a job, you don’t make money unless you’re working,” says Hansen, who established his company in 1987. “But when you own a company, you make money even if you don’t work because you’re delegating responsibilities. You can’t do everything. You have to trust people; let go of the vine, as they say.”

Hansen’s experience is familiar to many drain cleaners and plumbers who strike out on their own, only to discover they’re more skilled at plying their craft than running a profitable business. But Hansen’s journey from tradesman to businessman shows that by making good use of available resources, it’s possible to become skilled at both.

How skilled? Since Hansen took steps in 2005 to make his business more structured and, well, businesslike, he estimates that gross revenues have increased between 800 and 1,000 percent.

“Before, I wasn’t even taking a salary,” he says. “The money came in and I bought what I needed. The materials bills would go up and I’d try to pay them down. There was no structure at all, and work was taking a physical toll, too. Now that the company runs more by itself, I have more free time. I got some balance back in my life that you don’t have when you just own a job. Before, after so many years of doing everything myself, I got stressed out and burned out. But it reinvigorated me to learn how to really run a business — helped me put more passion back into the company. I still go out in the field to support the guys, but now it’s about a 30/70 split between being in the field and in the office. It’s a much better balance for me.”

Here’s how Hansen went about achieving that balance.

Service Nation Alliance provides valuable resources

He started by poring through trade magazines to figure out best business practices and also attended seminars run by business consultants such as Al Levi, the owner of Appleseed Business Inc., and Ellen Rohr, the owner of Bare Bones Biz Inc.

But the real turning point occurred when Hansen started participating in online sessions run by the Service Roundtable. That led him to an affiliated group called Service Nation Alliance, a coalition of select contractors that teaches business planning, operation, finance and marketing skills. It also provides access to a network of contractors who can answer questions about business problems, as well as weekly training webinars, vast website resources and the ability to buy materials at a volume discount from select vendors, Hansen says.

Like anything, however, nothing good comes free; Hansen estimates he initially spent about $15,000 for the Appleseed and Bare Bones seminars and a Service Nation membership, which requires a $10,000 fee, plus $100 a week. But he says the cash outlay, while painful, was a very worthwhile investment.

“I was hesitant at first, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at the results,” he says. “It’s been great. If you run two trucks and want to grow, it can get you over the hump.”

As an example, he points to his company’s website, which was underutilized for years and had become a financial black hole of sorts, consuming cash while providing lackluster results.

But following a recommendation from a Service Nation mentor, Hansen contacted a consultant who redesigned and reconfigured the company’s website.

“It had a definite impact,” Hansen says. “I’d say that once we got our website cleaned up, our service inquiries went up about 20 to 30 percent a week. Before, we probably received about 30 calls a week (from people who found the company online). And now we get about 40 a week. Our average ticket is about $400, so that comes out to several thousand dollars a week more than before. We even got a reduced website hosting rate because of our Service Nation membership.”

Building up employees’ knowledge base

Based on Hansen’s own experience with business education, the company also heavily emphasizes ongoing training and education as one of the core values for employees. New apprentices cross-train with each of the company’s five technicians to get maximum exposure to different ideas and techniques. In addition to hands-on training in the shop and on the road, Hansen is also establishing three half-hour, internet-based training sessions a week for technicians, focusing on job safety, plumbing code updates and trade-related topics, like how to operate a water jetter.

“I’m also looking at training companies that can teach our service technicians how to talk better with customers,” Hansen adds. “Residential jobs are worlds away from working on commercial jobs.”

A well trained team allows Hansen to delegate responsibilities as needed. To ensure employees are motivated to continually develop their knowledge base and skills, Hansen Plumbing offers competitive salaries and benefits and also pays quarterly bonuses to employees who check off enough boxes on a scorecard used to grade their performance. This, too, helps reinforce core values like accountability and can-do attitude.

“Ninety days is a better motivational window than an annual review,” Hansen explains. “It keeps them more focused and more driven. They earn the bonuses if they do really well on revenue, minimize service callbacks and generally support the team and aren’t a headache to manage. If they grade out really well, they can earn a bonus, a raise or even both.”

The cash bonuses range from $150 to $250 and raises vary from 25 cents to $1 an hour.

“It works very well,” he says. “They don’t have to wait a full year for a raise, which minimizes continued requests for raises. We see a lot more positive attitudes and output.”


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