Sucess Plan: Full-Service Plumbing Company Makes a Killing

Mr. Rooter of the Hudson Valley focuses on staff and equipment to build a backbone for good business.
Sucess Plan: Full-Service Plumbing Company Makes a Killing

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Clint Kershaw faces some unique operational challenges in his region. His Mr. Rooter franchise covers six counties along New York's historic Hudson River, where many of his customers are rural homeowners.

"We are a drain cleaning company by name," he says, "But in reality we are a full-service plumbing company. We have 12 highly skilled plumbers."

From day to day, much of his staff's time is spent helping property owners clear, repair or replace their wastewater lines, but Kershaw says he needs technicians who can handle far more than that to meet the demands of Mr. Rooter of the Hudson Valley's customers.

Kershaw's technicians cover a 90-mile stretch of the Hudson Valley, starting about 30 miles north of Manhattan. The franchise has just one office in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., but the technicians live throughout the company's territory and take their trucks home with them, so one is readily available when a customer calls with an emergency.

Mr. Rooter of the Hudson Valley can handle blocked sewer lines with everything from jetting and rodding equipment to complete pipe lining and pipe bursting services. Its technicians also work on fixtures, water supply lines, water heaters and more. For customers with septic systems that have failed, the company even offers excavation and installation of new onsite treatment systems.

"We do all of that and any of that," Kershaw says. "We work on everything from the water meter or the pump through the house and outside to the sewer or the septic system. One of the challenges in my business is finding people who have all the necessary skills, plus the customer service skills to do all of that."

The right people

Kershaw says he sets high standards for the 25 employees on his payroll. For technicians, he seeks experienced plumbers who know all of the basics of the trade and demonstrate the capability to learn the necessary skills to provide the full line of services offered by his company.

The franchise advertises in local newspapers and online when it needs a new employee, and Kershaw says he will often keep ads running even when he is full-staffed because he will occasionally find someone who would make an ideal addition to his team.

Kershaw's favorite candidates are plumbers who have had their own business in the past. "From their point of view, they know they can often make better money and get rid of a lot of headaches," Kershaw says. "And for me, they already know the importance of good customer service on the job.

"My most impressive staff member is John Gorman. He won Technician of the Year in 2011 out of all of the technicians in the Mr. Rooter system. He was in business for himself before he came to us. His people skills and plumbing experience are stellar but he was not very good at running his own business. The Mr. Rooter system allows John to run his own business within my business. He is one of my top technicians year after year."

Kershaw's field employees – the 12 plumbers, an excavator operator, pumper truck operator and his assistant – are supervised by service manager Drew Colwell.

"He is relatively new to me and fitting in well," Kershaw says. "His demeanor is calm which is a necessity in this job. With 15 technicians working, and all of the customers they service, things can get hectic, but Drew remains calm and collected.

"My office is run by Brian George. He came from a fuel oil service company and started as a customer service representative. He is attending school full time and running my office. He has become my right-hand person remembering all of the details I seem to forget."

Despite the breadth of services he offers, Kershaw says the plumbers he hires generally don't need much training. "Most of them are rounding second base and they know almost everything they need to do the job," he says.

After receiving basic training on the company's equipment and learning Mr. Rooter of the Hudson Valley's policies and procedures, most of the new plumbers are soon able to go into the field with their company truck and begin handling calls.

"If they run into something they can't handle, we don't call them in," Kershaw says. "We'll have them stay on the job so they can learn from the technician we send out to help them. That way they can learn how to handle it on their own next time."

Kershaw says whether employees work in the field or in the office, he wants them to be able to learn all of the skills that will make them stand out on the job.

"We know that most people aren't going to stay with us forever, but even with our office workers we want them to learn the skills not only to do their job right, but to help them move on if they want to."

Although his technicians are scattered over a broad territory, Kershaw brings them into the office once a week for a group meeting to go over any issues that might require training or a new approach.

Clean trucks and good equipment

Mr. Rooter of the Hudson Valley technicians are expected to keep their company trucks stocked and ready to handle just about any plumbing problem they encounter on the initial visit to a customer's home or business.

Kershaw is just as particular in choosing equipment for his crew as he is in the hiring process. "When I started in this business I chose one make and model of each piece of equipment that I was going to use. Every plumbing shop I went into had broken equipment lying all over the place. I picked each tool/product, learned how to service it, stocked the parts I needed, and we are able to take care of most repairs ourselves through proper training, keeping costs down and getting equipment back into service as fast as possible."

The plumbing technicians are equipped with Ford E350 Super Duty Extended Vans. "As far as trucks go," Kershaw says, "I have always been a Ford guy. We drive every van to 200,000 miles before considering getting rid of them. They last and most repairs can be performed by my local mechanic."

When a job calls for digging, Kershaw turns to his Caterpillar 357B and Bobcat 335 mini excavator. The Caterpillar includes backhoe, bucket, forklift and trencher attachments, and can tackle a wide range of jobs. The Bobcat has allowed him to expand the scope of his operation.

Kershaw equips his plumbers with Scooter Video Inspection systems to get a good look at the inside of a pipe before determining what repairs are necessary. If they find obstructions, his crews have access to a collection of jetters, including four Spartan electric jetters, two Harben trailer jetters and a Spartan Warrior Hydro-Jet trailer jetter. Each of the trucks is equipped with Spartan Drain Cable machines.

Kershaw says he likes the Spartan Tool equipment because they offer the best service. "We have a rep who visits frequently, providing repairs and parts."

Mr. Rooter of Hudson Valley's plumbers also have access to a TRIC Tools pipe bursting system and a Perma-Liner pipelining system when they have to deal with a damaged sewer line.

For his company's septic system work, Kershaw has a 2,000-gallon pumper on a Freightliner chassis and a 4,000-gallon pumper on a Kenworth chassis.

Handling ups and downs

Although he offers a full range of services, Kershaw has avoided new construction "because of the thin margins and the roller coaster market. Service is always needed, it doesn't matter what the economy is doing; things still break and have to be fixed.

"Every business has its up and downs," he says. "We weathered the recession and have come out stronger on the other side. Sales are up every year and we are able to grow again. I never would have made it through the recession without the support of Mr. Rooter corporate. Their support is worth every penny I spend in royalties."

Kershaw says he likes to be able to network with his fellow franchisees, which is a big help when he faces a new or difficult problem. "I never have to figure out what to do. I just call a few other fellow franchisees and ask what they did when it happened to them."

To market Mr. Rooter of the Hudson Valley, Kershaw relies upon traditional means such as the Yellow Pages and other media, but his staff also maintains a Facebook site where they tout not only the services of Mr. Rooter, but helpful entries about a wide array of topics. "It's not about plumbing all the time," he says. "We try to keep it interesting."

But Kershaw's favorite way of building business for the past 16 years has been by referrals. "We call all of our customers the day after we see them to say thank you and to see if there are any issues that need to be resolved. We try to keep it short and sweet and at the end, we say, 'If you know of anyone who needs a good plumber, please ask them to give us a call.'"

Even though his office staff makes that plug, Kershaw is most interested in assuring that his customers are happy. "We know that 76 percent of our business is repeat business," he says. "If I didn't have that repeat business level when the economy went down in 2008, then I'd be out of business."

Kershaw says that although his growth has been rapid, from two technicians when he started his franchise 16 years ago to 15 technicians today, he has kept it on a steady pace of 20 to 30 percent per year.

"Growth will kill you if it goes too fast," he says. "You can only buy so many trucks and so much equipment at one time and stay on track."


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