Are You Geared Up for a Busy Plumbing Year?

With the economy on the upswing and property developers back at work in many regions, here are three simple ways to get ready for a busy year.
Are You Geared Up for a Busy Plumbing Year?
There’s no time like the present to do some forward thinking and set a profitable course for your business.

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Many signs point to a brighter outlook for the U.S. economy this year. The unemployment rate continues to drop. A look back at housing starts for 2014 shows steady growth following the prolonged doldrums after the collapse of 2008-2009. The banking industry is in a more robust position.

As for the new-housing outlook, such a big driver of the plumbing industry, well it looks rosier in many areas. Seeing positive signs, real estate developers are coming back to planners in many counties and towns skirting cities across the country, looking to subdivide and conquer the market. Every time they turn a cornfield into a 50-lot housing development, it means more plumbing jobs.

You want to be in the mix for those jobs. Especially after several lean years where you may have had to let valued employees go, put off equipment upgrades, and spend meager revenues on marketing to capture as many of the dwindling number of new construction jobs as you could.

Are you stressed out?

From my discussions with plumbers and onsite septic installers over the past year, I sensed a trend that reflected both a careful, conservative approach to rebuilding the business and a stress-raising compunction to burn the candle at both ends. I can sum up the installers’ business plan for 2014 in a few words: Do more with less.

I sensed last summer was a lost summer – as far as enjoying time with the family goes – for many plumbers. It was difficult for me to reach many of you to discuss stories in this magazine, and when I received a return call, it was often late in the evening after you put in a dozen or more hours on the job. My observation was that plumbers were busier in 2014 than they’ve been in years, even perhaps going back to record revenue days of the early 2000s.

How do I explain that? After the dark years following the real estate crash, plumbers were hesitant to hire additional crew members as the work came back in incremental waves. Many remembered the worry about making payroll and telling good employees they’d have to look for work elsewhere five years ago. So as the projects started coming back, they made do with a smaller workforce and aging equipment.

Sure, busy is good. But too busy can present some difficult consequences, both personally and professionally. First, I assume if you got married and had children, your intention was to spend quality time with them. Maybe you haven’t had enough family time lately. Secondly, prolonged stress in your job puts your health at risk and you’re no good to anyone if you’re sick or stressed out. And thirdly, if your feet are in a trench all day, you can’t see the big picture the way a business owner must to succeed.

Three things ...

For many of you, things are looking up. And hopefully the entire industry will benefit from an improved economy this year. So to benefit from an advancing market and put your small business in line for success, I offer these three tasks for March:

1. Find out where your market is going

It’s possible your market may not reflect the national trend. You need to be sure any liveliness you perceive in the local economy is sustainable before making big investments in your company. If you survived the down times, you are probably careful not to overextend yourself in the first place. So it’s a good time for researching your territory.

Check in on your local municipal and county planning offices and find out the situation for buildable residential and commercial lots. Ask about supply and demand the planners expect this year and compare the inventory of vacant properties to historic numbers. While you’re talking to local officials, ask about the relative age of most plumbing in the area and potential tightening of regulations that might prompt an uptick in complete replacements.

Talk to area Realtors about the demand for new housing starts compared to the trend in existing home sales. Are there enough available lots to fill existing demand for new houses? Are developers still gun-shy about investing in new projects? Are there pockets of older neighborhoods trending in popularity and signaling a growth in repair and replacement work?

Lastly, take a good look at the employment outlook for your area. If large employers are still having a difficult time, the general recovery that could help your business may be slower in coming. If businesses are hiring, and you often hear about entrepreneurial startups that are doing well, you may have more reason for optimism.

2. Assess your staffing needs

Look back at your experience over the past two to three years. Has your revenue steadily risen – along with the hours you have to put in every day? Are you missing out on more important family events and celebrations, prompting some complaints at home? Is cash flow less of an issue – and you’re not as frantic about making payroll from week to week? If the answer to these questions is “yes,’’ maybe it’s time to look at developing some front-line help.

If you’re not able to support a whole new crew at this time, you might add a new helper-in-training to an existing crew, or a floater who will help out on busy projects and work on equipment maintenance or keeping the shop in order. When new business is just starting to percolate is a good time to slowly work a new person into the mix. Remember, the work you do requires a lot of training and doesn’t lend itself to simply plugging in a new person and expecting a smooth transition.

Is your office running smoothly? Or do you find yourself pushing paperwork for a few hours every evening? In slow times, sometimes a receptionist, bookkeeper or marketing assistant are the first to go. As things pick up, remember the vital tasks these positions perform and get people on board to handle the work. A well-run office will free you up to bid on more jobs, keep up with your continuing education and give priority to business building.

3. Ask yourself where you want to be in five years

An understaffed business with a lack of marketing focus is like a ship without a rudder. If you’re occupied with a shovel all day, you’re not going to take the time to set goals and work toward accomplishing them. And you can bet that if you’re not moving forward to fill growing demand, a competitor is filling the void.

You started a business to build something. Perhaps you wanted to pass a thriving enterprise on to your family. Maybe you wanted to build equity in customer lists and equipment to support your retirement. Many of you just love a challenge to be the best installer you can be. Any way you look at it, treading water is not the answer.

There have been bumps in the road, sure, and some of them you had no control over. There’s no time like the present to do some forward thinking and set a profitable course for your business.


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