Continuing Education: On-the-Job Training Breeds Savvy Workers

Constant learning helps a North Carolina franchisee run a profitable business and develop highly capable field technicians.
Continuing Education: On-the-Job Training Breeds Savvy Workers
Plumbers Steve Glenn (left), Chris Lyon (center) and Rick Brown use a Harben trailer-mounted waterjetter to clean a sewer main. (Photography by Tracey Washburn)

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Think of Steve Harmon as MacGyver with a drain-cleaning machine instead of, say, a paper clip and duct tape. Like MacGyver, the TV secret agent and troubleshooter, Harmon thrives on a challenge – jobs that stump others or that they won’t even tackle.

He credits great mentors and ongoing education for giving him the skills and confidence to handle those jobs. “I don’t like the jobs that are cut-and-dried,” says Harmon, owner of Harmon Plumbing Services, which does business as a Rooter-Man (A Corp) franchise in Raleigh, N.C.

“I like the ones that force me to use everything I’ve learned. You should never stop learning. If you do, there’s something wrong. I know guys who are 65 and 70 years old who still take classes.”

The right mentors

Harmon started his professional education around 1983, when his future father-in-law, a master plumber, suggested he give plumbing a try. Harmon was 21 at the time, and growing weary of traveling as a heavy-equipment operator in the road-building industry.

Although he loved operating heavy equipment, he traded bulldozers for cable machines and started helping on side jobs. Then he got a job with the Suggs Plumbing & Heating Co. in Raleigh-Durham. There, owner Russell Suggs took Harmon under his wing and instilled his deep commitment to career education and development.

“Russell took me by the hand and taught me everything,” Harmon recalls. “He wanted his employees to know every facet and every detail of what we did and why we did it. He was a walking wealth of knowledge. I didn’t realize until later how fortunate I was to start at a place like that. The pay wasn’t much, but the education was priceless.”

Harmon next honed his troubleshooting skills at a larger local plumbing company, Brown Brothers Plumbing and Heating, which offered more diversified services. Soon he was going out to jobsites haunted by bad sewer odors and mysterious water leaks that other companies failed to resolve.

He also received more mentoring from the owner, the late Norman Whitaker, who was active in numerous plumbing professional organizations and served as president of the North Carolina Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors.

Taking the big step

“We would walk into situations where others would say it wasn’t worth the trouble to find out what’s wrong,” Harmon notes. “But I loved it, and that carries through even to today. I gained quite a bit of experience there, thanks to Norman, who was a great teacher and mentor.”

Finally, equipped with a master plumber’s license, Harmon struck out on his own in 1989. “I wanted to make more money and create my own destiny, instead of having it controlled by someone else,” he says.

“I left the company at noon and literally started my own company at 1 p.m. with just a 1985 Chevrolet Astro van and a limited amount of drain-cleaning equipment.” He had bought his own tools while working for Brown Brothers.

At first, Harmon promoted his business through the Yellow Pages, along with doorknob hangers he distributed in neighborhoods. He also bought into direct-mail coupon packs, sponsored Little League teams and even did a little advertising on a local real estate TV channel that showed houses for sale.

“But our best marketing tool is repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals, which generate up to 85 percent of our business,” Harmon says. “People hire you because they feel comfortable with you.”

Equipped for the job

The worst thing about starting out was fear of the unknown. “A lot of people start businesses without the education they need, and I put myself in that category,” Harmon says. “You spend a lot of your time wearing a dozen different hats when you’re starting out. If you don’t have education at the start, you’d better develop it quick.”

Harmon started out doing mostly residential and light-commercial repairs and drain cleaning. Today, his business is about 60 percent residential 40 percent commercial. The first major piece of equipment he bought was a RIDGID K-1500B sectional drain machine, which he still uses. The company’s equipment also includes:

  • A 4016E trailer waterjetter from Harben Inc.
  • A RIDGID SeeSnake camera system with a utility locator.
  • Two RIDGID K-60 sectional drain cleaners for up to 6-inch lines.
  • A GO68 drum machine for larger lines from Gorlitz Sewer & Drain.
  • A Gorlitz GO50 for medium-sized drains.
  • A Gorlitz GO15 for small drains.
  • Two Super-Vee handheld drain cleaners from General Pipe Cleaners.

The company also relies on a 1998 Chevrolet quarter-ton service truck and two 1999 tandem-axle Ford step vans, both government surplus vehicles Harmon outfitted for plumbing and drain cleaning. The firm uses GPS technology that allows dispatchers to track service vehicles.

Taking time to learn

Harmon learned a lot from an accountant he hired in 1994. And he enriches his experience by reading contractor magazines and attending the seminars advertised on their pages. He trained himself through seminars by Maurice Maio and flat-rate pricing pioneer Frank Blau.

“One of the most important things I ever learned was that for every dollar of debt you have, you’d better have one in the bank or one in receivables, or better,” Harmon says. “Managing cash flow is your lifeblood to staying in business. How well you manage that will dictate your entire career. You’ll have not only peace of mind, but you can forecast cash flow. It’s a great management tool. It gives you the means to buy new equipment when you need it and get a loan when you need it.”

One Blau seminar about how to find a break-even point and what to charge served as an epiphany. Harmon saw that he, like many business owners, had no clear idea what it cost to operate and so no idea where to set his rates to make a healthy profit.

“That sparked something in me,” Harmon says. “Blau explained that if you’re not ashamed of the trade, then don’t be ashamed to charge properly for your services. Don’t call six other companies and find out what they charge and go from there. You need to figure out the proper charge for your company.”

Each seminar Harmon attended led him to other worthwhile educators. He also became a member of professional associations, such as the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. “Their seminars are absolutely worth the cost,” he says.

Focus on training

Harmon’s deep belief in education shows in his employee training program. Harmon pays if employees join apprenticeship programs at local community colleges. He also provides on-the-job training – “those things you don’t necessarily learn in a book.” In the end, training creates loyal employees who appreciate that someone invests in them.

“Training is not a huge cost for us; we build it into the overhead,” Harmon says. “It more than pays off. When our technicians talk to customers, they know how to talk, are confident in their decisions, and are better plumbers and drain cleaners for it. It’s better than throwing them out on the seat of their pants.”

To reward apprenticeship graduates, Harmon and other area plumbers and drain cleaners pitch in money for a dinner and donate power tools to get them started. “It’s a form of giving back,” he says. “You can’t just take, take, take from the trade that got you where you’re at. I had the opportunity, so I want to pass it along to others.”


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