Plumbing Company Learns to Prosper Through Tough Times

Arizona plumbing company takes its tumbles but comes back stronger with a big commitment to customers

Plumbing Company Learns to Prosper Through Tough Times

E.J. Knowles adjusts the temperature control in a shower at a residential job in Phoenix.

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Audrey Monell took over the family plumbing business and began her executive career by managing a crisis: The economy in 2008.

“It wasn’t a great time,” Monell says. “We were hit pretty hard. Sometimes it was scary.”

Monell was taking over Phoenix-based Forrest Anderson Plumbing and Air Conditioning from her father, who took it over from his father who founded the company in Indiana.

The construction industry was slammed throughout the U.S. in 2008, including in Phoenix, so homeowner and general contractor calls for trade services like plumbing slacked off severely. “We did small jobs,” Monell says. “If there was a big job, no problem, we took it on.”

The size of the company shrank as some employees moved to other states to find work: The workforce ultimately being halved to 17. Monell looks back with pride on the fact that the reduction in employee staffing was all voluntary. “We were able to make it through without laying off a single person. No matter what, our guys went home with their paychecks. We all banded together. It was very inspirational.”

Today, Forrest Anderson has grown back to 27 employees with annual revenue in the range of $5 million. Monell says she took away valuable lessons from the harrowing business experience. “I learned how important relationships really are in business. Not the dollars and cents of it, though that’s important, but the ongoing connection with subcontractors. Everybody worked together. We have a better understanding of how much we rely on our employees.”

BACK TO THE BEGINNING

After World War II, the company’s namesake Forrest Anderson returned home to Rockport, Indiana — an Ohio River town about 1 1/2 hours west of Louisville, Kentucky — where in 1948, he and wife, Delores Anderson, founded their plumbing, heating and air conditioning firm. Like many other Midwestern “snowbirds,” the Andersons sometimes winter-vacationed in Phoenix.

After one such visit, Delores told her husband she wanted to live there. So, in 1961, the plumbing, heating and air conditioning firm relocated — symbolically leaving the “heating” part of the company name in Indiana. The firm prospered and eventually was handed to Don Hensley, Forrest’s stepson and Monell’s father.

Consequently, Monell grew up around the business, sweeping floors and performing other custodial jobs as a child and preteen. She eventually helped out with bookkeeping and, as a teenager, began to accompany crews on service calls and to work sites. After high school graduation, she went to Texas Tech University on rodeo and academic scholarships. When the family business harkened, Monell transferred to Arizona State University to earn a degree in economics.

“The year before I graduated, I decided I wanted to go into the family business,” she says, a decision the family had encouraged. Upon graduation, she began to work with her parents at the shop and, a year later, became chief executive. “My dad called everyone together and announced our vision for the company and that I would be taking over as president.”

Eleven years later, Monell was asked if she still believes joining the family business was a good decision. “Oh, yes. Not many people get to grow up in a business and have the chance to run it,” she says. “We have people who have worked here for 20 years or more and taught me everything. Now they encourage me to lead them. It’s been a great transition.”

Unacknowledged here so far is the salient fact that Monell is a female leading a company in a traditionally male industry. That she is succeeding is evident in assorted awards presented to her in the last couple of years, including being named one of the Most Influential Women in Arizona Business. She also is president of the Phoenix Chapter of Executive Women International.

It hasn’t always been easy.

“One of our guys quit when it was announced that I would be president of the company,” she says. “Too bad. He didn’t know me very well. He just declared he wouldn’t ever work for a woman. I’ve encountered that kind of attitude. I’ve not been taken seriously sometimes because I am a woman.” She adds that, notwithstanding the one disgruntled employee’s reaction, she has received “great support” from company employees.

Her position atop the company was “a very big deal to me at the very beginning,” says the 36-year-old executive. “There still is a pride factor in that I get to do something in business that other girls can look up to me for doing. But as far as the day to day, it’s not that big of a deal anymore.”

ADAPTING TO THE ENVIRONMENT

The mix and scale of services provided by Forrest Anderson has changed year to year during her tenure. The customer base has changed somewhat, too, according to Monell, with increasing focus now on 24- to 39-year-old residential customers — millennials — and heavy commercial clients.

Business volume is pretty evenly split between service calls and new construction. In the latter, plumbing dominates the work over HVAC mechanical jobs. As for service calls, some 60% of them in 2019 were for plumbing, which is not typical for Phoenix, where triple-digit temperatures are recorded more than a hundred times a year and air conditioning work is a given.

“It was a weird summer this year. It didn’t get really hot so often, so we weren’t as busy as usual,” Monell says.

The company offers a full lineup of services for both residential and commercial customers — cooling, heating and plumbing services for each, plus backflow device maintenance for businesses. Monell says the commercial side of the ledger is growing.

“The work used to be a lot heavier on the residential side than on the commercial, but a couple of years ago, I hired a new service manager with a lot more background serving commercial clients,” she says. “Since then, commercial volume has grown about 15%.”

THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT

To respond to its calls, Forrest Anderson runs 16 vans, box trucks and pickups.

The company’s maintenance agreement for central heat and air systems features spring and fall inspections of equipment and 15% discounts. The agreements are offered as Comfort Club memberships and predated Monell taking over. She says she is trying to grow the number of members.

“Unfortunately, most customers don’t take advantage of the agreement,” Monell says. “I’m trying to get the techs to talk to customers about it a lot more, rather than just fixing a problem in a home or business and leaving. It’s all about educating the customer.”

In this era of heightened environmental concern, the company website places some emphasis on conserving water and reducing electrical consumption. Low-flow fixtures and air conditioner maintenance are stressed as conservation solutions.

“There was a recent report about the No. 1 concern of rural Arizonans being water conservation,” Monell notes. “People are more conscious of the need for it.”

Two years ago, the company invested in a CCTV system to inspect pipes. One employee was given the job of videotaping, a service previously subbed out. “If a customer has multiple stoppages in a drainline, chances are they have a broken line or something. That means we’ll just keep coming out and clearing it. With the camera, we show a customer exactly what the problem is so it can be corrected. Video inspections have helped our customer relations.” 

The RIDGID SeeSnake rM200 camera is one diagnostic tool the company uses to visualize pipe problems. Another is a portable Power Smoker 2 liquid smoke tester (Hurco Technologies). When a stoppage is evident in a small-diameter line, a Forrest Anderson crew member can grab a Super-Vee Drill Snake (General Pipe Cleaners/General Wire Spring) and ream out the blockage. When a larger blockage turns up, a Spartan Tool jetter is called on to clear the way.

A DEPENDABLE CREW

Among the company’s employees are some old hands who, as in any organization, are people with institutional memory and valuable experience. For example, E.J. Knowles has worked at the firm for 27 of the 58 years it’s operated in Phoenix. Monell can also tap the knowledge of Dennis Correll, director of the Metro Phoenix Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors Association, who is also a childhood friend of her father.

Such veteran resources are reassuring to any executive these days because the employee situation remains worrisome. Keeping a full complement of technicians employed is a problem for all construction trade leaders as newer generations of Americans continue to spurn blue-collar careers. Monell characterizes staying fully staffed as a “major struggle.”

Various advertising venues have been tried to fill positions, with mixed success. Monell says the company has also tried to hire graduates of Phoenix trade schools. But the company finds itself competing for the graduates with much larger companies, some of which have offered $5,000 sign-on bonuses.

“It’s a little hard for a company the size of mine to compete,” Monell says.

TOTAL CUSTOMER RESPECT

Her grandparents started the company with core beliefs that continue to direct it. The rules are to treat employees and customers right, do only the best work and always do the right thing. How that plays out is encapsulated in a recent episode Monell talks about.

“On a service call, we didn’t communicate as clearly as we should have and disappointed a customer,” Monell says. “The next morning when I found out about it, I immediately refunded the diagnostic service charge and called up the customer. She had already written a scathing review online. I told her she was right. It’s on us. We hadn’t done what we said we were going to do, and I offered to have us come out and do the right job.”

The apology and rescinding of the fee quickly turned things around. “An hour later, she updated the review, and now she loves us,” Monell says. She concisely summarizes the matter this way: “People don’t like to give their money to people they don’t like.”

So, the company moves ahead on the strength of its policies of total customer respect and performing the best quality of work it can muster. The formula has been successful for 71 years. Looking ahead, two questions remain: Can the success be sustained for another seven decades, and will a fourth generation of the family lead the effort?

Monell believes the company will continue to serve customers for years to come, but says she has no idea if her 7-year-old daughter, Ava, will want to follow in her footsteps. A recent incident at home suggests Ava just might be interested. “She was playing in her room and I heard her pretending to run a company,” Monell says. “That was a proud mom moment.”


A developed service model

Forrest Anderson Plumbing and Air Conditioning has what it calls a four-point service model. The Phoenix company came up with it many years ago, and Audrey Monell, the company’s president, acknowledges it is “kind of what you would expect a service company to provide a customer.”

Even so, it concisely states a positive approach to working with customers. The service model uses four words to express the tenets of comprehensive service: understand, discuss, solve and deliver.

Basically, an ideal service sequence involves quickly identifying and understanding a problem, discussing it with a customer until all options for resolving the issue are clear, carefully explaining a proposed remedy so there are no surprises, and then delivering a promised resolution of the problem along with a report on the work done.

The goal, according to the company website, is to “provide a consistent, high-quality experience each and every time.” To that end, the service model is regularly revisited in Monday morning training sessions for Forrest Anderson technicians.

“The guys are given talking points and then asked to develop their own style for talking with a customer. Whatever works for them,” Monell says. “We don’t want them to sound like salesmen.”

But she does want each tech to be able to clearly convey to customers just what they will be doing with their tools and the benefits that will come from doing it. It probably comes as no surprise that she has learned not all techs are created equally as communicators.

“Some can do it better than others,” Monell says. “Valued employees of ours who have been here a long time sometimes have a hard time expressing themselves. Then there are those who can talk your ear off.”



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