Service is Sutherland’s Selling Point

Oregon plumbing contractor embraces competition and lets his work sell itself.
Service is Sutherland’s Selling Point
Ti Sutherland with wife Katrina, eldest daughter Presley, middle daughter Mackenzie, baby Makena and Sutherland Plumbing crew members John Benton and Sean Anderson.

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Ti Sutherland grew up in the construction trades. 

“From as far back as I can remember, I was swinging hammers at nails,” says Sutherland, owner of Sutherland Plumbing in Aloha, Oregon, just outside Portland. “I grew up around plumbers, electricians … every trade imaginable.”

It’s not surprising then that Sutherland parlayed that experience into a successful career in the plumbing industry, most recently starting his own business in 2013. His firm is the culmination of all his life’s experiences. And he’s still only 40 years old.

The West Coast native has worked in plumbing since he started with his father’s plumbing company in Florida when he was just 17. Even though Sutherland felt he knew everything about the business, his father pushed him to get his license. “That’s one of the best things I ever did,” he says.

While plumbing appeared to be his path, over time Sutherland tired of doing things someone else’s way. “When you’re in the business for a long time, you start to want to do different things,” he says. To pursue his own ideas and projects, a few years ago he opened Sutherland Plumbing — a three-person shop.

Having worked for other people, Sutherland says the ideas he brought to the table focused mainly on customer service. “I know that might come off cliché,” he admits. “Every company I’ve ever worked for boasts customer service … but I started to get the feeling that the customer service part was mostly smoke and mirrors. They would talk about it, but when it came down to it … it was the dollar, the profitability. That would win over customer service.

“When I went into business for myself, it became more real to me. I really am passionate about delivering goods and services to people that makes them raving fans. Sometimes that means taking the shirt off my back metaphorically. I wanted to first and foremost do anything and everything needed to make that client absolutely thrilled that they had experienced Sutherland Plumbing. The bottom line? The profitability takes care of itself.”

Sutherland Plumbing serves three counties in the busy Portland metropolitan area; about 95 percent of its business is residential, with a bit of light commercial thrown in. “I like the residential because the vast majority of the time, you’re working with the principal owner,” Sutherland says, noting that while people say there’s more money in commercial work, the profit margins are tighter.

“My favorite by far is residential,” he adds. It allows him to be a troubleshooter for customers and offer them options.

His business focuses on repairing, servicing and replacing water heaters and servicing problems with drains, toilets, sinks, pipes and garbage disposals. It’s a focus he was well familiar with, and has helped him be successful — especially when it comes to getting return customers and good word-of-mouth marketing.

Sutherland serves his clients with two trucks — a 2013 Ford Econoline 440 with 16-foot box, and a 2014 Dodge Cummins pickup with a 12-foot box. The boxes are what Sutherland calls his “warehouse on wheels.” For drain cleaning equipment, Sutherland is devoted to Gorlitz Sewer & Drain products. “I’ve tried other brands, but I’ve always used (Gorlitz); I know how to use them, and I know how to fix them.” He’s also partial to Milwaukee cordless tools — “They seem to be the most durable and have the most runtimes”— and Knipex, a German brand of hand tools.

Maintaining a Manageable Size
Sutherland Plumbing may be a small player in a vast market, but Sutherland is happy keeping his business at a manageable size. “It’s my vision and my strong belief that I will always want to be a small business,” says Sutherland, whose wife, Katrina, homeschools their three children and does all the paperwork for the company.

Ideally, Sutherland says, he’d like to have three full-time plumbers on the road and one apprentice. While he is trying to hire another plumber, he notes, “It’s very hard to find a qualified plumber in my area because of how busy it is out here.” As a small-business owner, Sutherland says he finds it hard to compete with larger companies offering sign-on bonuses and more benefits.

Sutherland believes that even though other companies can offer more in the way of dollars, he believes that employees also want to feel good about their work and enjoy it.

“Regardless of what you’re doing for a vocation, although the money is appealing, really what it comes down to is it’s not really about the money. I know this to be true from a humanitarian standpoint. I believe that’s where I compete.”

For now, Sutherland says, a slow day is rare. And business is so steady that he’s often booking appointments three days out — and he says his competitors are doing the same thing due to “sheer demand.”

He admits, however, that he’s been in business long enough to know that “the economic pendulum is always swinging. I’ve seen it swing both ways.”

Maintaining good relationships with competitors is one way to stay flush with work and successful in business, he believes.

“For the most part, I choose to be friends or make healthy relationships with other plumbing contractors,” he says. “When times do get tight or dry up, we all have to circle the wagons. We’re not enemies.

“All of us know there’s strength in numbers. It’s not any different with plumbers and plumbing companies.”

Sutherland says there are three or four businesses that are probably his closest competitors. “All of us are priced very similar,” he says. “We’re competing on customer service, not on price or how we do the job.”

And because Sutherland doesn’t take bigger jobs requiring cameras or jetters, he partners with a competitor, either subcontracting or handing off the job to someone who does that type of work. “I trust him and he trusts me. I call it old-fashioned handshake business. You have to have ethics and morals to work that way.”

And Sutherland is happy with that arrangement, having no interest in going into the mainline business. “When you’re talking about mainline stoppages and rain drains, those lend themselves to an entirely different scope of work,” he says, adding that it would be a huge investment to go into that segment of the business.

Marketing the Business
Sutherland knows his strength — plumbing — and works with others to round out his business. He has a part-time IT employee who helps with his website and maintaining a blog.

“I have to hire people to do what they’re good at that I’m not good at,” he says. “If I’m doing what I’m good at, the plumbing company will grow.”

Right now, aside from personal referrals, which make up a third to half of his work, Sutherland gets about 15 percent of his work directly from his website, including scheduling a lot of appointments from people he’s never spoken to (via text, email, Angie’s List, Yelp! or one of the other online resources he uses). He relies on online reviews to direct potential customers. “Your online presence now is often tied to some kind of review,” he recognizes.

But once the work comes through, Sutherland realizes it’s all up to him to seal the deal and make that customer a satisfied one.

Sutherland feels his day-to-day interaction is especially ideal for him because of his people skills. “One of the skills I’ve always possessed was generating genuine relationships with clients in relatively short order,” he says.

But while his interpersonal skills may be well-honed, don’t call him a good salesman; that makes him cringe. He thinks that term has a negative connotation.

“When someone invites you out to their house, they already have a problem, they’re expecting to pay you; you don’t really have to sell them anything.

“My kind of business is the service world. The plumbing is easy. I just like meeting people and giving them the facts and letting them decide.” 


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