Teaching, Adding Services Build Up Arizona Plumbing Firm

Arizona plumbing company keeps growing by exploring new opportunities and teaching the next generation

Teaching, Adding Services Build Up Arizona Plumbing Firm

Mike Brewer, CEO of Brewer Cos., has grown his Arizona company to 400 employees and four divisions. He is pictured here with one of the company vans.

Like most successful business entrepreneurs, Mike Brewer sort of made it up as he went along, sometimes quoting Aristotle of all people: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Brewer knew he wanted to work outside of an office — unlike his father in technology marketing, for instance. So, after taking a week off following high school graduation, Brewer went to work full time at Canyon State Plumbing, a company owned by a neighbor. “My father spent all day, every day in the office. He liked the office,” Brewer says. “I didn’t want that kind of career. I like the outdoors.”

As frequently happens when tradespeople experience success, however, Brewer worked himself into an office job. The 60-year-old businessman is now CEO of Brewer Cos., a four-division business unit offering commercial and residential plumbing work, plumbing repair services and a full-fledged training program for novice plumbers.

The Phoenix high school kid who was eager to get his hands dirty in a blue-collar job has become the largest single-family residential plumbing contractor in Arizona.

GOING WITH A FRANCHISE

The first dozen years of Brewer’s plumbing career were spent learning the trade as a Canyon State employee. The long-term plan was for Brewer and his neighbor’s son to take over the neighbor’s company together. When the owner’s son lost interest, Brewer began to be groomed by the owner to solely take the reins.

During the dozen years he worked at Canyon State, Brewer honed his plumbing skills. As he and the owner began to plan the transition, he enrolled as a night student for a couple of semesters in Paradise Valley Community College to “formalize” his understanding of managing books. Finally, he became the business owner in 1990.

“Four of us were working at the company on a Friday. When I took over the following Monday, it was myself and one other guy, working four days a week,” he says. Just like that, Canyon State Plumbing became Brewer Enterprises Inc.

Changes followed. The young residential plumbing company — with the heritage of an older one — got a new telephone number. With the number came a listing in the Yellow Pages of the Phoenix directory. Homeowners needing a plumber looked in the Yellow Pages and began to call. This wasn’t part of Brewer’s business plan, which was plumbing new tract homes — not fixing sinks. 

“We’d get calls saying, ‘I’ve got a problem with my toilet’ or some other challenge in the home, and our receptionist would have to tell them we did strictly new-construction plumbing,” Brewer says. “Well, it was a small office, and I’d overhear these calls. More and more of the calls came so we began to talk about the possibility of offering plumbing services.”

Enter Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, a Houston-based residential repair and maintenance franchise founded in 2001. Brewer had been on his own for 13 years when he learned of the Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchising opportunity. Over the course of a few months, he became convinced it was a means for Brewer Enterprises to get into plumbing services.

“I’m glad I decided to become a Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchise owner,” he says. He was especially glad five years after signing on: Being a plumbing services provider may have saved the overall enterprise after a major recession hit the construction industry.

“In the crash in 2008, new construction went completely away from us,” Brewer says. “The beauty of being a franchised services provider is that there is work for us regardless of the economy. Toilets still need to flush and leaking pipes still need to be fixed. So, even in that downturn, I was able to continue growing the company.”

The CEO is not satisfied today with the size of the plumbing-services piece of his business. “It is my fault. I haven’t focused enough on it with my team,” he says. “We’re in the process of reviewing our structure internally and spending more time looking at the Ben Franklin business to determine if we have the right pieces in place to grow it.”

Benjamin Franklin Plumbing bills itself as “The Punctual Plumber” and offers a customer $5 for every minute a service person arrives late, up to $300. Brewer was asked if the company pays many customers. “Not much,” he says. Should one plumber or another regularly incur late-arrival fees, he says the plumber might not be fired, but “we definitely will be in a discussion.” 

Brewer Cos. established the 42nd of what’s now more than 250 Benjamin Franklin Plumbing territories in the country. Brewer says that network of plumbing franchise owners itself is an intangible benefit to his company. “You buy that network when you buy a franchise,” Brewer says. “We all are doing the same things fundamentally, following the franchise process. If I have a problem, someone else somewhere in the network has had that problem and we can learn from them.”

TAKING ON MORE SERVICES

Brewer Cos. got into commercial plumbing in 2007 almost as fortuitously. A friend of Brewer’s, Tim Snyder, approached him with the opportunity. Snyder was in the hydrojetting business and had talked to a regional restaurant chain about contracting with Snyder to keep restaurant drains open. Turns out chain management was only interested in working with a company doing both plumbing and drain cleaning.

So, Snyder and Brewer combined their expertise. Today, they are partners in Brewer Commercial Services. The division does hydrojetting on commercial and institutional properties and undertakes service, repair or replacement of water, drainage and sewer lines. They also perform light commercial plumbing on new construction and existing properties.

The footprint of the different companies under the Brewer umbrella varies. Commercial work is contracted statewide, though most is in the valley. Benjamin Franklin Plumbing services are performed entirely in the Phoenix metro area. New residential plumbing work is undertaken in Phoenix and Tucson, as well as the region between the two metropolitan areas. Some 7,000 new residential units are expected to be plumbed by the company in 2020.

Overall, Brewer characterizes work as “pretty steady.” Before COVID-19 disrupted everything, the new-construction market — by far the biggest component of Brewer Cos. — “felt like it was in full swing,” the CEO says, but he believes Benjamin Franklin Plumbing services are the company’s “biggest opportunity for growth.”

In an unusual twist, all excavation work needed by the organization’s 300-plus plumbers working across three plumbing divisions is outsourced. That is, the heavy equipment and operators needed almost daily are subcontracted. “We thought we would stay in our niche,” Brewer explains. “Let others handle upkeep of the machinery and find operators.”

For the same reason, Brewer Cos. has chosen to leanly operate its service vehicles. It doesn’t own a fleet of vans and other trucks, nor does it have a large maintenance facility to keep the trucks on the road. Instead, Enterprise Fleet Management provides the vehicles and maintains them. “We are sort of unique. We don’t want to incur all those costs,” Brewer says. “The Enterprise leases include maintenance, sometimes even on site — and we stay focused on what we are good at.”

On the other hand, company techs do have access in-house to RODDIE pipe bursting machinery, called on several times a month. Company techs are cross-trained to use the trenchless equipment. The company’s hydro jetters are US Jetting 4000-18 units and a Spartan Tool 777. For initial and post-work pipe inspections, the techs use six large RIDGID (3 to 10-inch) cameras and have more than 40 small (2 to 4-inch) RIDGID cameras in their service vans.

DEVELOPING THE NEXT GENERATION

The fourth division of Brewer Cos. isn’t a moneymaker per se. Brewer Craftsman Academy was opened 18 months ago to develop a new generation of men and women residential plumbers in Arizona. It is considered a strategic investment to ensure quality plumbing work is provided by his company for years to come.

The academy was a response to a worrisome labor issue. Like elsewhere in the country, critical plumbing and other construction industries are having a difficult time maintaining their workforces. Emerging generations are not drawn to trade work like they are to software and other high-tech workplaces, thereby creating a chronic shortage.

“The trades as a whole are the backbone of this country,” Brewer says with conviction. He sees the diminishing “transfer of knowledge” from older generations to a new workforce as consequential. “We have to escalate that transfer of knowledge, not just in the classroom, but also with the new generation talking to people who have done the work for 20 years.”

His commitment to that exchange is evident in his chairmanship of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce’s initiative to develop a construction trade workforce — Build Your Future Arizona. The group is raising $3 million for a three-year marketing campaign to get the word out to young people about of how much money can be made in and how much satisfaction derived from trade work. So far, $2.2 million has been raised.

Dovetailing with the chamber initiative is Brewer’s academy, which is entirely funded by the company. “Graduates of the academy’s fast-track education will earn $40,000-$50,000 upon graduation, and by year three, they can be earning $70,000-$100,000 a year — and without a nickel’s worth of debt. Our best plumber made more than $120,000 last year,” the academy founder says. “Yet young people don’t know the trade exists, don’t know how to apply and don’t know how much they can earn.”

Brewer says he is a big supporter of post-high school education in general but is concerned that college costs are out of control. “The difference with trade education is that you are getting paid to learn, instead of paying to learn.”

The academy course runs 24 weeks and, so far, has trained 142 men and women. In July, the academy was set to open another round of teaching — with a class half the size of normal because of COVID-19 spacing requirements in classrooms. Though the company struggled to attract the first class of students, more than 100 young people applied for the 18 seats in the latest class. Retention rates for students have increased as the program has progressed, with administrators getting better at culling applicants and systematically strengthening the curriculum.

Upon graduation, the apprentices work on Brewer Enterprises’ residential job sites in two-person teams with a mentor coach “to make sure they are successful,” Brewer says. Despite their training being paid for entirely by the company, graduating class members don’t have to work for a Brewer division. A few, in fact, have gone to work elsewhere.

Brewer believes the academy best serves a new generation of plumbers. “We have shown that substantially more class time is experienced in our 24-week academy and 18-week post-academy mentoring than an apprentice will get in years of taking night classes in a union shop or graduating from a for-profit training program,” Brewer says. “We get trainees up to speed quickly, and that appeals to young people.”

His contribution to the teaching comes in the first week of classes when he shows up and shares his Horatio Alger story of moving from plumbing apprentice to CEO. He shares his own work experience as a teenager, scooping horse manure and throwing newspapers on a delivery route before becoming an apprentice.

In the last week of classes, Brewer returns for a general discussion with the trainees. He gives them practical tips about how to succeed in the trades, such as counseling them about cellphone use. “I tell them, ‘Leave it in the truck. It’s a distraction that eats up time.’” He also gives counsel on managing their money. “These young people are about to earn ‘real’ money, and most don’t have any experience in managing finances of this sort,” Brewer says. “We have that kind of conversation. Many have never before had that kind of conversation with a mentor.”

It’s called a voice of experience. “I know those things are true because I was just like them,” Brewer says. “These young people and I didn’t have the luxury of sitting in an air conditioned classroom with a job waiting when beginning in the trade.”



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