Boosting the Bottom Line

Professionalism in all business phases gives Bonney Plumbing an edge
Boosting the Bottom Line
Candace and Mark Bonney of Bonney Plumbing in Sacramento, Calif., hold their weekly staff meeting.

Interested in Plumbing?

Get Plumbing articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Plumbing + Get Alerts

An old adage says you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Mark and Candace Bonney, the co-owners of Bonney Plumbing, Heating, Air & Rooter Service in Sacramento, Calif., concur, which is why the company’s service technicians blow away conventional plumber stereotypes.

Bonney technicians stand out like bright chrome wheels on a rusty car. For starters, they’re clean-shaven and well groomed, wear shoe covers and sport crisp, freshly laundered uniforms, complete with name patches and a company logo. They drive newer, spotless trucks, and never park them in a customer’s driveway unless they first get permission.

And less visible but equally important, the technicians are knowledgeable, well-trained professionals – and standup guys who pass background checks and drug tests, say the Bonneys, who co-own the business with Skylight Capital, an equity firm.

“We’re kind of an anomaly,” Mark says. “Our plumbers are truly professionals who drive beautiful warehouses on wheels. They’re the kind of guys you want to come in your home when your wife is at home by herself – outstanding individuals with integrity.

“They look good, smell good and carry extra uniforms in their trucks in case the one they’re wearing gets dirty … and they leave a job site cleaner than they found it,” he adds. “It all portrays value to the customer. Most people expect someone gruff and smelly. Our guys are a lot more personable and they present well.”


Profiting from professionalism

Aside from impressing customers, the Bonneys are quick to point out that the emphasis on professionalism yields another important benefit: It helps boost the company’s bottom line.

“Having professional employees allows you to charge accordingly for your services,” Mark says. “Value is a comparison of what you pay versus what you receive. And by doing little things like being on time, parking trucks straight instead of up on a curb, knocking on doors instead of ringing doorbells and wearing shoe covers, it adds value to the job – and pricing is less of a problem.”

The company’s approach has been successful. Since 1996, when Candace joined the company full time, Bonney Plumbing has grown from a small shop with five or six employees to a full-service company with more than 50 employees and dozens of service vehicles. In addition, it enjoyed about a ten-fold increase in annual gross revenue during that time, up to $12 million a year, Candace says.

Mark says the company also emphasizes to technicians the value of active listening and speaking intelligently.

“If they listen to all the customers’ clues and their body language, you’ll be surprised at how many calls you can close,” Mark notes. “It’s all about listening and presenting options.”


Deep plumbing roots

Such heady success was hard to envision when Mark first broke into the industry almost 40 years ago as a sophomore in high school, working part-time for a mom-and-pop plumbing outfit in Redding. Impressed with his mechanical aptitude, his boss and mentor, Al Wallner, soon asked him to grow a mustache so he’d look older, and make service calls.

“I liked the freedom of having a job where you didn’t know exactly what you’d be doing all day,” he says. “Every call was different.”

After striking out on his own to install plumbing in new houses, Mark returned to Wallner Plumbing to help his mentor start a new-construction plumbing division.

In 1981, Mark earned a contractor’s license and continued to install plumbing in houses in large subdivisions under the auspices of RM Bonney Plumbing. But he soon realized he was in over his head.

“I think every plumber thinks he should be his own boss – that there’s some glamour in calling your own shots, plus imagining all the money you’ll make,” he notes. “But while you might be an awesome technician, you’re doomed to failure if you have no background in running a business or in finances.

“As a subcontractor, I found I was only as good as my last cheap bid,” he continues. “Then you realize you don’t own a business – you own a job. I was in that category for a while … you think that if you under-price the competition, you’ll get the job and make money on the volume of work you get. But the reality is that when cash flow stops, you’re left with nothing. It took me 10 years to figure that out.”

Mark and Candace got married in 1990, and shortly thereafter, decided to change the company’s direction. They moved out of new construction and into service and repair work. Candace, who has a master’s degree in finance, helped Mark run the company on a part-time basis for five years, then finally quit her job as a senior manager for a governmental consulting company around 1996 and joined Bonney Plumbing full time.

In 2006, the company’s success caught the eye of Skylight Capital, which now owns 85 percent of the company.


Diversification keyed growth

Diversified services were critical to the company’s growth. In 1999, the company formed a sewer division and embraced an emerging technology: trenchless pipe repair. At the time, the Bonneys were motivated by the fact that home insurance companies would pay the cost of replacing sewer laterals infiltrated by tree roots.

“We really went after that business,” Candace says. “Then it became less lucrative as insurance companies limited what they would reimburse. Eventually the insurance money dried up completely … but at that point, we were expert drain cleaners.

“It was a great business for us,” she continues. “You almost always got the business because no one wants to call around for bids (for an emergency drain line blockage). It was an add-on business with a high, high closing rate and excellent profit margins.”

Later, the company diversified further, entering the heating and air-conditioning fields. Providing more services requires more equipment, and Bonney Plumbing has grown significantly in that department, too. Along with trenchless equipment from TRIC Tools Inc., Bonney Plumbing owns more than four-dozen service vehicles, including almost two-dozen Chevrolet W3500 and W4500 cabover trucks, most equipped with Hackney cube bodies. The company also owns a Takeuchi excavator, eight trailers and a Spartan 798 waterjetter, made by Spartan Tool LLC.

Each drain cleaning truck carries $15,000 worth of parts inventory. That improves productivity because the technicians can spend more time on jobs and less time driving to and from a supply house, Mark says.

Each truck also carries a GO 68 cable drain cleaning machine and a GO 380 for smaller drains, both made by Gorlitz Sewer & Drain Inc.; a 1065 drain cleaning machine, made by Spartan Tool LLC; and either a Vivax pipeline camera inspection system, manufactured by Vivax-Metrotech Corp., or a Gen-Eye 3 inspection camera, made by General Pipe Cleaners (a division of General Wire Spring Co.).

In addition, the company keeps about $500,000 worth of parts on hand in a warehouse. Whenever a technician uses a part, he writes it down on an inventory replenishment sheet. Every night, the technicians fax those sheets from their homes to the warehouse manager, using company-issued fax machines. Then the manager fulfills those orders, and on Mondays and Wednesdays, each technician goes to a bin with his name on it and picks up the parts to restock.

“Having that kind of inventory on hand helps with two things,” Mark explains. “We get better pricing with volume buying, and our guys don’t waste time waiting in line at a supply house.”


Embracing new technology

Mark firmly believes in keeping up with the latest technology to improve productivity and boost profitability. For example, he’s currently considering investing in lateral relining systems.

“We continue to train our employees and make them aware of new technologies out there,” Mark says. “If you get complacent and rest on your reputation, you wake up with a new competitor in town that’s taking your work away.”

With that in mind, the company committed to buying a pipeline video-inspection system for each truck.

“I know some companies that rotate one camera from truck to truck, but that creates mayhem,” he says. “We issue a camera to each technician. That way, if you go on a sewer line job and have a camera, you can ask if the customer wants a recording – and you can do it right then.

“If you tell a customer they have to wait until you can come back tomorrow with a camera, they might not say yes,” he adds. “The inspection systems also give us the means to email a video clip of a pipeline inspection to a customer if they can’t be at home when we’re there for an inspection.

“The more efficient you are, the more profitable you’ll be,” he continues. “New technology can make you more cost-effective as well … allow you to come in with a lower price.”

As an example, he points to trenchless technology. While the initial equipment outlay was expensive, it reduced costs by eliminating expenses such as excavating and relandscaping.


Plans for future growth

The Bonneys are optimistic about the company’s future, even as the economy continues to struggle. They plan to grow the company either organically or through acquisitions that expand its geographic territory.

The company took the first step toward that goal in June 2011 by purchasing a plumbing, heating and air-conditioning company in Vacaville.

“Our goal for the next three years is acquiring two more locations – one in Marin (County) and another in the East Bay area (of San Francisco),” Mark says. “We also want to achieve $25 million in gross sales.”

No matter where the company expands, though, one thing is certain: Polite, well-groomed, uniformed technicians in spotless trucks will knock on customers’ doors, making a good first impression.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.