Road Ready

With a big territory to cover, Illinois contractor insists staff carry the right equipment and inventory
Road Ready

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Phil McDowell says the most important lesson he has learned as the owner of a growing plumbing business is that the job description is much more expansive than when he was working for someone else.

The owner of Rooter-Man of Southern Illinois says that buying equipment, tracking inventories and outfitting his crews are just a few of the many new tasks he has grown into as his business has evolved. He calls the growing list of duties part of his transition from tradesman to businessman.

“I have to wear all the hats,” McDowell says. “I have to buy the advertising. I have to become a real shopper for things like insurance. You have to be a trainer for the young guys you bring in. It’s a big transition going from working every day outside to being the boss in the office.

“I still get out of the office when I’m needed. My hands stay dirty, but my biggest job is running the business.”

McDowell cites the recent purchase of a truck for his fleet as an example of the kind of decision-making process he has had to learn as a business owner. When he began shopping for a truck to upgrade his fleet last summer, he decided to invest in a 1 1/2-ton chassis rather than the 1-ton truck that is the norm for many contractors.

McDowell’s decision to purchase an International LCF-500 with a 12-foot cab-over box was based on his conclusion that recurring maintenance costs would go down if he invested up front in a vehicle better designed to carry the tools and supplies of the plumbing trade.

McDowell includes himself when he says, “Everybody overloads their trucks. The 1-ton trucks aren’t designed to take the load that tradesmen put in them. We’ve been eating brakes and tires on all of our trucks and I’m sure we’ve been putting extra wear on them.”

With six trucks operating out of two offices serving a territory that covers much of southern Illinois, McDowell says his vehicle maintenance costs are high. He’s willing to invest in the frequent oil changes, fluid checks and mechanical work that extend the life of his vehicles, but he thinks he can save significant money by reducing the wear and tear where the rubber meets the road.

“I’m estimating we will be doing brake jobs every two to three years instead of twice a year,” McDowell says. “I expect two years on a set of tires instead of one year.”

The contractor also expects to save on fuel bills with his newest truck, even though he will be paying a little more at the pump for diesel fuel. So far, he says, the new truck is getting about 10.5 mpg compared to 8.5 or 9 mpg in his smaller gasoline-fueled trucks. That improved efficiency more than makes up for the price difference between gasoline and diesel.

McDowell views his first purchase of a beefier vehicle as an experiment. If he records the kind of savings he expects, he intends to gradually replace his fleet with similar trucks. With two 1-ton box trucks, one 1-ton cutaway service truck and three 1-ton standard vans in the fleet, the savings could prove significant down the road.

Once a truck joins McDowell’s fleet, it gets treated well because he requires his field employees to maintain the company trucks they take home with them at night.

“I tell them to treat them like their own vehicles,” he says.

The plumbers are required to get an oil change every 3,000 miles at garages where lights, hoses, radiators and batteries are also checked. Every field employee is issued a credit card for fuel purchases as well as miscellaneous plumbing parts and supplies when they are in the field. McDowell says they are also told to use the cards to get their trucks washed on a regular basis.

“Every week, the guys are required to check fluids and go over a checklist to make sure their truck is in good shape,” he says. “When I go over their weekly paperwork, I check that list and we make decisions about what our trucks might need. If a guy notes that his brakes are making noise, we’ll decide if we need to get them checked and replaced. If their transmission fluid is low, we need to find out why before it gets to be a problem.”

To encourage his employees to stay on top of vehicle maintenance and cleanliness, McDowell often does spot truck inspections at weekly Monday morning staff meetings and, “Whoever does the best gets a $25 gift card at the end of the month.”

The first time he did a spot inspection, McDowell paid the $25 reward as a surprise.

“I try to impress the importance on them, but the incentives really help,” he says.

One of the key factors in managing the load in any of his trucks, even the new one, is deciding what his crews will carry when they head out in the field. With four trucks devoted to the service side of his business, McDowell says he relies upon personal experience and knowledge of the market to determine how to stock his trucks.

For the sake of efficiency, McDowell wants his employees to have the supplies and equipment they will most likely need to tackle a job without coming back to the office, but those needs have evolved.

For example, he says, his crews no longer carry water heaters with them. He said that with big box home improvement stores offering bargain prices on water heater installation, his demand for water heaters has plummeted. Now, if a customer wants a water heater replaced, McDowell’s employees either go back to the office to get one or head to the nearest supplier.

On the other hand, before they go out on a call, McDowell’s employees are expected to make sure their trucks have the parts and supplies most often needed to make repairs at a customers’ home or business. He says that it would be costly for the company and an inconvenience for the customer if plumbers had to interrupt a job to pick up common faucet parts, toilet parts or plumbing supplies. There are exceptions, however, McDowell says.

“Sometimes you’ll get into a job with oddball requirements and you’re just going to have to go back after getting specialized parts. It doesn’t make sense to carry everything.”

That happens most often when one of his men is called out to an older home with dated hardware or to one of the growing number of high-end custom homes in the market that are equipped with high-end European faucets and fittings.

The 50-year-old McDowell started working with a plumber when he was 15. When he moved from Arizona back to Illinois in the 1990s, he initially worked full-time for a plumbing contractor in the St. Louis area. In 1996, he started his own part-time business, handling sewer and drain cleaning calls in the evenings and on weekends in his rural Illinois community. After working day and night for several years he finally left his job in St. Louis and launched his own full-time business in 2000.

“We specialize in the service end of it – sewer and drain cleaning and plumbing repairs,” McDowell says.

Since he bought his Rooter-Man franchises, he has added construction and remodeling plumbing services and devotes two of his six trucks to that end of the business. He also has a 2,000-gallon tank/pumper truck that his crews can use when servicing lines connected to septic systems.

McDowell says that as an independent contractor, “I was growing a little bit every year, but I reached a point where I hit a plateau in my growth and I started looking into franchises.”

He said he was interested in the networking and business training opportunities a franchise would bring to his business along with name recognition.

After buying his original Rooter-Man franchise in March 2008 and a year later acquiring a share of another territory with two partners, McDowell says his business began to grow again. He purchased the second territory from his partners in February 2010, expanding the reach of his franchise to cover most of southern Illinois. Midway through 2011, McDowell says sales figures showed the business was on track to top $1 million in annual sales.

Since 2008, McDowell has expanded from two full-time service trucks to four service trucks and two construction/remodel trucks as well as the 2,000-gallon septic tank pump truck. From a business that once had two employees, Rooter-Man of Southern Illinois now has a staff of seven full-time employees, including six in the field and one in the office.

The business operates out of two offices, including McDowell’s original shop in Staunton and a smaller two-man shop in the Carbondale area.

McDowell says much of the company’s growth in the past few years has focused on the future. When he first got in the business, he says, his focus was on the day-to-day needs of raising a family. Even as he was stepping out on his own as a contractor, “All I thought about back then was I needed enough to support my family.”

His view evolved as he started getting older.

“I started to think I needed a business that could support my employees and have some value when I get ready to retire,” he says.

McDowell says that building equity was one of the attractions of going the franchise route.

“There’s a value to the business when you decide to retire. It’s more than just the equipment and the inventory.”

He also says that having a “name brand” on his business seems to open doors for him to add commercial accounts.

“We’re starting to get more and more franchises calling us. They look at plumbers and they seem to prefer a franchise.”


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