Lessons Learned

An experienced plumber and businessman draws on ideas shared by fellow franchisees to grow his business.
Lessons Learned

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Rick Joy has had plenty of time to learn the plumbing business. The 57-year-old owner of Mr. Rooter of Southwest Florida bought his first business at the age of 21 and even then he was an experienced hand at cleaning and repairing drains.

Joy, who was 12 years old when he started helping his father on Saturday calls, was so young when his father started sending him out on his own that he couldn't even drive the service truck. "Just before I got my driver's license, my dad got me a driver to take me around to calls."

Joy's father was a Roto-Rooter franchisee in New Jersey, and when Rick was 21 he bought the Roto-Rooter franchise adjacent to his father's territory. Joy built his business over the course of a decade and was enjoying success when he and his wife decided to make a big move.

New territory

"In 1989, we came down to Florida on vacation and I just decided that I wanted to live here," Joy says. "The kids were young at the time so we thought that if we were going to make the move, it was the right time."

Joy has enjoyed life in Florida, but in recent years his decision to relocate to a booming region has presented him with a host of challenges during the recession and slow economic recovery.

"Construction was going so heavy that you had a lot of plumbers focused on new construction and they didn't focus much on their service-related business." But when the Florida real estate market crashed in 2008, Joy says, "A lot of the large plumbers had no choice but to lay off their plumbers. The people that got laid off and were established here, who had homes here, started their own smaller businesses focused on service. Plus the larger companies also started focusing on the service side."

With that kind of competition, Joy saw his annual sales slide from $1.8 million before the downturn to $1 million after. At the peak, Mr. Rooter of Southwest Florida had 13 trucks and 12 service technicians. By last summer, the company was down to five service technicians and three people in the office, including Rick and his wife, Angie Joy.

"We are rebuilding our customer base the same way I built this business back in 1989," Joy says. "When you offer one-hour emergency service, a one-year guarantee and fair pricing, your business will prosper. It's not rocket science; it's just good business."

Joy pitched in as needed during the downturn, but he gives service manager Dave Sundquist a lot of credit for keeping the franchise on an even keel. He says Sundquist, who has been with the company for 10 years, handles 95 percent of the day-to-day operations and is working his way into an ownership role with the plumbing franchise.

Extra support

Joy also cites the importance of lessons learned while networking with fellow Mr. Rooter franchisees and Mr. Rooter executives in building a strong business. Two of the key business tactics he learned while networking with fellow franchisees are focused on customer satisfaction.

"One of the most important lessons and probably the biggest impact was switching from time and material pricing for service calls to menu pricing," Joy says. "With flat-rate pricing, the business can probably design a little more profit into a job and the customer can feel more comfortable knowing what they are going to pay."

The straight menu pricing for routine service can lead to losses sometimes if complications arise, but Joy says that in the long run the revenues are better and customers are more comfortable with the process.

The second lesson that stuck with Joy is the value of a no exceptions warranty. "We give a one-year warranty on our work, and that includes sewer cleaning, even if a customer declines additional services that might be needed."

With the advent of sewer inspection cameras, Joy says his business, like many others, will visually inspect customers' drain lines after cleaning them. "If the pipe looks great and we did a great job, we'll show the customer. On the other hand, if they have a serious problem like root intrusion, we'll show them that as well and explain how that can lead to further problems."

Joy says his technicians will explain what should be done to repair and eliminate any problems found during the inspection, but it remains the option of the customer whether to pay for further work. He says the difference between Mr. Rooter of Southwest Florida and many other plumbing companies is that the customer will still get a one-year warranty on the drain cleaning and a technician will return and clean their drains for free if they become blocked again.

Many plumbers will not warranty work if a customer declines to repair serious problems, but Joy believes that by continuing to offer a warranty, his company is more likely to get the job when the customer decides to make the repairs.

"If you don't warranty the work, they are likely to call someone else to do the work when their lines are blocked again. But with our warranty, the second opinion doesn't necessarily have to be a second company. Most of the time, the second call to us will result in a decision to do the work we recommended and we get that job instead of a competitor."

In addition to the warranty, Joy says some of the steps he has taken to keep his business profitable include:

More competitive rates on his pricing menu

One-hour emergency response

Answering "our own phones, so you get someone from Mr. Rooter"

Advertising more than ever, if with less return

Although Joy's business started out with a focus on drain cleaning, he says diversification of services has helped the business weather shifts in the economy. While drain cleaning remains the largest category, "We do all types of plumbing repairs such as fixture repair and replacement, toilets, water heaters (tankless and standard) and anything else the customer needs, including water filtration," he says.

Starting over

Although Joy values his relationship with Mr. Rooter today, he wasn't necessarily planning to get back into the drain-cleaning business when he moved more than 20 years ago.

The idea was to take about three months off to consider his options and decide what new venture might be calling. Instead, the three months stretched into a year. During that time, Joy called Roto-Rooter representatives in Florida who had expressed an interest in working with him, but when he later called back, they said they were sorry but they didn't need him any longer.

By then, he says, he had reached the conclusion "that drain cleaning was what I was good at." So he started considering his options and eventually came across a young company named Mr. Rooter and contacted them to inquire about a franchise.

"They flew me out to Waco, Texas, and I met with Dan Dwyer, the patriarch of the Dwyer Group who owned the company." Joy says he was the fourth or fifth person to buy a Mr. Rooter franchise and says the company was just as interested in what he could offer as he was about the support they offered to their franchisees. "In the beginning, there wasn't a lot to show for Mr. Rooter. It was a leap of faith to buy that franchise."

But Joy was impressed with Dwyer and the rest of the company officials. "He knew there was a need for someone with a lot of experience running a draining business."

The company offers training, but Joy says that what the company teaches when it sends its franchisees to training might be 50 percent of what they need to succeed. The rest, he says, comes from networking with other franchisees.

"If you have a franchise system, the freedom of information that is shared is what's really valuable. It's really nice to be able to talk to one of these 285 or so fellow franchisees and get a straight answer. You have a bunch of guys who put a lot of money into a system and a lot of them find different ways to do business better."

Those "different ways," he says, include flat-rate pricing and the iron-clad warranty policy, ideas that helped his franchise weather the financial storm that swept over Florida.


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