Family Legacy Endures

A commitment to customer service and state-of-the-art equipment helps Syracuse cleaning business reach 125th anniversary.
Family Legacy Endures
Mike Reeves (left) and Rick Cashman use a Gen II Wireless US Jetting high-velocity trailer jetter to clean out a residential sewer lateral in East Syracuse.

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In 1888, a young Mr. Bauer couldn’t have predicted his newly established plumbing company would survive for five generations. Now 125 years later, Bauer Plumbing – Roto-Rooter in Syracuse, N.Y. – has stood the test of time, emerging as the number one emergency plumbing service provider in Onondaga County and the oldest Roto-Rooter franchise in the nation.

The original company offered a variety of services to local neighborhoods, including plumbing, steam fitting, pumps, sinks and tin roofing. Over time, the company’s focus turned to plumbing for residential and commercial customers in a broader territory. The company is now under the leadership of the fourth generation, Christine Bauer-Armstrong and her husband, Mark Armstrong.

In 1937, Christine’s father, Donald, and his father traveled to Rochester to see a newly introduced piece of equipment called the Roto-Rooter, which was made with a washing machine motor that turned a basket with a cable in it. They also learned about a new franchise available in the Syracuse area and thought it was the next great thing to secure the future of the business. With the purchase of the franchise, Bauer Plumbing could expand its offerings to do more drain and sewer line cleaning.

“Previously, pipes had to be removed and the ground was dug by hand,” says Mark Armstrong, president. “The drain cleaning equipment changed everything and opened up a new area for the company to take care of customers who didn’t want the hassle of waiting to take out a pipe, dig it up or replace something in the house.”

Franchise benefits

Armstrong says the Roto-Rooter equipment is just one of the benefits of owning a franchise. Branding and name recognition give the company an edge over the competition, he says.

“Roto-Rooter is known worldwide, and even young people know the jingle, which I remember hearing growing up,” Armstrong says. “The popularity of the company pleasing customers worldwide is a benefit. When people move from coast to coast, they know the brand from another place and know it has a great reputation. The Roto-Rooter name is a huge asset to our family.”

Bauer Plumbing is Roto-Rooter’s oldest franchise, having stayed within the family for 76 years. Despite having the Roto-Rooter name behind it, Armstrong knows the company can’t rest on its laurels. Strong customer service is still important to growing the business.

“If the customers’ needs aren’t being met, there would be no company for us,” Armstrong says. “We are proud of how long we’ve been affiliated with Roto-Rooter and our family business, but we know we can’t rely on the name.”

Family succession

After finishing college in the mid-1980s, Donald’s youngest daughter, Christine, helped fill a temporary position in the office. Around that same time, Christine’s husband, Mark, was asked to join the company to provide the expertise he gained while working on historical rebuilds and new construction. Before then, Christine had never intended to go into the family business. 

“When we first started, we weren’t looking down the road expecting to be there a long time,” Armstrong says. “We evolved into it. We worked hard and tried to make the business a better place for all the employees and customers we served. That’s what we’re still doing today.”

Mark and Christine now serve as president and vice president of Bauer Plumbing. Their children, the fifth generation, have been getting involved in the company. Son Brandon, 23, who is attending law school at Syracuse University, started working in the garage and cleaning the workshop when he was a teen, eventually going on jobs with service technicians. Now he contributes to business development, helping with the company’s Facebook page and internet advertising when he isn’t in school. In their free time, daughters Ashleigh, 20, a college student, and Aryanna, 15, a high school student, help in the office by dispatching technicians, handling purchase orders and billing.

At this point, it’s uncertain whether the next generation will continue in the family business, and Christine and Mark choose not to pressure them into it.

“I think the kids like it. They grew up with it and enjoy the atmosphere,” Armstrong says. “But we told them to get an education first and find out what they’re going to do. We don’t push this place to them. They all come in and do their part, but we don’t know where it will end up. Who knows what the future holds for them and our company?”

At the ready

Although the company installed more new construction plumbing in its earlier years, Armstrong saw a greater need for emergency service in the area, and today they focus on 24/7 emergency plumbing repairs and drain and sewer cleaning.

“When people want something done now, the timeframe doesn’t matter,” Armstrong says. “It isn’t 9 to 5. The world we live in is more immediate, more ‘right here and now.’ They don’t feel like waiting and will call three competitors to see who gets there first. We need to respond quickly and be the leader, so we make sure we aren’t busy doing other things and can strictly focus on emergency service.”

Although emergency service makes scheduling staff difficult, Armstrong says employees are never standing around for long. During downtime, the staff cleans and maintains equipment and vehicles.

The company currently has five Chevy 1/4-ton service vans and a Chevy 1/2-ton pick-up. Each service van has a Roto-Rooter 9000 drain cleaner (for 3-inch up to 10-inch pipes at 250 feet) and a Roto-Rooter 5000 drain cleaner (for 1 1/4- up to 4-inch pipes at 100 feet), as well as five RIDGID KJ1750 water jetters. The company also has two RIDGID 100-foot SeeSnake video inspection systems, one 200-foot SeeSnake, and several RIDGID NaviTrack Scout line locators. For bigger projects, technicians use a US Jetting trailer-mounted water jetter with a 300-gallon tank that provides 18 gpm at 4000 psi.

“Customers can’t wait because every call is an emergency. We need the equipment to do the work or we could lose it to the competition,” Armstrong says.

Two more 300 gpm trailer-mounted water jetters are also being added to the fleet. Although Armstrong considered a larger-capacity jetter, the higher pressure units available today make it easier to complete a job with less water.

“The 300-gallon trailer unit won’t put too much wear and tear on the vans,” Armstrong says. “We drag it around in the winter and there are many hills in this area, so we don’t want to put more stress on the service vans. We get outstanding pressure with less water volume, but I stay away from anything under 18 gallons per minute. I’m a fan of using more water.”

The company is also looking to build future business by getting back into excavating and adding a vacuum truck to its fleet.

Recession recovery

The company posted a consistently strong performance over the last several decades, but it took a hard hit in 2009 due to the recession, with a 20 percent profit loss. Customers – both commercial and residential – held off longer on plumbing and drain fixes, or attempted to do the work themselves. Plus, when the housing market abruptly stopped, tradesmen, especially those trained in heating and AC, flooded the plumbing market. Suddenly, there were more people doing plumbing work but fewer jobs available.

Despite the hard times, the company didn’t lay off any workers and has been able to build profits back to its pre-recession levels. Over the last four years, the company saw slow and steady growth due to partnerships, consistent quality and strong advertising.

Roto-Rooter has built relationships with property management companies that serve the maintenance needs for retail properties such as restaurant chains, stores and malls. Armstrong seeks out property managers to become their plumber of choice for servicing a variety of locations.

After a long history of quality work, many area plumbers also call on the company to subcontract their sewer, drain and pipeline cleaning, even though they may be considered competitors.

“The area plumbers trust us and know who we are, so they may refer us to their customers, and they know we won’t attempt to take their customers,” Armstrong says.

Building relationships

A clean image gives potential customers peace of mind, which helps build loyalty. Roto-Rooter has a strict policy that all technicians be in blue uniforms and have clean white vans.

“If the person knocking at the door is in a ripped T-shirt and dirty jeans, a customer may be worried about the job getting done,” Armstrong says. “They want to know he’s from a reputable company that they can call back if there is a problem. The look is as important as the knowledge.”

Many of the service technicians at Roto-Rooter have been with the company for five to seven years, so they have built trusting relationships with customers, sometimes being requested by name. Building long-term relationships is at the core of the company’s customer service philosophy.

“The way we look at it, we’re not just here to do the work today. We want to build a relationship so customers have the same service technician year after year,” Armstrong says. “Customers can be comfortable with that person in their home. Depending on the emergency, they might be willing to wait because they want that technician,” Armstrong says. “I really like that.”

Aggressive advertising has helped the company stay top of mind, even during slow periods. The company has advertised on radio, billboards, television, magazines, newspapers, the Internet and phone books, often using high-value coupons to attract customers.

“We are getting a lot of new business. We do mass mailings to send information and coupons to touch everyone so they know who we are,” Armstrong says. “With our 24/7 availability, we know they may not need us right now, but we want to make sure they know who we are when a problem comes up. If they’ve heard of us and know we’ve been here forever, they remember us and give us a call.”


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