Cleaning Contractor Builds Reputation On Bringing Value To Clients

Baltimore Mr. Rooter franchisee uses accounting savvy and marketing smarts to build his business and keep customers happy.
Cleaning Contractor Builds Reputation On Bringing Value To Clients
Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Greater Baltimore apprentice Kevin Dolan, owner Jamie Smith and excavation team leader George Murray (operating excavator) excavate a residential lateral line that has been damaged by roots.

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Jamie Smith brought an unusual background to his Mr. Rooter franchise in Baltimore.

His license is in accounting, not the pipe trades. And the business is actually Smith’s second career – or maybe even third, depending on how you count it.

The 45-year-old isn’t a plumber by training and didn’t come from a family steeped in the trade – although he later found out he was following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather.

“My mother does love that now with my college education, I’ve gone into plumbing like her father did,” he says with a laugh.

Now in his fifth year as president and general manager of Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Greater Baltimore, Smith has learned the nuts and bolts of his business on the job – and by making sure he’s got a good team of skilled tradespeople. At the same time, his accounting training and the business experience from his previous work has given him a powerful advantage in running his franchise.

And it’s not just about the numbers – although that aspect of his background has been important. From his original accounting career to his position today as the owner of a plumbing company, customer service has always been Smith’s North Star.

He makes it part of his business to visit customers in person. “People are always surprised when the owner shows up at a job,” Smith says. “I love doing it because I love to meet customers.”

From D.C. suburbs to Annapolis

Mr. Rooter of Greater Baltimore largely focuses on the Baltimore metro area, serving customers to the south of the city into Howard and Montgomery counties of Maryland, including the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. It also covers communities in northern Baltimore County and reaches as far as Annapolis, Maryland’s state capital and home to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Smith runs the business out of a single office, just off of Interstate 95 on the south edge of the city. “We like to stay close to the I-95 corridor,” he says. “We can easily reach by highway everything we need.”

They reach their jobs in one of five service trucks. Four are Chevy Savana box trucks; the fifth is a new Nissan NV High Roof vehicle. His business also has an excavation crew, a US Jetting trailer jetter, and new Spartan 200 sewer cameras. Techs in the field all use iPads that are linked to the cameras. The operation employs TRIC trenchless equipment and is in the process of adding Perma-Liner equipment as well.

From accounting to plumbing

Smith grew up in the D.C. metro area and migrated to Baltimore when he transferred to Towson University after two years at a community college. At Towson, “somehow I slipped into accounting,” Smith says. “It wasn’t a dream of mine or anything like that. I just saw that I could do it – it made sense to me.”

When he took his first accounting course, he didn’t even know that the certified public accountant credential existed. By the end of his senior year he was at the top of his accounting class and graduated with honors.

He began his career at a regional accounting firm that had carved out a specialized niche. “Their focus wasn’t just on keeping the books and doing the taxes,” says Smith. The firm served its clients as an all-around business consultant. “We had a strong belief that we had to bring value to a client,” he says.

That was a lesson he would take to heart.

After making partner, a restless Smith moved to a larger commercial real estate management company but knew he ultimately wanted to be his own boss. He bought and renovated apartment buildings as a side project and by the early 2000s decided to manage them full time. In 2006, he sold most of the units and cut back for a couple years, moving to Florida. Semiretirement soon bored him so much he took a part-time job and pondered his next move.

The market for new construction was dead, but Smith realized that “everyone needs emergency plumbing.” Although he wasn’t a plumber, his years as a CPA and experience in property management had taught him what it took to make a business work. They also had given him the keys to excellent customer service – and he could see things from the customer’s point of view.

“I’d had all the service people in my house,” he recalls. “I’d had them put their tools on my chair” – much to his displeasure. “I had to tell them how to treat my house.”

That intuition and the idea of being able to run a business centered on it inspired him. “I saw this vision of being able to build something that I would love to do every day.”

“A great fit”

Smith decided working with a service plumbing franchise would be his best route. His search led him to Mr. Rooter Plumbing. “I felt a great fit with them,” he says.

With every call, the goal is to not just meet the expectations of the customer but also to exceed them. “They’re going to get a good experience,” he says. “They called us because they had a plumbing emergency. But when we leave, they’ll be glad they called Mr. Rooter.”

Smith also knew he would have to team up with an experienced plumber for the necessary technical expertise, and he knew someone who could fill that role.

From the ground up

With no recent Mr. Rooter franchise in Baltimore, Smith built his operation from the ground up. To get a head start, he rounded up phone numbers that were still assigned to three plumbing businesses that had closed. When a customer of one of the defunct firms – or people who stumbled across their old advertisements – dialed one of those numbers, his phone would ring.

His master plumber focused on basic skills while hiring technicians, and Smith dug for their customer service aptitude. “I need to see how they’re thinking and what they’re doing,” he says. “I want to see how they interact with me and get a feel for what their customer service would be like.”

Smith’s financial background had taught him to look well beyond just the top line. “Everyone wants to grow revenue,” he points out. “But if the rest is a mess, it isn’t going to work.”

Managing a crisis

Two years in, crisis hit when it became clear that Smith’s original master plumber wasn’t working out. He had to sever the relationship.

“The next day I was suddenly running to jobs myself,” he says. “I realized I needed to get more acclimated to the field. Suddenly my anxiety hit – I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t going to work.’”

He got lucky, though. That same week, another Mr. Rooter franchisee – Stephen O’Donnell, from Rhode Island – was coming down to coach Smith’s master plumber on becoming more effective on the job. Instead, he wound up having to reassure Smith.

“He sat me down and said, ‘You can do this. You can make this happen – you have the drive and you have the vision,’” Smith says. “He stayed around for the week and helped me interview people. He saved my life that week.”

Smith also credits Mr. Rooter’s president, Mary Kennedy Thompson, with helping him through the ordeal. “Every Friday morning I had a phone call with her for an hour. She’s crazy busy – she’s got franchises all over North America. But she took an hour every week, and she never missed a call.”

Smith soon found a new master plumber who had exactly the right experience – working for a D.C. plumbing company that had been around for decades, serving politicians and other high-level people.

“He understood how you need to present yourself to customers, and that you need to pay attention to what the customer is saying and asking so that we meet their needs every time and develop a relationship with them,” he says.

Five years of growth

In the five years since he opened the franchise, the operation has grown. In the process it’s added new services and new internal programs, such as an orientation program for new employees. Franchise owners in the Mr. Rooter system are independent, making their own business decisions, but within guidelines set by Mr. Rooter. “I fully believe in the brand and the message,” Smith says.

He draws on his analytical skills and accounting principles to quickly size up booking rates, closing rates, the average time spent, costs incurred and revenue and profit margins on the job.

“I know I need to make sure I have good numbers, and when I look into them, I know what they mean,” he says. “Everyone seems to think it’s evil if you run a business by the numbers. The problem is, if you don’t, you won’t have a business.”

His background also prepared him to communicate in plain language with customers. “I had to explain all kinds of complicated tax things to customers for years,” he says. “Now I’m explaining complicated plumbing items they don’t understand, and translating it into something they can understand. Customers appreciate the time spent talking about what we’re doing.”

Talking to customers

It’s a task that the gregarious Smith enjoys. “Day to day, I love talking to customers,” he says. “I love it when they call in. I love when we get feedback from them.” And that’s true even when the news isn’t so good. “We’re not perfect all the time – we drop the ball sometimes,” he acknowledges. “But I want to hear it and make it right with the customer.”

More than ever, he’s come to appreciate “the power of gratitude,” he says – a lesson he credits to his business coach. It’s important to focus on existing customers “and make sure you’re marketing to them and showing them that we really do care about the experience that they have with us.”

Back in his accounting days, the firm he worked for had built a reputation that drew customers. “We were always on the forefront,” he says. Other firms “were always trying to catch up with us.”

He takes a similar approach with the Mr. Rooter business: embracing technologies such as various approaches to trenchless and zero-dig repair and replacement projects. Recently his crew took on a major sewer line replacement project underneath a manufacturing plant – doing it all on weekends so the factory didn’t lose a day of production.

“Customers like that have been our biggest cheerleaders,” Smith says. “We’re the go-to guys when people have difficult issues to deal with. And my whole team here is learning these methods.”


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