At The Mr. Rooter Plumbing Of Sonoma County, Work Is A Family Affair

For some employees at Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Sonoma County, work literally is a relative situation.
At The Mr. Rooter Plumbing Of Sonoma County, Work Is A Family Affair
The staff at Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa includes (from left) co-owner Saunda Kitchen, Michael Morales, Tony Morales, Cari Smith, Josh Suarez, Liz Yanez and Luana Ako.

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Many small plumbing and drain cleaning companies strive to create a family atmosphere where employees are treated, well, like family. But Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, Calif., takes this concept to a whole different level: The family-owned company’s 28 employees include three fathers and their sons.

“I would think it’s not very common,” says Saunda Kitchen, who owns the local franchise with her ex-husband, Paul Kitchen. “Most small businesses have some sort of family help along the way, but not at the scale that we have it. We attend Mr. Rooter Plumbing conventions and we’ve never encountered anyone with this many father-son teams.”

Creating a family-like culture is a good strategy for any business interested in attracting and retaining employees. But at Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Sonoma County, building such a culture, where employees feel comfortable enough to encourage their children to work in the same place, also helps the Kitchens surmount a growing and vexing problem facing many industries nationwide: a shortage of skilled-trade workers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States currently needs 21 percent more plumbing technicians ­– a total of more than 100,000 skilled workers. Among the estimated 500,000 plumbers in the United States alone, demand is expected to rise 10 percent by 2016. But at the same time, more than one-third of all plumbers – or approximately 167,000 workers – are expected to leave the labor pool.

The problem is especially acute in Sonoma County, where the unemployment rate is only 5 percent, Kitchen says.

“Everyone who wants to work is working,” notes Kitchen, a former manager of an organic brewery; Paul used to be a construction worker. “We want low turnover and want to hire right the first time … building a family culture definitely has had a positive impact.”

How positive? The company was named Mr. Rooter Plumbing’s top franchise in 2006; has been a nationwide top-10 franchise for the last eight years; and was the sales-revenue leader for the last six years among franchises in territories with a population less than 500,000 people. In addition, for the last six years, a local business publication that does an annual workplace survey named the franchise the best company to work for in a three-county area.

In keeping with the family concept, all the Kitchens’ children have worked for the company since the couple bought the franchise in 1999. Their oldest daughter, Kirsten, 22, currently is the social media manager; the other children – Ashley, 20, Chase, 15, Grace, 13 and Ella, 9 – all work or have worked for the company in various age-appropriate capacities, she says.

“We’ve always run the business from a family perspective,” Kitchen explains. “Our philosophy is that even though children have more opportunities than we had when we were younger, they still have to earn them – starting at the basic level, like taking trash out at the shop.

“We also believe in being servant leaders … if we take care of our employees, then they’ll take good care of our customers,” she adds. “We just want to create a company where we’d want to work ourselves.”

All in the family

The father-son development occurred organically, not by design. Around 2008, Tony Morales, the company’s director of operations, asked if his 16-year-old son, Michael, could work part time for the franchise to obtain some experience. The Kitchens agreed. But when Michael turned 19, he decided to pursue a trade instead of attending college and was hired as a permanent employee in 2011. He’s now a service technician.

In due course, the company also hired Gerardo Suarez (now an underground division technician), the son of Norberto Suarez, the company’s underground division foreman; and Joey McDaniel (now a technician), the son of Carl McDaniel, a senior field manager.

Initially, the Kitchens had concerns about how family dynamics could affect other employees, as well as operations in general.

“At various times, Paul and I have had siblings working here and my mom worked here, too,” she points out. “While we felt it was important to give our team members an opportunity to keep family members involved, we also know how important it is to keep the culture of success going. So the dynamics of how hard it can be to work with family was certainly on our minds.”

The Kitchens were also concerned about co-workers’ perception of special treatment for the sons and about how internal family conflicts might spill over into the workplace. “Or what if one family member quits because they can’t work together anymore?” Kitchen says. “A lot of ‘what ifs’ cross your mind when you consider hiring other family members.”

To minimize those concerns, all the sons were hired as workers in the underground division – the same place that all new employees start – and had to work up from there. Moreover, all three sons followed the same interview process that all employees go through and the hiring decisions were made by a management team, as usual, not just one person, which squelched any possible allegations of favoritism.

The Kitchens also made sure that the fathers wouldn’t have any problem handling discipline issues – even firing their own son, if the need arose.

“We also constantly coach our employees about the level of professionalism they need to bring to the table, which includes leaving what happens at home at our front door,” Kitchen says. “And [the three sons] knew they needed to respect what other team members’ perspectives were … that some people might believe there’s favoritism. But they combated that by working hard every day. They all pull their weight – and then some.”

Moreover, the company had already encouraged employees for years to refer people they know and like to fill job openings. As such, the father-son concept was well received by colleagues. And it helps that the three fathers are also hard-workers who’ve earned the respect of co-workers, she points out.

“Part of that stems from the individuals we brought on board,” she adds. “They’re sons of hard-workers and they aren’t afraid to work hard themselves. They carry their own weight, so they earn the respect of their team members. They don’t want to let each other down, so they work harder and longer to finish a job. The sons don’t want to disappoint their fathers or their fathers’ peers and the fathers don’t want to disappoint their sons.”

Equipment matters

To properly service customers, the franchise owns a fleet of 24 service vehicles, including 12 Chevrolet vans, seven Chevrolet pickup trucks and four Chevrolet dump and flatbed trucks. The company also runs a septic truck built on a 2011 Ford F-750 chassis by Progress Tank with a 2,500-gallon aluminum tank, a water jetter and a pump (1,700 psi) made by Masport Inc.

“We just added septic pumping as a service about a year ago because customers and technicians kept telling us they needed it,” Kitchen explains. “At first, we didn’t think it was something we’d ever do. We wondered about how to handle things like commercial driver’s licenses, the permits required, waste-dumping issues and truck maintenance.

“But we also were referring calls for septic pumping to another contractor and we didn’t like losing that business,” she continues. “So we educated ourselves … and penciled out what the investment would cost and what would be a feasible return on our investment. Even one of our lead technicians, Justin Holman, put a two-page paper together showing the investment return, indicating again how important it was for our team to have the proper tools they need to take care of customers. We also started advertising septic services almost a year before we did anything, just to gauge the response.”

Each service van carries a large cable drain cleaning machine made by Gorlitz Sewer & Drain Inc., a hand-held Gorlitz drain cleaner and a Mustang cable machine. The company also owns two trailer-mounted water jetters made by US Jetting (4,000 psi); a pipe-bursting machine built by TRIC Tools Inc.; a pipe-relining system made by Perma-Liner Industries LLC; eight pipeline-inspection cameras (four are RIDGID SeeSnakes and the other four are made by Scooter Video); two 12-foot cargo trailers made by Pace American Industries Inc.; a Takeuchi excavator; and a wheeled backhoe made by Kubota Tractor Corp.

“One of the great things about being a franchisee is that Mr. Rooter Plumbing keeps us educated about new technology,” Kitchen says. “We’re very cognizant of our brand and protective of it, and part of that means taking care of customers. And because new and better technology makes the customer’s experience better, we want to invest in that. For example, when trenchless technology came on the scene years ago, we got into it right away.”

Looking ahead, Kitchen says she expects continued growth for the franchise. The company set a revenue target about 10 years ago that the Kitchens thought would take 20 years to hit but reached it in five years. And despite that rapid growth, she says the franchise still hasn’t fully penetrated its market.

“There still are plenty of opportunities for growth,” she says. “And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we brought another son or a daughter on board, too.”

More Information

Gorlitz Sewer & Drain, Inc. - 562/944-3060 -

Kubota Tractor Corporation - 310/370-3370 -

Masport, Inc. - 800/228-4510 -

Mr. Rooter Corp. - 800/298-6855 -

Mustang-Gehl Company - 800/628-0491 -

Perma-Liner Industries, LLC - 866/336-2568 -

Progress Tank - 800/558-9750 -

RIDGID - 800/769-7743 -

Scooter Video - 800/772-6165 -

Takeuchi Mfg. - 770/831-0661 -

TRIC Tools, Inc. - 888/883-8742 -

US Jetting, LLC - 800/538-8464 -


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