The Sweet Smell of Success

Spirit and determination carry a young contractor across his home state to new opportunity.

The Sweet Smell of Success

American Rooter Plumbing owner and master plumber Bradd Conn uses a Spartan 740 water jetter to clear a sewer line blockage in Omaha, Nebraska.

The logo of American Rooter Plumbing features an American flag. Trucks and employees are dressed up in red, white and blue. The company’s core values are synonymous with mom and apple pie. What’s more, the family-owned company is literally the result of an entrepreneurial American dream.

“I had a dream of owning my own company,” says Bradd Conn, American Rooter Plumbing owner and president. “I woke up one morning after two or three weeks of the dream and that day told my girlfriend (now wife), Sarah, that I was going to start my own business. She was finishing school with a business degree and told me she could help.”

So they did. Six years later, American Rooter Plumbing is expanding throughout the region surrounding Omaha, Nebraska. The company website shows a picture of the couple and their daughter Eliza. “Sarah is the brains of the operation,” Bradd Conn says. “She runs it all behind the scenes.”

While this sounds pretty homespun and idyllic, the fact is the company is a result of initiative, hard work and, yes, entrepreneurial spirit. Conn didn’t inherit the company. He paid his dues, learned the trade on the job, and was determined to make a success of it.

That determination first caused him to enter a plumbing apprenticeship program in Scottsbluff, his hometown of about 15,000 people in a far western county that abuts Wyoming. While an apprenticeship program in Scottsbluff introduced him to a potentially satisfying trade, the community was too small to offer him the full opportunity he sought.

So in 2002, he packed up and traveled 450 miles east to Omaha. Nebraska’s largest city is perched on the banks of the Missouri River, with nearly a half million people in the city and 1.3 million in the greater Omaha region. It turned out to be exactly the opportunity he sought.

Nebraska has an unusual decentralized licensing system for plumbers. Each urban jurisdiction is its own licensing jurisdiction. Therefore, to offer his services to the general Omaha market, Conn acquired five master plumber licenses — plus a Nebraska Grade VI backflow license — so he can serve customers across the Omaha metro area, as well as across the river in Council Bluffs and other Iowa communities.

While this multiple-licensing requirement is a paperwork hassle, complying has afforded the company a larger market. Most of his customers are residential and have properties in Nebraska, but some are in Iowa.

Going all in

After completing his four-year apprenticeship, Conn worked for several plumbing companies before and after moving to Omaha. In early 2012, when he and Sarah elected to follow his dream, he kept his job as a plumbing employee and launched a drain cleaning business. He focused solely on drains in the beginning because he had not yet acquired a master plumbing license, which happened in October of that year. Soon he learned there were customers ready to give his new company some business.

“Right away, I got a couple calls from potential customers and snaked a drainline for the first time,” he recalls. “After a couple more calls, I decided I was either all in or not in at all.”

He decided to take the plunge and gave his boss notice of intent to leave. In a classic entrepreneurial gambit, with $5,000 in his bank account as capital, he traded his Ford Ranger pickup for a service van, married his sweetheart and business partner, and American Rooter Plumbing was born. Six years later, the company is cleaning up in the sewer and drain market and also with a full range of plumbing services.

When Conn began his drain work, he quickly discovered he needed a water jetter to completely satisfy the demands of customers. So two months in, he bought a RIDGID KJ-3100 portable jetter with 3,000 psi working pressure. It effectively cleans lines from 2 to 10 inches in diameter. Conn kept the new cleaning tool on his truck so that if a clogged line needed jetting, he could immediately do the job. Such readiness helped him earn the loyalty of customers: 80 percent of his calls now are from repeat customers.

Business expansion has required him to add more tools and employees. As of February, the company has four employees, four trucks including two Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, and numerous pieces of equipment including a Spartan Tool 740 hybrid jetter that produces 4,000 psi, and five pipeline inspection cameras.

“We started using the cameras right off the bat,” Conn says. “Every sewer or drain cleaning job begins with camera work. Every time we go to a main drain, we want to be able to leave the property with the drain fully open. Also, we want to educate our customers about what’s going on with their lines. With the cameras, we can show them.”

A portable RIDGID SeeSnake rM200 camera is assigned to each truck and operator. The company has a microunit for special situations.

Pipe bursting work is a growing segment of company business, according to Conn. “Each year, there is more and more of it. We get lots of referrals. One thing that makes us different from some other companies is that we give a 99-year warranty on the pipe we install.” Most of the pipe in the area is clay, and the company’s HammerHead Trenchless pipe bursting system makes short work of it.

Progress and values

The bigger expansion news for American Rooter Plumbing is that it is moving into a new office. The Conns started their company at home with a lone service truck parked in the garage. Two years in, they purchased a couple of acres to serve as a home base where they could park company trucks. In mid-February, the company closed on a building in Omaha and began to renovate and move into it as a storefront location.

Looking ahead, Conn expects to stay within his current service territory but hopes to add more employees, equipment and customers. He says he would be content with about 15 people and six or seven trucks in a smoothly functioning midsize operation.

The progress is evident for a drain cleaning company that started in the midst of a weak recovery from a severe recession “You know, that’s the thing. I didn’t know any better. What I did was go around and talk to a lot of plumbers about doing their drain cleaning. They saw the values we had about how to treat people, about customer service. They really liked using us for cleaning work,” Conn says.

Customer feedback seems to confirm that the values Conn voiced in soliciting work from plumbers continue to guide the company. “Customers talk about quality of work, about being trustworthy, about being efficient,” Conn says, adding that he holds at least three training sessions per week for his technicians. “We teach them how to keep their trucks clean, keep things organized, pay attention to details. All the little things add up.”

Sarah Conn created a slogan for American Rooter Plumbing. The company is where customers can find “The Sweet Plumber.” The tie-in acronym SWEET means a commitment to Self-improvement, a Wow experience, Educating clients, Encouraging one another and Transforming lives. Hard-bitten big-city dwellers might dismiss such sentiment as too saccharine. Yet it accurately conveys the enterprise’s allegiance to what Conn calls “Midwestern values.”

“I would describe Midwestern values as being about your faith, your family, taking care of one another and treating people like you want to be treated. It’s about being hardworking and never giving up,” Conn says. “SWEET is our guiding philosophy. It is. When I am training our techs, I ask them to tell me about their ‘wow’ experiences. And we encourage one another. When we are hiring, we make sure anyone we hire will fit our core values. If it takes longer to find someone because of that, so be it.”

Conn picked up the values as a member of a large family in Scottsbluff. That’s also where he caught the entrepreneurial bug. He was mowing lawns early and otherwise helping make his way. He grew up admiring his mother’s father, who had his own office-cleaning business, as well as a business-owning uncle on his mother’s side. “I definitely got the entrepreneurial gene from my mother’s side of the family.”

He has nurtured that genetic impulse — with help from Sarah — and turned it into an established, forward-looking plumbing and drain cleaning company.

“It comes down to being able in my life to make something bigger than me, something that can touch the lives of a lot of people,” he says. “And to be able to build something and pass it down to my kids.”

Some projects mean more

Every successful company looks back on one significant project or another with extra pride. Such experiences not only make money, they bring satisfaction to company owners because of how well a crew performed or how effectively a community was served. Of such are good memories made.

For American Rooter Plumbing, a particularly memorable success involved clearing clogged lines in a housing complex for American veterans. The facility is located in Norfolk, a retail community of 25,000 people in northeast Nebraska some 110 miles northwest of Omaha. One of four centers operated by the Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs, it is a nursing home and rehabilitation center for 150 vets.

In early 2017, the center experienced drain problems. In one area of the complex, lines were being snaked repeatedly every day. After American Rooter Plumbing was called, company owner Bradd Conn examined the drains with an inspection camera, found obstructions, and hydrojetted the clogged line. One year later, that line has not required additional cleaning.

However, in another wing of the housing complex, a more severe blockage was found. Residents in that wing were moved, and Conn subcontracted out hydroexcavation work to uncover a bad line. It was buried 7 feet below a hallway floor. Eventually, 20 feet of line was exposed and replaced. In yet another area of the facility, a second obstructed drainline was discovered. Once again, Conn brought in a hydroexcavation crew, this time removing 8 feet of soil so he could replace 6 feet of collapsed and clogged drain pipe.

“We stayed out there and worked endlessly,” Conn recalls. Hallways were covered with plywood and kept as clean as possible. He was especially gratified that the work was completed without interrupting services in other wings of the facility. “That was my proudest moment on a job. We were proud because we had been able to help out our veterans.”


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