Next Plumbing Operates by the Golden Rule

George Garner treats both customers and employees so well that his business can’t help but succeed

Next Plumbing Operates by the Golden Rule

George Garner, owner of Next Plumbing in Fort Myers, Florida, always strives to treat employees as part of a team and his high retention rate proves it works. He holds training sessions every Thursday to keep all crew members current on the latest tools and equipment. 

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When George Garner launched Next Plumbing 10 years ago, he hoped the company wouldn’t be too successful. Business success, after all, would mean the challenges that come with expanding and retaining a workforce and constantly investing in new equipment.

“We didn’t want that. We ran small ads,” Garner says, referring to his wife and business partner, Roselyn Garner. “I told her that if we made $500 a week, we would be good. We didn’t have debt. I just didn’t want to get back into plumbing. I wanted to enjoy my family.”

Garner rather spectacularly failed to avoid success. Today, Next Plumbing has established itself as a premier plumbing house in Fort Myers and across southwest Florida. From a one-man plumbing service shop, it has swelled to a full-service, multilocation enterprise with 24 employees, 20 service trucks and a customer base ranging along the Gulf Coast from Sarasota to Naples.

The comeback

His reluctance to head up a thriving business was a consequence of experiencing genuine business failure. In 2006, Garner owned five Mr. Rooter franchises, part of a family of independently owned and operated plumbing companies in the U.S. You know what came next: the deep recession, which staggered home and construction trades, including plumbing franchises.

A frustrated Garner was forced from his business and, because of a noncompete clause, barred from any plumbing activity for three years. That’s a long time for a third-generation plumber to not pick up a pipe wrench or direct a jetter blast into a clogged sewer line. During that time, Garner began to lose his zeal for the craft that was part of his family heritage. The stress of the recession battle left him burnt out.

“I really didn’t want to get back into plumbing,” he says, “but that’s where the money was.” When the noncompete period was over, he put some tools in a secondhand van, slapped a Next Plumbing sign on the side of the truck and, with the help of his future wife, got back into business.

From working out of Roselyn’s Fort Myers home — where she kept the books and answered the phone — Next Plumbing has grown into an operation with offices in Fort Myers, Sarasota, Cape Coral and Naples. Year after year, the company continues to win accolades from its customers, who keep increasing in number.

Repeat customers represent 93% of Next Plumbing customer calls, according to George Garner. He attributes such loyalty to the company’s demonstrated care for each customer. “We do what we say we are going to do. I’m not big on lip service.”

Next Plumbing offers virtually every plumbing service out there, though it rarely ventures into new-construction projects — mainly because the revenue stream from such work is relatively meager. Septic tank work was shelved after code changes made it unprofitable. Instead, the firm’s plumbers roll out of the equipment yard daily and head for service calls at homes, businesses, industrial properties, hospitals and colleges.

The work varies widely, from servicing sewer pumps in force mains to installing kitchen sinks. Probably 55% of revenue comes from commercial accounts, according to Garner, though 75% of his customers are residential. “Drain cleaning is one of our top service jobs. That’s probably the dominant one, but we do big commercial jobs, too — lift stations and stuff. You name it, we do it.”

Water quality is an issue in Florida, which positively impacts the plumbing industry. The state is divvied up between “very hard” water and “extremely hard” water regions. In response to the water-quality issue, Next Plumbing offers two water filtration systems — small reverse osmosis units and more comprehensive whole-home filters. They have become two of the company’s most requested products.

Next Plumbing has also developed a popular preventive maintenance program of inspection and service for homeowners. It offers three tiers of programs — silver, gold and platinum. The base plan includes such perks as 15% discounts on repairs, priority responses on nonemergency calls and thorough inspection of a plumbing system every six months. The benefits ratchet on up through the plans to include such things as free hose replacement and toilet tank overhaul. Some 23,000 of the policies have been sold.

Corrosive water is not the only reason for the popularity of the preventive programs. There’s also the signature appeal of Florida as a winter getaway place. “We have a heavy influx of snowbird customers,” Garner says, referring to residents of northern states who maintain winter homes in the Sunshine State. “They are part-time customers with our protection plan. A lot of them call us before they come down for the winter or before they leave to head north again.”

Retaining talent

Incoming calls for help are answered by what Garner calls an “extremely experienced staff” with 150 years of combined plumbing expertise: Four plumbers have master licenses — including Garner, who has four such licenses from different states. The certificates are not just wallpaper either, he notes, but are keyed to requirements that vary significantly from state to state and genuinely attest to a plumber’s expertise.

Though Garner firmly supports a local plumbing apprenticeship program, he has just one apprentice at a time on his team to ensure high-quality work on every call. Thursday training sessions keep all crew members current about tools and techniques, as do regular training meetings with vendors. Backflow certifications from American Society of Sanitary Engineering trainers are de rigueur.

As in the rest of the country, attracting and keeping top-grade tradespeople is a challenge for plumbing companies in southwest Florida. Garner has managed to meet that challenge by creating a rather amazing package of benefits, compensation and work policies for his team.

It starts with a guaranteed weekly salary, a 100% company-funded medical, dental, vision and life insurance plan for each employee, and paid vacations and holidays. A “Golden Handshake” program has management putting aside money for each employee and giving the employee the option of cashing it in after five years. In effect, it’s a company-funded savings account to which an employee contributes nothing and wholly controls after five years.

“No one has taken out any money yet,” Garner says. The benefit for the company, of course, is that employees are given an incentive to stay aboard for at least five years. In that time, Garner is betting they will find a home at Next Plumbing and elect to remain with the company.

If that isn’t enough reason to become a long-term Next Plumbing employee, Garner offers another carrot: partial company ownership. He has pledged to turn over to employees up to 28% of the company as they accumulate seniority. So far, one employee has qualified and become a part owner. “This not only shows our appreciation to our team, but also gives them a stake in what we are all building toward. It provides a career and a retirement plan, not just a job.”

Understandably, retention is “very high,” Garner says. It all stems from his earlier experience as an employee. “I was working for a franchise before I bought my own. They only paid commission and loaded up with employees — they had 15 guys when they could have gotten by with three — so commissions were low. I said to myself that I would never do that to my guys.”

In short, he treats employees like he would want to be treated. “I know what employees think: I am not just a number. And I know what employees want: not to be called out to b.s. jobs in the evening. So, we only take emergency calls after 3 p.m. We stop taking other calls then. I not only want my guys to make $100,000 a year, I want them to have great relationships with their families.”

He gives them the tools to do the job, too, including RIDGID NaviTrack locators and RIDGID K-60 and Gorlitz Sewer & Drain drain cleaning machines. Each of the Isuzu NPR box trucks or Dodge Sprinters in his service truck fleet carries a CCTV video inspection camera, either a RIDGID SeeSnake on a 200-foot cable or a Ratech Electronics color unit with a 200-foot cable. The cameras are used every day.

“On a job, we inspect every line,” Garner says, “even when we’re not cleaning a drain. Video work is a routine part of our home inspections. One reason we like the cameras is because it takes away the guesswork. People can see for themselves what the problem is.” Because Next Plumbing doesn’t have a dedicated camera service truck, every serviceman is cross-trained to use the cameras and other equipment.

The sole exception to the cross-training is large jetters. Only specially trained personnel are sent out to clear lines with the company’s Harben ET-180 trailered jetters. The ET-180 can produce up to 4,000 psi and 18 gpm — a lot of force for an untrained person to control. “I won’t let them take out the big jetters without being qualified, for safety and financial reasons.”

The jetters are the largest machines in the Next Plumbing equipment yard. The company does not, for instance, own a compact excavator. “I don’t need one here. The soil is mostly sand, and lines aren’t at much depth. I rent one when I need one,” Garner says. The absence of large powered machinery means he can maintain his equipment in-house, with the exception of large jetters, which he turns over to a US Jetting service station for maintenance.

Giving back

With its main office on Commerce Lakes Drive in Fort Myers, Next Plumbing adds to its high profile in the community through charity work. Among recipients of its activism is the Fort Myers-based Special Equestrian horseback therapy program that serves disabled adult and youth in four counties of southwest Florida.

The company also reaches overseas in its philanthropy. Last August, the Garners traveled to the islands in the Philippines, Roselyn Garner’s heritage country, which they frequently visit. On the trip, they carried along clothes, medicine and several thousand blue or pink book bags after seeing a video of school children walking to school in the rain with their books and papers unprotected.

Other local charities the company supports include Partners for Breast Cancer — Next Plumbing being one of the largest contributors to the organization — and the Wounded Warrior Project for military veterans. Though George Garner is not a veteran, his company prioritizes vets in its hiring.

Garner’s son George, who goes by Patrick to avoid confusion, is a veteran. He also is a fourth-generation family member working in the plumbing business, a master license holder and, with three years’ tenure, the company’s operations manager. Under his leadership, the future for Next Plumbing is expected to include expansion into the Tampa and Orlando markets.

“I like to see myself being phased out,” George Garner says, still trying to get out of the plumbing business. 

Hitting the gym

Of all the reasons to sign on as a plumber with a company, access to a physical fitness center might be quite a ways down the list. Not so at Next Plumbing in Fort Myers, Florida. “If you were to ask our team, they undoubtedly would tell you their favorite benefit of working at Next Plumbing is our gym,” says George Garner, company owner.

The gym is not a sweaty little room in the back of the warehouse with a couple of dumbbells and a treadmill. Rather, the $200,000, two-story, state-of-the-art gymnasium that Garner built for his employees sports $75,000 worth of cardio and weightlifting machines and 55-inch televisions. The second story takes things to another level: a mixed martial arts training area and arena.

“It’s something all the guys wanted,” Garner says of the facility. “We took a survey and the No. 1 choice was a gym with showers that they could access 24/7.” While there currently are no female plumbers at Next Plumbing, female office personnel also work out there. Personal trainers and dietitians come by weekly to monitor the progress of gym users.

Garner himself is among the gym rats. “I’m in the gym every day,” admits the 54-year-old owner, adding that the 250 pounds he carries on his 5-foot, 8-inch frame is firm, not fat. He thus leads his team by example. Some employees come to the gym before starting their workday, others come at more social times and enjoy camaraderie as they work out.

The purpose for the gym goes behind fitness. “We believe in promoting a healthy and active lifestyle because it will lead to a happier and more focused employee,” he says. “After building this gym, we’ve seen a sharp increase in productivity. And it has been very rewarding to see our team become closer.”


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