New York’s Dr. Rooter Builds Strong Referral Network of Contractors

New York’s Dr. Rooter finds a prescription for business success by leveraging good equipment and building a strong referral network of fellow contractors

New York’s Dr. Rooter Builds Strong Referral Network of Contractors

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As the owner of Dr. Rooter, a New York-based drain cleaning company, Dave Ferrier has developed a prescription for success: build a large network of contractors that refer clients to him and supplement it with strong doses of great customer service and investments in affordable, productive and reliable equipment.

This formula has boosted Dr. Rooter — located in Nanuet, about 30 miles north of downtown New York City — from humble beginnings to a thriving business that has served roughly 35,000 customers since the company’s inception in 2000. Most of those customers are spread throughout the company’s primary service area of four counties where New York, New Jersey and Connecticut converge.

“Many of those customers might have called only because they needed, say, a bathtub drain unclogged, then you might not hear from them again for five years,” Ferrier explains. “So all those customers aren’t calling me all the time.

“But we have a steady flow of eight to 10 customers a day,” he says, noting the company’s business base is about 60% residential and 40% industrial, commercial and municipal.

In addition, the company posts annual gross revenue of about $800,000, generated by just Ferrier and his two technicians. The company runs three service vehicles and owns an array of drain cleaning equipment.

Not too shabby for a guy who struck out on his own at age 22 after working for only four years with two drain cleaning firms and a plumbing and heating company.

Finding a career path

Ferrier’s career began when he moved to New York from California in 1996 to work for his uncle, a landscaper. He was 18 years old and had no idea what he wanted to do for a career. But when winter hit, which put an end to landscaping work, he got a job at a drain cleaning company.

“I didn’t even know anything about it,” he says. “I thought drain cleaning involved cleaning gutters and downspouts.”

Ferrier subsequently worked for a plumbing and heating company in Manhattan, where he says he really learned the trade for about a year and a half, then took a job with a national drain cleaning franchise.

“I learned a lot about marketing and upselling,” Ferrier says. “But I also felt horrible about the high prices I was charging people. So I decided that self-employment was the way to go. I needed to do my own thing.

“I already owned my own truck and equipment because that’s how the company I worked for operated, so I took a gamble. I was eating ramen noodles and living in a rented garage — barely scraping by with about one job a week. But I hit the pavement every day, just to show my face and give people a chance to see my truck.”

Ferrier also religiously followed two valuable lessons he learned from old-timers at previous jobs: Always answer the phone — don’t leave customers hanging. And never say no to a customer.

“Those old-timers took me under their wing because they liked the fact that I was really hungry and ambitious,” he says. “Those lessons were critical to my success.”

Networking for growth

But the real game-changer was building a network of contractors who referred their clients in need of drain cleaning work to Ferrier. This strategy was vital to the company’s growth, he notes. 

“Networking was the best thing I ever did,” Ferrier says. “I learned this from the first company I worked for because they got a lot of referrals for work from plumbers who didn’t want to do drain cleaning. So I cold-called a lot of plumbers and some who appreciated how aggressive I was referred work to me. And from there, my reputation spread by word of mouth.”

But Ferrier also networks with electricians, handymen, painters, landscapers, excavators, carpenters, heating guys and so forth. Anyone he meets on a job site is fair game, he says.

“My phone is filled with the names of contractors I’ve met over the years on jobs and I have more than 200 business cards,” Ferrier says. “We all basically refer work to each other. And that’s where never saying no to a customer comes in, because if I can’t do something, I tell people I know a guy who can.”

Sometimes customers hire another contractor through Dr. Rooter and Ferrier bills the whole job. Or sometimes customers hire the referred contractor directly.

“But in the end, everyone has work, everyone makes money and everyone is happy,” Ferrier says. “And I don’t spend a dime on advertising.”

Lessons learned

Three things are critical for this strategy to work. First of all, Ferrier only networks with contractors who don’t do drain cleaning.

“That way I don’t lose customers because I know those guys won’t steal them away,” he says.

Second, thoroughly vet the contractors to the greatest extent possible. Ferrier says he learned this lesson the hard way.

“You live and you learn,” he says. “It took me a long time to weed out the bad guys and find guys who value me and respect me.”

Third, work with contractors who pay quickly, which enhances all-important cash flow, he says.

Business-card refrigerator magnets are also an effective and affordable way to keep Dr. Rooter top-of-mind with customers who might not need service very often. The magnets are somewhat expensive if custom ordered, but Ferrier instead buys refrigerator magnets in bulk from business-supply stores and then applies business cards with an adhesive backing to them.

“Everyone loves to put magnets on their refrigerator,” he says. “We get a lot of repeat business from them.”

Equipment matters

Over the years, Ferrier has found what equipment works and what doesn’t. For drain machines, the company owns three MyTana M81 drum cable machines, designed for cleaning pipes from 3 to 10 inches in diameter; three RIDGID K-750 cable drum machines, recommended for 3- to 6-inch lines; three RIDGID K-400 drum cable machines for 1 1/2- to 4-inch lines; and a Mini-Rooter XP from General Pipe Cleaners, designed for 1 1/2- to 4-inch lines. Ferrier also bought a J-Drum, an ancillary reel that quickly attaches to the Mini-Rooter and holds smaller-diameter cable for cleaning smaller lines.

For inspection cameras, Dr. Rooter has invested in 2400SM and MICROSM 100 models built by Sewer Equipment Company of Nevada (SECON) and a Vevor mini-camera.

The company also owns a BossJet cart-mounted electric water jetter (1,500 psi at 1.5 gpm) from Amazing Machinery, used for 1 1/2- to 2-inch pipes; and a JM-2900 cart-mounted water jetter from General Pipe Cleaners (3,000 psi at 4 gpm), used for cleaning small 2- to 6-inch pipes.

“Some guys use a jetter all the time,” Ferrier says. “But I like to snake a line first, then use a jetter if necessary. With a snake, I can tell what I’m hitting — roots, a broken pipe or a grease plug, for instance. We can break those things up with a snake, then give it a good cleaning with the jetter.”

The company also runs three service vehicles: a 2019 Dodge ProMaster 1500, a 2022 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 2500 and a 2017 Chevrolet Express cargo van.

Warranties and options

Dr. Rooter warranties most of its work for 30 days, depending on what kind of job it is. Ferrier started offering warranties to give customers peace of mind, he says.

“Warranties also give our guys an incentive to do a good job, too, because no one likes callbacks,” he adds.

Based on some bad prior experience with previous employers, Ferrier believes in giving customers different options and price tiers for work that needs to be done, then thoroughly explaining each option. For example, there’s an upcharge for televising a drainline and not everyone can afford that, he says.

“We give them options and let them decide,” Ferrier says. “Customers love this approach because it’s not intimidating. Some companies focus only on selling, selling and selling — worrying about how much revenue each truck brings in.

“But we operate like a small, family-owned and honest business. Sure, I want to make money, but I also want a good reputation and I don’t want to rake people over the coals for something they don’t need. This approach is one reason I don’t have 25 trucks. But I can also sleep at night.”

Seeking controlled growth

Looking back, Ferrier agrees he’s come a long way since his early days in the industry. He gives a lot of credit for the company’s growth to his two employees, Tony Garcia, who works nights and weekend shifts seven days a week, and George Vargas, who works day shifts.

“They’re great guys and great workers,” he says. “We’re a well-oiled machine right now.”

Looking ahead, Ferrier would like to grow the company a bit more. But he wants manageable growth that doesn’t compromise the quality work and customer service.

“I’d like to hire one more guy to do more of the stuff I do so I can concentrate on other things and delegate some responsibilities,” he says. “I’d also like to buy a trailer jetter so we don’t have to sub out that work anymore.”

Beyond that, Ferrier has no ambitions to become a huge company. From experience, he knows that less is often more and that when companies get bigger, it’s accompanied by more headaches and hassles.

“I don’t necessarily want to get bigger than four trucks,” he says. “There’s an old saying about stay small and keep it all. I truly believe in that.”


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