Contractor Opts for a Small, Sustainable Approach Rather Than Constantly Chasing Business Growth

Baker Plumbing made a conscious decision to curtail its growth in favor of a lean operation that has proven to be a successful fit

Contractor Opts for a Small, Sustainable Approach Rather Than Constantly Chasing Business Growth

The team at Baker Plumbing includes (from left) Bob Baker, owner and master plumber, and his two sons, Isaiah Baker, journeyman plumber, and Pete Baker, an apprentice.

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When Bob Baker assumed ownership of Baker Plumbing, his family’s well-established business in Calgary, Alberta, he kick-started an aggressive growth strategy, guided by the concept that getting bigger was better than staying small.

“My father was always very conservative,” says Baker, referring to the late Gerry Baker, from whom Baker inherited the company. “For most of his career, it was just him and me. But I decided to take the company in a different direction.”

As it turned out, bigger was better — until it wasn’t.

That point came in 2015 when Baker decided to drastically downsize the family business, established by his grandfather, Ralph Baker, in 1956. Today, the company employs only six people, including three technicians: Baker and his two sons, Isaiah, 26, and Pete, 24.

Baker’s roughly decade-long roller coaster ride from small business to big business to small again offers some important lessons for contractors about the risks of fast, exponential growth; the benefits of offering diverse services; the value of carefully selecting a specific market niche and providing great customer service; and the merits of embracing new technology that improves productivity and profitability and opens up new markets.

It also underscores the importance of a little thing called resilience, which helped Baker, age 53, weather what essentially amounted to a complete rebuild of his company that often required 100-hour work weeks for several years.

“It was a lot of work,” he says. “But in the end, it was all worth it.”

DEEP PLUMBING ROOTS

Baker initially had no interest in becoming a plumber. While he worked for his father throughout his teenage years, Baker told him after graduating from high school that he never wanted to hold a pipe wrench again.

Instead he earned a computer science degree at Mount Royal College and got a job after graduation in 1992. But his career in computers was short-lived.

“After one week of sitting in a cubicle, I decided there was no way I was going to do this for the rest of my life,” he says. “So I went back to my dad and begged him to let me sign up as an apprentice. And here we are.”

By 2000, Baker was effectively running the company as his father slowly disengaged from the business. He officially took over as the company owner when his father died in 2006.

Baker initially steered the company, which was focused primarily on installing septic system drainfields and bathroom remodeling projects, into a more lucrative niche: new-construction plumbing for large, 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot homes.

But the recession of 2008 hit the company hard; work on 13 luxury homes suddenly diminished to just one house in a span of about four weeks as building contractors went belly up.

A NEW MARKET BECKONS

An abrupt U-turn followed as Baker recalibrated and entered the market for commercial service and repair plumbing. Rapid growth continued and by 2014, the company employed 18 people and was running 12 service trucks.

Baker chose to do commercial plumbing because the need is more constant than residential work and not as vulnerable to economic downturns. In addition, it’s easier to build long-term relationships with commercial customers because they need service more often. Furthermore, they typically have budgets for things like plumbing repairs, unlike residential customers, who often are more interested in spending as little money as possible, he notes.

“We stayed busy even during the pandemic,” Baker says. “There’s no real offseason for commercial service. Most people we work with now, we’ve worked with since around 2010. Many of them are on scheduled maintenance contracts where we jet out and inspect their lines every three months. Maintenance contracts are great because they’re realized revenue — guaranteed money. And customers are happy because they avoid disasters. There’s nothing like what we call a Friday night flood to get a business to sign a maintenance contract.”

AN ABRUPT STOP

Nonetheless, things didn’t work long-term as planned. The main cause? Employees who couldn’t provide the kind of high-level customer service Baker and his customers expected, not to mention all the associated headaches that come with more employees, more bills, more vendors, more service calls and so forth.

“You think that if you keep hiring more guys and buying more trucks, you’re going to make more money,” Baker says. “But it doesn’t always work out that way. I was stressed out beyond belief. It was just awful. We had all these high-end jobs, working on big, beautiful restaurants and $50 million hotels — the kind of customers that had far higher expectations for customer service and craftsmanship. And with that many employees, there always was someone not meeting those high expectations. I just got tired of apologizing every day for not meeting the expectations of customers who were extremely important to our cash flow.”

Baker says he woke up one morning in October 2015 and decided that enough was enough. When he got to work, he called a meeting and informed employees he was letting all of them go.

“It was ridiculously hard,” he says. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”

STARTING OVER

Baker hired one employee and kept working with preferred customers while deciding to no longer work for others.

After a couple of years, Isaiah came aboard, and Pete joined the company in 2020. Today the company focuses on a core clientele of hotels and restaurants and bolsters its business with scheduled-maintenance contracts for drain cleaning. Baker added drain cleaning to the company services when he started managing its operations in 2000.

The company also does pipe coating, using the Brush Coating System from Picote Solutions; gas-fitting for boilers, furnaces and the like; and pipe lining.

“I don’t know how you can provide only one service and be profitable at it,” Baker says. “In fact, we’ll do just about anything for customers as long as we have the knowledge and the tools to do it. I’ve fixed door hinges and hand railings for customers just because it provides another layer of value for customers.”

Of course, providing multiple services requires a large inventory of equipment. For drain cleaning and pipeline inspections, the company relies on three RIDGID K-5208 sectional drain machines, RIDGID K-45 hand-held units, RIDGID SeeSnake inspection cameras (standard, Compact C40, Mini Reel and microReel models); a RIDGID KJ-3100 cart-mounted jetter (3,000 psi at 5.5 gpm); and two JM-1450 cart-mounted mini-jetters (1,500 psi at 1.7 gpm) from General Pipe Cleaners.

Technicians also rely on RIDGID 300 pipe-threaders, a RIDGID RP351 ProPress gun and RIDGID and Milwaukee Tool power tools. The company runs four service vehicles: two GMC Savana cargo vans, a GMC Astro van and a GMC Sierra pickup truck.

INVESTMENTS IN TECHNOLOGY

Embracing new technology is critical to success. It not only improves productivity, it can open up new markets as well as make a business a one-stop shop for customers, Baker says.

“Our motto is if we can’t do it, it can’t be done, so we have to back that up by having the equipment to fix problems and fix them right,” he says.

A good example is the Picote epoxy brush-coating system, which Baker says he learned about by reading Cleaner magazine.

“Then I looked it up on Instagram and watched a contractor coat pipes,” he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘I can do that.’ So I made some phone calls and ended up buying the Picote system in fall of 2021.”

Baker recently used the Picote system to fix leaking PVC pipes buried under concrete near an outdoor pool and a hot tub at a resort hotel. One contractor offered to jackhammer the concrete and replace the pipes for $80,000, which would’ve put the pool and hot tub out of service for weeks.

But Baker came in and coated the leaking pipes for about $10,000. And he did the job over one weekend, with minimal pool and hot tub disruption, he notes.

“The customer was absolutely delighted,” Baker says.

To cover the cost of such specialized equipment, Baker explains that he usually includes the price of the equipment in a job bid.

“Then we have it on hand for the next time we need it,” he says.

A FOURTH GENERATION IN WAITING

As Baker looks back, he says that as painful as the downsizing was, it was the best move he could’ve made. It enabled him to better control job quality and minimize stress and headaches.

“Our profit margins are exactly where I want them to be and we’re really busy,” he says. “And I’m very involved with everything and can help the boys with problems. And because they’re family, they’re invested in the business at an entirely different level than a regular employee would be. So I feel like I’m able to ask more of them to get a job done and done right.” 

As for what the future holds, say, five years or so down the road, Baker envisions his sons carrying on the family legacy while he steps aside and “throws in some sage advice here and there.”

He concedes that any kind of growth is constrained right now, with only three technicians. But he says he thinks Isaiah and Pete could very well decide to take the business to another level.

But whatever they do, Baker says he is extremely gratified his sons are interested in carrying on the family name in the industry.

“It’ll be awesome — I love it,” he says. “It gives me a wonderful sense of accomplishment and pride that they’ve taken such a keen interest in the business and will continue what my grandfather started way back when.”



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