Cleaner Rewind: Staying Ahead of the Trends Boosts Drain Cleaning Business

Cleaner Rewind: Staying Ahead of the Trends Boosts Drain Cleaning Business
Acres and Son Plumbing run an average of eight jetting and cleaning crews using Ford F-350 vans.

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We celebrate the continued dedication and hard work of drain cleaning contractors by revisiting companies profiled 10 years ago in Cleaner magazine. Check out the original story on Acres and Son Plumbing we featured in the May 2003 issue: “Quality Pays.”

When we first visited Acres and Son Plumbing Inc. in 2003, the company was doing well because it had begun diversifying services across commercial and residential markets. Continuing with that strategy served them well when their area’s long-lived construction boom went bust. 

A decade ago, the company was run by owners Randy Acres and his son Ryan Acres. They were joined on the management team by Randy’s sisters, Rene Acres-Hatch and Rochelle Acres. The same team operates the business today, under the same motto they’ve based business on since the company’s beginning in 1974: “Quality doesn’t cost, it pays.” 

Boom to bust

Acres and Son was founded upon the mid-70s construction boom. It was still functioning that way in 2003, but when the housing bubble burst after the Wall Street debacle in 2008, it really affected the company’s market. Their primary service territory remains Lee and Collier counties around Naples, Fla. The area maintains a healthy population with a high per-capita income, but no longer supports the all-out building boom that went on for nearly 40 years since the company began. 

The majority of the boom saw a surge in multi-family high-rise condominium complexes, but those stopped cold when the bubble burst. During the ensuing recession, Acres scaled back their number of employees from 100 to about 40. 

The firm offers the same service mix of sewer, lateral, drain and storm system cleaning, waterline leak detection, high-pressure waterjetting, and video sewer line inspections. They dropped certified backflow prevention testing as an in-house service when they lost that employee in their contraction. “Getting an employee certified requires a big expense,” says Vice President Rene Acres-Hatch. “It seems a bigger expense when that certification leaves with them, so we just use an outside contractor now.” 

Scaling back, not down

By 2003, the company had already begun offering pre-purchase home lateral inspections and plumbing design and installation for residential remodeling and new construction. As new construction slowed, they turned this latter service toward custom homes and “tear-downs,” in which old homes are being demolished and rebuilt. The scale of this building doesn’t approach that of the boom times, but since the general quality of the projects remains high, Acres stays profitable by offering highly personalized service and bringing as much value as possible to the customer. Ensuring such satisfaction helps maintain a steady flow of referrals for the limited number of similar jobs available. 

New plumbing design and installation for custom homes now represents Acres’ largest revenue-producing concentration. Acres Hatch believes that the fact that their company’s service territory remains a luxury living area shielded them somewhat from the kinds of contraction pressures experienced by their peers in less well-off areas of the nation. 

“Our higher-end clientele continues to be able to afford our services,” she says, indicating that price dropping has not been a strategy in staying busy. “We’re also a very seasonal area. From January through April it gets crazy with snowbirds.” This influx of half-year residents helps even out what might otherwise be dips in their jetting and cleaning schedule. 

In our previous profile, one of Acres’ growth areas was servicing annual cleaning and maintenance contracts with condo complexes, shopping centers, malls and office buildings. The company still does this work, but not at the previous levels. Annual maintenance contracts largely got dropped to service on an as-needed basis. 

Where their customer base used to break out at about 50/50 between commercial and residential accounts, that ratio is now roughly 70 percent residential, 30 percent commercial, across both their plumbing and cleaning service menu. 

Communication is key

The firm continues to rely on the use of emergency dispatch in conjunction with fully equipped trucks, on call and ready to handle any emergency. However, this system has evolved to incorporate more modern technology. “We’re currently in the process of changing it all over to smartphones and text communications,” Acres-Hatch says. “In the last month, we have been researching programs that will allow us to give better service by accepting text messages field techs can respond to as soon as possible, instead of being interrupted while talking to a customer.” 

Their equipment still consists of several snake and rooter cable setups, a skid-based jetter and a trailer-mounted jetter. They run an average of eight jetting and cleaning crews using Ford F-350 vans. Their video inspection setups have been upgraded to the latest technology. They no longer use VHS tapes, instead uploading the feeds through a USB cable to the on-board computer. From there, it’s relayed directly to their YouTube channel, where customers can view their individual password-protected videos. 

Communication with customers has also evolved with the new economic realities. It used to be standard practice to televise a line before any kind of cleaning job. These days, they offer the service but will often get pushback from customers who don’t want to pay for this extra step. 

“We recommend it but don’t push it,” Acres-Hatch explains. “Usually, our techs will say a second visit for the same problem really requires it. Customers by then generally want to know what continues to be wrong, so at that point, they will agree to a TV inspection.” 

Marketing evolution

The aggressive marketing tactics used in 2003 — phonebook advertising, promotional specialty giveaways, sponsoring ball teams — have also evolved to accommodate economics and to mirror the movement of product and service search and discovery from print to online. 

Acres cut phonebook advertising back by about 75 percent, reallocating marketing budgets to focus on Google Ads, making greater use of their website and ( making forays into social media. “We track traffic through a banner ad on bathroom remodels, and that’s clearly performing,” Acres-Hatch reports. 

The website is maintained in-house by Rochelle Acres and has been upgraded with more focused content for each segment of the business. Because the Web is a visual medium, photos have been added for their plumbing installation projects, before-and-after remodel jobs and new product shots. These shots double as content for the company’s Facebook and Pinterest pages. This is a particularly savvy move, as most decision-makers for these types of projects are women, overwhelmingly the largest users of both these social media services. 

Acres-Hatch recognizes the increasingly important role of such services. “Social media is really coming into a trend insofar as how we advertise,” she says. “Our clientele are retirees who are prone to pick up a phonebook, but we also have younger people who will look us up online. It’s moving in that direction.” 

Tradition and trends

On a more traditional basis, joining and attending business management and condo owners’ association meetings pays off in referrals for all types of work. “I think a lot of the condo work becomes more about relationships than business as opposed to a cold call,” Acres-Hatch says. Association memberships have been pruned to those like the Collier Building Industry Association and BMI (Business Managers International) that offer such face-to-face referral generation potential. 

Acres-Hatch has some savvy advice for continuing to grow in today’s unstable economic climate, based on the very tact Acres and Son has always taken: 

“Paying attention to technological innovations and leveraging them to stay efficient is critical. You don’t want to be a pioneer, because you don’t want to be vulnerable if something falls flat on its face. But you still want to show leadership. Stay out in front of trends. Inform yourself and be willing to take calculated risks. Know what’s out there and what’s happening with it, and imagine how it could benefit your specific business.” 

Because as with service, investing in business intelligence is key to maintaining market leadership. Quality of knowledge doesn’t cost, it pays. 


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