How Self-Employed People Can Make More Money

For sewer and drain cleaners, WWETT Show presenter says a contractor's image and pricing are the keys to increasing profits.
How Self-Employed People Can Make More Money

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Steve Huff is president of Steve Huff Plumbing in Kingsport, Tennessee, a company built on customer satisfaction. Founded in 1975, Huff was a good plumber but a poor businessman. In 1999 he faced bankruptcy. Seeking outside help, he learned how to run a business, not own one. Today, Steve Huff Plumbing is the largest service and repair business in its area. Now retired, Huff devotes his time to advising and mentoring other struggling businesses.

A guest presenter at WWETT 2016, Huff will discuss strategies for increased profitability. His session, How Self-Employed People Can Make More Money, runs from 8 to 9 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, in rooms 136-138.

Q: Steve, how did you get into the plumbing business?
A: Well, that’s part of my presentation. I was just out of high school and looking for a job and found one with a local plumbing company. I worked there about five years and found it was something I really liked to do and was good at and decided to make it my career.

Q: In 1975 you started your own business. Why did you want to work for yourself?
A: I got laid off from the company I was working at. I sat around on unemployment for a short period, but that wasn’t me. I thought I would be better off being an independent contractor.

Q: Did you have any prior business experience?
A: No, I did not. That was just about my downfall. I was very good at plumbing, but not at business. I find that with a lot of companies I talk to. You can be the world’s greatest technician, but if you don’t know how to run a business, you’re never going to be successful.

Q: What obstacles did you face being self-employed?
A: Finding work and having to work 60, 80 hours a week just to keep the business going. As I got more and more work, trying to find people to work for me that I could depend on. In 40 years, I think we went through about 200 people.

Q: How do you find and keep good employees?
A: We like to hire someone based on personality and people skills. We can teach them to do plumbing. If they have a bad attitude, I don’t care how skilled they are in their trade, they’re no good to us. Most of our business is service and repair. You’re constantly going into people’s homes, arriving as a stranger. You have to put the customer at ease. That’s the tagline for all our radio commercials: A Steve Huff Plumbing technician may be a stranger when he arrives, but he’s a friend when he leaves.

Q: In 1999, you nearly went bankrupt. How did you turn your business around?
A: After 25 years as a plumber and not a businessman, we had reached a point where my wife and I had two options – either throw the keys over the fence and walk away, or seek outside help.

Q: Obviously you sought help. Where did you go?
A: Plumbers Success International, a part of Success Group International. We took the lessons we learned from them, and along with networking with other companies, went from being a plumber and his wife who owned a business to a plumber and his wife who ran a business.

Q: What were some of the lessons you learned?
A: First off, you have to improve your image. People have a poor image of plumbers. They think we’re just fat, lazy, butt-crack workers. Secondly, you have to properly price your work, and you have to advertise. I don’t care how long you’ve been in business and how much you spend on word-of-mouth, if you don’t advertise in some form you’re never going to be successful.

Q: How did you put those lessons to work?
A: Once we learned how to run a business, we taught our employees how to run the business. In December, it’ll be two years since I retired from the company.

Q: So, you believe it’s important to make a good first impression?
A: Yes, you only get one chance to do that.

Q: And you also believe in dressing for success – your employees and your equipment?
A: Correct. Not only do clothes make the man, clothes make the money.

Q: How do you determine what you charge?
A: It’s based on the cost of doing business. It’s not based on the going rate. You’ve got to know your numbers to know your business. We know daily what our profit percentage is, what our average invoice is. We know daily what our gross sales are. Most people don’t know that until they file their taxes at the end of the year. They think because they’re busy, there’s money coming in the door, they’re making money. But that’s not always true. I know that all too well – been there, done that. You need to get over the fear of charging what you need to charge to make money. They think if they cut the going rate by $5 they’ll make more money, but that’s wrong. If you’re priced properly, you’re going to be the highest-priced person in your area.

Q: How do you handle price-cutting competitors?
A: People ask me if there are competitors in our area. I say, there are other plumbers but we don’t consider them competitors. We do not worry about them. Who’s running your business, you or them? If you’re pricing your business and running your business compared to what they’re doing, and they’re going bankrupt, why are you following them?

Q: Your wife, Donna, has been an integral part of your business. How important is family support for a small-business owner?
A:
Very. Very important. Most small businesses are a family-run operation. You’re going to be working long hours. You’re going to miss a lot of family events as a self-employed person. They have to understand that and deal with those times that you’re not there when you should be because there’s work to do. If you don’t have that family support, you’re not going to do any good. Being self-employed, if it was easy, everyone would do it.



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