Not your father's plumber

INDUSTRY EDUCATOR STARBUCKS, WHICH convinced us that a cup of coffee is worth $4, is now selling safe water. In full-page ads in The New York Times, Starbucks alerts us to a "dire global water crisis ... where roughly one out of five people lack access to safe, clean drinking water." Apparently, Starbucks is planning to raise $10 million by 2010 through the sale of Ethos Water: They will use that

INDUSTRY EDUCATOR

STARBUCKS, WHICH convinced us that a cup of coffee is worth $4, is now selling safe water. In full-page ads in The New York Times, Starbucks alerts us to a "dire global water crisis ... where roughly one out of five people lack access to safe, clean drinking water." Apparently, Starbucks is planning to raise $10 million by 2010 through the sale of Ethos Water: They will use that money to bring clean water to villages in need.

Clearly, Starbucks agrees with the great Will Rogers, who is credited with pointing out, "Even if you are on the right track you will get run over if you just sit there." After it adapted the European notion of a coffee "experience," Starbucks linked its brand to books, movies and films. A USA Today article describes Starbucks as wanting to rank among the top "trendmeisters," based on an image that it is leading edge.

If a coffee company can promote itself through clean water, what's next for the plumbing industry? Taking a page from the Starbucks songbook, it can try to change what people will pay for plumbing, raise standards of what people expect and build ownership through customized services. Perhaps plumbing showrooms can offer an "experience," and let's not forget social consciousness.

When I ask contractors in my Business Review class, " What's new in plumbing?" I hear about PEX tubing and fancy fixtures. Mostly, though, this question makes the plumbers pause.

I encourage these business owners to consciously monitor trends, so they can also present themselves as being leading edge. In class I offer Yellow Tail as another example of an ancient product being reinvented.

The importer who made a fortune on Yellow Tail can thank his son. Although Dad liked the taste of this Australian wine, the image of an animal on the label seemed foolish. His son told him the rock wallaby made the label fabulous, and Dad actually listened to him!

The initial order was doubled, and they went on to achieve a breakneck success. The brand transformed their modest business, to the extent that nothing like this ever happened before in the American wine industry.

In a New York Times article, a wine consultant explained: "Yellow Tail caught the wave. It's perfect for the newest generation of wine drinkers. ... The label's lower case letters and brackets is thought to resonate unconsciously with new wine buyers."

On the flip side, some analysts blame obsolete California wine methods for letting Yellow Tail grab such a huge market share.

There are at least two good lessons to this story: First, don't assume you know what the new generation wants. Secondly, obsolete business practices, especially if they are industry wide, can help a kangaroo take on California.

Speaking of ancient, Mick Jagger also sets an example for the small business owner. After 35 years without a singing lesson, he changed his tune.

Jagger now tells younger singers: "A bit of voice coaching and warm-ups ... really helps. I never used to do it either, but you should. I mean, you sing a lot. Every night you are singing for hours and hours, and your voice gets tired, like anything — like running every night. That's why you have to warm up properly. I just learned that, so that's probably helped me."

If Mick Jagger can find new ways to be successful, every plumbing contractor can rethink his business practices. As an educator, I agree that training is part of staying in the game: Old dogs can learn new tricks.

Food predates coffee, wine and Mick Jagger. A modern twist on the dining experience has spawned a Food Network on TV and designer kitchens, while giving new meaning to the term "Bam!" Employee practices, however, still need to catch up.

An executive chef for the Stew Leonard grocery stores was recently arrested after allegedly hitting a fellow chef because her appetizers were cold. This occurred behind the scenes of a wedding in a town on Connecticut's "Gold Coast." Although the chef's wife claims it was just a big misunderstanding, others say the outburst is typical of the "cooking-with-fury" generation.

Similar to stories I hear about plumbers in my father's day, the natural order was that the executive chef openly harassed the sous chef, who did the same to the line cooks. This "rudeness rolls downhill" pattern was tolerated then, but today's chefs know they can get sued for that kind of behavior. So I guess that most of them have learned to keep their cool in the kitchen.

As a human resouces consultant, I have interviewed many young workers who want to get even with belligerent bosses. In my 30 years of experience, workplace dynamics have changed dramatically, and temper tantrums have become costly.

On the plus side, satisfied employees lead to loyal customers. Now there is a profitable business equation.

Glancing through this month's edition of CONTRACTOR magazine can generate new ideas on how to kick your business up a notch. Whether you consider a new marketing gimmick, take a chance on a new product or commit to improving your management practices, take the plunge.

You may catch that next wave. Georgian Lussier is the principal of G.F. Lussier & Associates, which provides management consulting and training to a variety of industries. She teaches the Business Review continuing education classes throughout the state of Connecticut for the Center for Occupational Development and Education. Her husband, Bill Lussier, is a plumbing inspector in Connecticut, holds a building official's license and teaches technical continuing education classes for the Center. Her father, George Farkas, is a retired plumbing contractor and a past president of Connecticut Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. She can be reached by phone at 203/265-1977, via e-mail at [email protected] or on her Website at www.practicalhr.com