Adapting for survival; what do you do when nothing is working

It is becoming more difficult to find topics for this column that point to an upbeat outlook for our current economic malaise. I'm not telling you anything that you don't already know when I say work and job prospects, across the board, are in the tank.

It is becoming more difficult to find topics for this column that point to an upbeat outlook for our current economic malaise. I'm not telling you anything that you don’t already know when I say work and job prospects, across the board, are in the tank. Every time I talk to a contractor, supplier, manufacturer's representative or journeyman about what they see going forward, I get the same answer: nothing. Any new work coming is scarce or non-existent. Most of what’s available is funded by public money (fire stations, schools, jails, etc.) and even that is hard to find. If there is any "stimulus" to be found, it is not doing the overwhelming majority of trade professionals and their companies much good at all.

A recent jail project in Yavapai County, Ariz., drew 27 general contractor bids from all over the country. The winning plumbing bid was from a local two-man service shop that doesn't have the manpower or the experience to do such a project. This is what we've gotten down to. I'm not faulting the local guy either. He is doing what I recommend everyone do in these troubled times. He is stretching and going for it. If he's going to go out, he's going out swinging.

What to do when there's nothing to do
The time for Pollyanna optimism and general platitudes about a "recovery" is pretty well gone. You're in survival mode and you need to do whatever it takes to make sure you're still standing when, and if, this economy ever turns around. You also need to take the long view and ask "what if the economy never fully recovers?" When you have tried everything you can try, and you are watching your livelihood evaporate before your eyes, what should your course of action be?

Some contractors I have spoken to have narrowed their work prospecting in an effort to keep the wolves at bay. An example is a shop that worked almost exclusively on hospitals, schools and industrial buildings. Specifically, they did a lot of process piping, medical gas piping and the like. With no new work coming down the pipe, they have marketed themselves toward servicing those industries and buildings, abandoning bidding on any new work.

This is a great idea, as far as it goes, but my advice to them was to actively and aggressively continue to prospect for "any" new work, whether or not it was in their area of expertise. After all, plumbing, pipefitting and HVAC is plumbing, pipefitting and HVAC no matter where it is installed. Let's face it, specializing is a great way to go when there is enough specialty work to support you, but too much specialization, or dogmatically being attached to such specialization, can be fatal. Just as in nature and natural selection, diversity is the best chance for long term survival. Being too highly specialized narrows your options and makes it all the more likely that you and your company will not survive.

Look for any work, anywhere and everywhere
Many shops are already casting wide nets looking for work, but I've noted that these shops are, for the most part, looking for that work in the same areas that they have always looked for it. In other words, commercial/industrial shops are looking for commercial/industrial work, residential guys are looking for residential work (which is for all practical purposes stagnant), and so on. To use a phrase that has been done to death recently, "think outside the box."

It is difficult for most of us to do things with which we are uncomfortable. A good example is reading about or listening to opinions and commentary of opposing political views. So it seems to be with the types of work we will look into doing. I don't know why that is true, but it is.

So, we go back to the two-man shop who won the bid for the new Yavapai County jail. He stepped outside his comfort zone to grab at a project that he had to know was going to be difficult to do because he needed to do something! If you are floundering at sea, you don't pick and choose the color of the life raft you'll get into. If you do, and the right color isn't available, you're going to drown.

They say advice is worth exactly what you pay for it, but here is some anyway; do whatever it takes to keep your business going. If you are a commercial/industrial shop, look at doing residential work, if there is no new residential work, look into doing kitchen and bath remodeling and service. If you are a residential shop, look into doing service work and expand into commercial/industrial service work. Do anything and everything: old, new and untried. For example, restaurants, dry cleaners, doctor's offices and gas stations all have plumbing and HVAC and all need service at one time or another.

It's either that, or close the doors.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].