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Are you ready to get out of the truck?

Sept. 1, 2010
A one-man plumbing business can expect a lot of stress when facing expansion

While there are some plumbing companies that start up from "business models" where the principals are not journeymen, it is far more common that a company begins life as a one-man show. I've detailed the scenario in other columns: a guy decides to go into business for himself, usually on the basis of that "one" job or a continuing series of service calls and referrals from friends, neighbors and acquaintances. He gets a truck (or already owns one), stocks it with tools, equipment and materials then puts out his shingle. Voila! He's in business!

Let us say that our hero is successful as a one-man shop. He follows good business practices, learns all he can about the business of being self employed, and generally does most of the right things most of the time. He gets busier and busier, now regularly working six days a week … sometimes seven.

To grow or not to grow?
The time comes to most, if not all, small operators when the idea of expanding becomes more than an idea. If our hero is doing things right, the word-of-mouth advertising alone will force the issue. Other catalysts include being given (as in, this job is yours if you can man it next week) a project too large for him to do alone, landing a contract with a client whose service requirements force him to be in two or more places at once, or even an unfortunate injury that forces him to hire help in order to keep his business moving while he convalesces.

Any, or all, of the above situations lead to expanding your business. You would think that these things (with the exception of the unfortunate injury) would be a cause for celebration, or at least a feeling of self-satisfaction, but you would be wrong in most cases. The level of stress incurred by a one man shop on the verge of expanding is quite high for a lot of good, and some not so good reasons. Stepping out of the truck and into the deep end of the pool is something few do without trepidation.

More work, more headaches
Why all of this chest beating and teeth gnashing about expanding? Where do we begin to answer that one? The reason most successful one-man shops stay that way is the control of all aspects of the business: scheduling, billing, collections, rolling stock, and most of all quality control of the work being performed. Customer relations are a big part of it as well. Expanding, by its very nature, requires the owner to relinquish the control that he has coveted since he started the company.

The thought of hiring someone to interact with his best customers is nerve wracking to say the least. How are the new guy's communication skills? What kind of work does he do? Will he do things the way I do them? If he does things differently, is his way better, worse or only different than mine? Can I rely on the new guy to take care of my business like I would? Will he try to steal my customers? Will he represent my company well? All of these questions swirl around in our hero’s head as he moves toward the expansion decision.

The question of money
In addition to worrying about the new guy doing right by his business, our hero has other, more practical worries to consider. These all revolve, in one way or another, around dollars and cents. To begin with, a new hire means purchasing Workman's Compensation insurance, which is not cheap for a company that has never had it before. Next comes all of the taxes for things like disability, unemployment and the other onerous tax burdens that all business people must pay. He's also got to consider the expense of purchasing and outfitting another truck and all of the vehicle expenses like insurance, maintenance, rolling stock and fuel. Life was way simpler when all he had to think about was his work, his truck and himself.

So when our hero gets to thinking that it might be time to expand, he can be forgiven for having second or even third thoughts about it. When events conspire to force the issue, it is not something our hero will do lightly, but with serious forethought, planning and not a little fear.

The devil you know
Some one-man shops that I know absolutely refuse to expand under any circumstances because of the concerns outlined above. They simply let the work go by when they can't handle it, take care of their good customer's and refer work to other shops when they can't get to it or if it is too large for one man to do. With our uncertain times, who is to say they aren't doing the best thing?

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].

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