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Ready to Grow Your Plumbing Business?!... Or Not!

Aug. 15, 2023
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.

While there are some plumbing companies that start up from “business models” where the principles are not journeymen, it is far more common that a company begins life as a one man show. The fact that you have even thought of going into business today, with the current economy, supply chain and, more importantly, manpower issues, speaks well of your confidence and courage—if not your pain tolerance.

Add to that leap the idea of growing your business. The idea of expansion can be daunting. 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 you are successful as a one-man shop. You follow good business practices, learn all you can about the business of being self-employed, and generally do most of the right things most of the time. Because you are really good at what you do, you get busier and busier, now regularly working six days a week… sometimes seven.

To grow, or not to grow…what a question!

The time comes to most, if not all, small operators when the idea of expanding becomes more than an idea. If you are doing things right, the word-of-mouth advertising alone will force the issue. Other catalysts include being given a project too large for him to do alone (as in, “this job is yours if you can man it next week”), landing a contract with a client whose service requirements force him to be 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 I 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 $$$

In addition to worrying about the new guy doing right by his business you have 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 the vehicle expenses like insurance, maintenance, rolling stock and fuel. Life was way simpler when all you had to think about was work, your truck and yourself

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

The devil you know...

Some one-man shops that I am acquainted with 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 customers and refer work to other shops when they can’t get to it or if it is too large for one man to do. One master plumber I know told me, “After trying to hire people to train, and dealing with what passes today for apprentice applicants, not being able to get the simplest material in a timely manner and the government in my business every time I turn around, I’ve decided I’m going to stay a one man shop until I retire.”

With our uncertain times, who is to say he isn’t doing the best thing?

The Brooklyn, NY-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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