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Plumbing franchising: Work the system & win

July 14, 2016
Benjamin Franklin Plumbing — a member of the Direct Energy group of companies, based in Sarasota, Florida — is among the leading and most recognized plumbing franchises. The Mr. Rooter Plumbing franchise organization is one of 13 service-based franchise opportunities offered through The Dyer Group, based in Waco, Texas.
A Benjamin Franklin plumber on a service call.

CLEVELAND — The decision to become a franchise operator in any service industry requires careful consideration of many factors. Only those who are determined to succeed need apply, because the time and attention required to keep a franchise business going strong may be more than an independence-minded person cares to expend. However, the benefits to franchising can be significant.

Benjamin Franklin Plumbing — a member of the Direct Energy group of companies, based in Sarasota, Florida — is among the leading and most recognized plumbing franchises. Benjamin Franklin is currently ranked at No. 165 on Entrepreneur magazine’s list of the top 500 franchise companies for 2016.  Every day, plumbers in the bright blue vans, with the slogan —“The Punctual Plumber”— are bringing plumbing services to a growing number of homeowners across the United States.

To date in 2016, 10 Benjamin Franklin franchise territories have been established, in Illinois, Georgia, Virginia and Ohio. Most were conversion of an existing plumbing business, or it was an existing franchisee who added a new territory to their existing portfolio.

Mark Baker, president of franchises for Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, and Mister Sparky — recently provided us a look at the Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchising process, and what it can mean to a success-minded entrepreneur.

The conversation starts with a phone call to a regional Franchise Development representative.

The initial conversation is to gauge potential franchisees’ interest level, and to make sure they understand the goals and expectations, and to see if the area they’re interested in is open.

—Mark Baker

“The initial conversation is to gauge potential franchisees’ interest level, and to make sure they understand the goals and expectations, and to see if the area they’re interested in is open,” Baker explained. “After the conversation with a consultant to learn their goals and aspirations, we have another phone conversation, a webinar, an in-person meeting, and a validation throughout the process. We also want them to validate us, so they can get a feel for what franchising with Benjamin Franklin is all about.”

The time to finalize an agreement can take anywhere from 30 to 90 days or more, depending on how soon an approved franchisee wants to get rolling.

“When you become a franchisee, we have a team to help you, and a process,” Baker said. “Our experts are on-site, helping you go through that process.” It can take two to three months.

The key benefit to many franchise businesses, not only to those in the plumbing industry, is the often-heard word: system. From the basic steps in setting up the business, to phone etiquette, recruiting, training, and in-field service, the Benjamin Franklin system provides precise ground rules and guidelines that help the business stay organized and focused. The Benjamin Franklin system includes trucks wraps featuring the distinctive Benjamin Franklin branding message, uniforms, teaching technicians how to use the pricing guide, to ongoing training to help technicians remain up-to-date on the many facets of plumbing technology.

Existing plumbing business owners who are becoming Benjamin Franklin franchisees receive a step-by-step plan that explains how to convert their businesses to the Benjamin Franklin brand.

“For Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchisees, we teach the ‘Punctual Plumber’ course. We teach the ‘On-Time Technician” course for One Hour HVAC franchisees. Our trainers visit on-site to provide that training. Obviously the franchisees have to continue to run their business as they train. It’s an in-depth process of learning as the business owner and his leadership team operates the business,” Baker said.

You have the power of the network behind you. Any challenge or problem you face has been faced by someone else who can help. That’s what franchising is all about.

— Mark Baker

Assistance continues as the business grows, through the help and advice of Benjamin Franklin business consultants who serve as coaches for the individual franchisee. National advertising and brand name awareness also serves to raise all boats in the Benjamin Franklin pond. Its current ad campaign has TV and radio spots with Mike Rowe, star of the “Dirty Jobs” TV show, and an ardent supporter of vocational careers.

“You get to take advantage of our Internet site, which allows you to network with other franchisees across the country, and it also gives you the opportunity to take advantage of our 24/7 online training,” Baker said. “You get the technology we offer, the help of a national call center in Phoenix, and group buying power.”

A Benjamin Franklin franchisee’s success depends on his or her motivation, and what they need, want and can to do to reach the next level.

“You’re in business ‘for yourself’, but not ‘by yourself,’” noted Baker. “You have the power of the network behind you. Any challenge or problem you face has been faced by someone else who can help. That’s what franchising is all about.

The Forthofer family with their 14 Benjamin Franklin Plumbing employees.

“Whether you’re a $1 million business that wants to reach $5 million, or a $5 million business that wants to reach $10 million, we lay out what the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should be, and how you can reach the next steps,” he added.

Business Support, Sense of Family Bring Growth

Bruce Forthofer, 47, has been a journeyman plumber since 1992. He started his own independent plumbing business in 1998, and 14 years later, merged with an existing Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchise in Kansas City, Missouri. He helped to grow that business as its general manager until Oct. 1, 2015, when he and his wife Madonna assumed ownership. They have a full life, as they balance business responsibilities with running a large family. They have five children, which includes triplets.

Forthofer has a knack for what it takes to grow a service business. From 2012, to the date he purchased the business three years later, it tripled in size, and shows no sign of slowing down.

“We hired two new plumbers in the last month, and we really need one or two more. We’re just literally too busy,” he said. “But looking back, I don’t think I’d do it any other way. We‘ve been pleased with the support we get from Direct Energy. We enjoy the Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchise, and are happy we did this.”

The Forthofer’s franchise has 14 employees, and they’re doing all they can to maintain its family atmosphere, which Bruce says customers appreciate.

We’re just like everybody else, a small company trying to figure things out, get better, grow, be profitable, and provide for our employees and their families.

—Bruce Forthofer

“People think a franchise is a big conglomerate. But we’re just like everybody else, a small company trying to figure things out, get better, grow, be profitable, and provide for our employees and their families.”

Madonna became active in the business last July as office manager, and recently, their daughter has joined in to help with dispatching and answering the phones.

“I think customers want to shop local. The stereotype is that a franchise is not local, but ours really is. Of course, we receive support from the national office.”

Forthofer says Direct Energy has made some significant improvements since assuming ownership of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning, and Mr. Sparky Electric.

“I really like what Direct Energy brought to the table, in terms of energy and financial backing,” said Forthofer. “I can see Direct Energy’s vision, and that it’s making strides to get better. The support is much better in places I need help, such as marketing and technician training.”

Madonna Forthofer says she appreciates the support and sense of community she feels within the Direct Energy organization.

“If there’s an issue, or something you want to do, they’re just a phone call away,” she said. “There’s a real sense of community among the business owners. A couple times a year at the national meeting we spend time with other franchise owners during the national meetings. It’s a great way to share ideas and hear about obstacles other business owners have overcome. It’s a great way to learn. And, I’ve made great friendships with the other wives in the franchise community.”

A Mr. Rooter plumber on a service call.

The Forthofers are so pleased with the Direct Energy approach that one month ago they purchased the rights to a One Hour Air Conditioning franchise.

Mr. Rooter Plumbing

The Mr. Rooter Plumbing franchise organization is one of 13 service-based franchise opportunities offered through The Dyer Group, based in Waco, Texas. The Dwyer Group has 35 years of franchise expertise to draw upon, and has established more than 2,500 franchise owners in 10 countries. In addition to Mr. Rooter, The Dwyer Group operates Mr. Electric, Mr. Handyman, The Grounds Guys, AireServ, Merry Maids, and seven others.

The Dwyer Group has awarded seven new Mr. Rooter franchises at the mid-point of 2016, according to Sam Thurman, vice president of franchise development for Mr. Rooter Plumbing. The businesses are located in Charlotte, North Carolina, Virginia Beach, Virginia, Athens, Georgia, Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Four of those were conversions of an existing plumbing enterprise to a Mr. Rooter business; three were new business opportunities.

With the passage of time, Thurman said that “resales” of existing, longtime Mr. Rooter franchises and other service businesses in the group has increased.

“These are resales by people who have been with us 20 to 30 years and who are retiring,” said Thurman. “It’s time for them to sell, and we assist them with that sale.”

Thurman said existing franchises in larger regions are not typically being bought by plumbers. 

These larger businesses tend to be bought by more entrepreneurial people with executive backgrounds, who are transitioning out of the corporate world and are looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity.

—Sam Thurman

“These larger businesses tend to be bought by more entrepreneurial people with executive backgrounds, who are transitioning out of the corporate world and are looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity,” he explained. “Today, many of our top franchise owners are people who did not come from a plumbing background.”

This arrangement combines two groups with differing areas of expertise, to favorable outcomes. And the owners’ lack of a plumbing background need not be a hindrance.

“In most of these cases, the individual is purchasing a business in which all of the technical talent and licensing is in place,” said Thurman. “So they’re leveraging their managing, marketing and finance experience [from their previous profession], and are bringing in a whole new set of talents to the business. It’s been exciting to see.”

For those starting a new business from scratch, Mr. Rooter has the processes in place to help them identify the right people to hire.

“It’s led to three of our resale locations that will open in the fall being acquired by entrepreneurs outside of plumbing,” he said.

Thurman said Mr. Rooter markets a franchising opportunity in many different ways, but most of the time it markets to existing plumbing businesses.

“We reach out to them, to establish a conversation about their current circumstances, and to better understand where they are in their business,” he said. “But just as importantly, we want to understand where these individuals want to take their businesses. People who have chosen these trades as a career and then as a business made an extraordinary choice. These are wonderful fields of work to be in, but I think sometimes individuals in this business sometimes underestimate the real opportunity they’ve created for themselves.”

That happens, Thurman said, because of their deep background on the job, their training as plumbers, and their extensive daily service in the field, “getting it done.”

“They started out working for somebody, earned their journeyman’s license, earned their master’s license, and then made the decision at some point to go into business for themselves, with certain goals or a vision in mind of what they wanted to accomplish,” Thurman advised. “But since most come from a technical background — most of their experience, expertise, education — was really centered around the work itself, when they transition from employee to becoming an employer, they’re suddenly confronted with challenges, some of which are unforeseen; and they have to be good at a lot of things.”

“Through no fault of their own, there’s really been nothing in their experiences that has prepared them for it, so they’re learning their way, feeling their way through.”

Motivating factors

Thurman said the discussion about potential franchise opportunities starts with an understanding of the individual: What do they want to accomplish with this business and why?

“And once you understand someone’s motivation — creating a better lifestyle for their family, or creating wealth for themselves, or higher income — we can begin to help them understand how the potential relationship with a franchise like ours can help them accomplish it,” explained Thurman.

The qualification process begins with a phone conversation or multiple conversations with the Franchise Development team in Waco, Texas.

“We want to understand their circumstance and motivations,” said Thurman. “Then, if there is interest — and I preface this by saying, ‘we know a franchise is not for everybody — we follow a very complete evaluation process. We come to learn about them, and they come to a deeper understanding of who we are and the capabilities our system provides.”

Eventually, a good prospect will speak with existing Mr. Rooter franchisees, and may possibly visit a business or two, to see how the system operates, and to see the results these franchises are experiencing. The final step is a visit to The Dwyer Group’s facilities in Waco, where they’ll meet the people behind Mr. Rooter.

“At the end of the day, a franchise relationship is not only a business relationship, it’s also a personal relationship,” Thurman explained. “We want to meet them, and we want them to meet us. We guide them through an extraordinarily detailed, behind-the-curtain look at the model we’ve put together.

“And, if we do it right, we will know whether or not we are the right fit for each other,” added Thurman. “We invite people to take the time to evaluate it.”

Thurman said a prospective franchisee could be someone who has owned their own business for 20 years, to someone with a freshly-minted plumbing license, looking for an opportunity.

“What we’re truly looking for, is someone who is willing to embrace change, to some degree, and is internally motivated to really take this wonderful opportunity that they’ve created and maximize the results,” said Thurman. “They’re driven and ambitious. We’re looking for people who see the opportunity they have before them, and want to enjoy the full power of owning one of these companies. We’re looking for someone with high integrity, who is motivated for the right reasons. And, we’re looking for someone who is open to embracing change.”

They must also have an understanding and respect for all that goes into starting and maintaining a business: from hiring, to employee retention, training and marketing.

“It doesn’t matter whether you own a tech company, a manufacturing company or a service business,” said Thurman. “Business today is very complex. And all of the disciplines and skill sets that create successful businesses in any of those other fields are no different from what we do.”

“I always tell people where larger companies might have the advantage of having a human resource department to recruit, and an accounting department to watch the money, and a marketing department to drive the business, here’s the reality: small business people don’t necessarily have that luxury. So where are they going to find these things?”

Once and agreement is reached, franchisees begin the “Sure Start,” and Phase 1 Training. Some of this training and orientation is completed online, and some is accomplished through webinars.

“We cover some of the basics, and that leads to the actual physical training. Most of our companies provide two weeks at our facility in person,” explained Thurman. “We provide a business week in which we focus on the entrepreneurial/back office part of the business; and we offer a ‘Systems Week,’ which is more about the actual service delivery: the training of your technicians and customer service representatives.”

Once a Mr. Rooter franchise has opened for business, owners are assigned a franchise consultant, someone with a vast amount of plumbing business experience.

“The consultant begins working very closely with our owners, to begin to implement the systems, to affect change in their companies,” Thurman said. “When you become a franchisee with The Dwyer Group, it’s not an ‘event,’ it’s a ‘process.’ We will continue to work with them in our Sure Start process for six months to one year. Because we know how vitally important that first six months to one year is, whether you’re starting a business or converting a business.”

A variety of training opportunities are also available in any given year, including a three-day spring conference, designed for owners and their key managers.

About the Author

TERRY MCIVER | Content Director - CB

A career publishing professional, Terence 'Terry' McIver has served three diverse industry publications in varying degrees of responsibility since 1987, and has also worked in marketing communications for a major U.S. corporation.

He joined the staff of Contracting Business magazine in April 2005.

As director of content for Contracting Business, he produces daily content and feature articles for CB's 36,000 print subscribers and many more Internet visitors. He has written hundreds of news, features and contractor profile articles for CB's audience of quality HVACR contractors. He can also be found on the road, covering HVACR industry events or visiting with manufacturers or contractors. He also has significant experience in trade show planning.

Each year, Terry plays a major role in the planning and hosting of the Contracting Business "Refrigeration Roundtable," a private, idea-sharing meeting that brings together supermarket contractors and refrigeration contractors.

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