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Contractor of the Year John Smith has fought off the recession, established himself as a water conservation expert

Dec. 5, 2011
How is this for a resume? • Author of the book, Plunging into Green: One Plumber’s Journey to Becoming a Water Hugger. • Board member of the Ronald McDonald House of Southern Arizona. • Host of the Arizona Green Plumber BlogTalk radio program. • Guest on Tucson’s Desert Living program. • Instructor at water conservation workshops.
How is this for a resume?

• Author of the book, Plunging into Green: One Plumber’s Journey to Becoming a Water Hugger.

• Board member of the Ronald McDonald House of Southern Arizona.

• Host of the Arizona Green Plumber BlogTalk radio program.

• Guest on Tucson’s Desert Living program.

• Instructor at water conservation workshops.

• Guest on Mrs. Green Goes Mainstream radio program.

• Founding member of the Southern Arizona Green Chamber of Commerce.

• Certified instructor in green plumbing through GreenPlumbersUSA Core Series (Caring for Our Water, Solar Water Heaters, Climate Care, Water Efficient Technologies and Inspection Report Services).

• And, finally, the GreenPlumbersUSA National Green Plumber of the Year for both 2010 and 2011.

To all of those accomplishments, John Smith, Rooter 2000/The Arizona Green Plumber, can add another — he is the CONTRACTOR magazine Contractor of the Year for 2011.

We’re not the only people noticing what Smith is doing.

“John Smith embodies the concept and mission of Green Plumbers,” says Steve Lehtonen, former CEO at GreenPlumbersUSA, the person who brought the GreenPlumbers organization from Australia to the U.S. “We know that contractors and plumbers are rejuvenated when they take our courses, but John has taken the energy and commitment to new levels. He inspires me!” “

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"John Smith is a visionary among plumbers! Since ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ of green plumbing, he has been a tireless champion of water conservation and water reuse,” says Jerry Yudelson, P.E., LEED Fellow, a consultant, lecturer and author of Dry Run: Preventing the Next Urban Water Crisis and other seminal books about energy and water conservation.

Smith has come a long way for a guy who got into plumbing because his now-ex-mother-in-law told him he needed a trade and she’d pay for it.

He got into plumbing in a roundabout way.

Smith was born in Kansas, an Air Force brat who lived most of his life in Tucson. He was in property management in Tucson for six or seven years starting when he was 21. When he was 21, quite honestly, what he was looking for was a place to live and property management provided that. It was his introduction to light repair work. He got married at 26 and his mother-in-law said that he needed to find a trade and she would pay their expenses until he got established. Smith answered an ad in the newspaper for Rooter 2000 that said they would train.

Rooter 2000 was part of an ill-fated franchise. The owners of the Tempe, Ariz., location, Jim and Sharon Snyder, retired from the bakery business and put their money into the franchise, thinking it would provide cash flow. It didn’t work out too well. Smith had only been on the job for two weeks when everybody quit. While he was offered a job with the defectors, he was also offered an opportunity to stay with Rooter 2000 and help turn it into something.

After the mass exodus, John rode in a truck for 30 more days at $6.50 an hour and then transitioned to drain work. He had performed small plumbing repairs when he was in property management, so the work was familiar. He was guided through this period by Howard Peterson, ex-military, who had been part of the Rooter 2000 franchise operation and went to work for the Snyders managing their company. Peterson worked for the Snyders for four years while John was training; he was the qualifier on the plumbing license for the company. He was John’s business coach. Smith worked for four years so he could gain enough experience and study to pass the plumbing exam so that he could hold the plumbing license. He did so successfully and became the company’s vice president in 2000. He runs the company now with his dedicated general manager, Angie Pickens.

On his 10th anniversary with the company, the Snyders offered him an opportunity to open his own business in his hometown of Tucson. In 2002, Rooter 2000 opened its doors in Tucson with Smith as its president. Both companies provide full service plumbing and drain work to both residential and commercial properties around the clock, seven days a week, although the firm’s work was mostly commercial until the recession hit.

Tucson is a different market. While Phoenix is more open and cosmopolitan (probably because so many people in Phoenix are from somewhere else) people in Tucson are more guarded. Tucson has a special small town feel and its citizens have a strong concern for the environment. And they don’t want to do business with a Phoenix company, which means that presenting oneself as a local Tucson company is critical to success.

The company, both in Tempe and Tucson, had been 98% commercial and was doing ok until the recession hit. Smith decided that they needed a residential operation, which would have been difficult to start because they didn’t have enough ad money to break into the market. Then he got an email from GreenPlumbersUSA. That was their ticket. Now 60%-70% of their business in Tucson is residential.

Most of his green business is in Tucson where the office has a sales manager and technicians. All dispatching goes through his dispatcher, Alisa Slagel, in the Tempe office, but keeping with the idea that people in Tucson don’t want to do business with a Phoenix company, the Tucson phone number just rolls over to Tempe.

John will run promotions such as a Niagara flapperless toilet for $300 installed as a loss leader to get into the house and then pitch a water evaluation. A water evaluation is not the same thing as a water audit that is typically offered for free from the utility and takes half a day. During a water evaluation, Smith looks at each fixture in the house. It takes an hour at most and then he writes a proposal.

The water evaluation is a platform for him; it’s a getting-to-know-you thing to establish trust with the customer. Trust is important. At one home show, a gentleman came over to the table three times to talk to him before he ended up buying a toilet. All the back-and-forth was to establish trust.

Contractors can spend a lot of money going to home shows but green shows are always looking for exhibitors and they are free. It’s important to have working displays for toilets; Smith has a working, pumped rain barrel display that’s in the booth mostly to attract attention.

He has a showerhead display for shows. He tells customers to find a supply house with working showerheads — Ferguson has them — so they can see them in operation and pick one they like. Shower preferences are personal and you can’t make a choice until you see them operating. Once a customer has picked out a showerhead, then they can call John either for more advice or to install it.

Smith says that the secret to success is to find a product that you know will work and sell it. The Niagara works. He doesn’t get any complaints. Find a product you believe in, he says. He feels the same about the Caroma dual-flush, noting that only about 20% to 30% of the public even know what a dual flush is, so you need a working display to show people.

He will always rep Gerber because of all of their generous donations when he was plumbing the Ronald McDonald House in Tucson. We toured the Tucson Children’s Museum where John installed the plumbing and Gerber won his loyalty by donating the water closets, faucets and showerheads and Sloan donated a 1-pint urinal. Local wholesaler Benjamin Supply was instrumental in securing the donations.

John plumbed the Ronald McDonald House in Tucson with 1.5-GPM Gerber showerheads and Gerber dual flush toilets. The Gerber lav faucets are all Water Sense rated. John removed all of the old toilets from the previous Ronald McDonald House and donated them to Habitat for Humanity’s Tucson HabiStore. Because of his work on the Ronald McDonald House, John sits on its board of directors along with five owners of McDonalds franchises, for whom he now does all of their plumbing work. The Ronald McDonald House, which Smith estimates uses 20% less water than a comparable structure, has been WaterSmart certified by the City of Tucson.

We swung by the Tucson HabiStore, which is run for Habitat for Humanity by Terry Dee, the director of retail operations. The store sells all sorts of building products and the money goes to support Habitat building projects.

Green has a firm hold on Habitat for Humanity’s southern Arizona operations. The Tucson HabiStore has 33 kW of PV on the roof. Dee noted that all Tucson Habitat houses are built with solar thermal on the roof and with graywater systems. Habitat for Humanity built 14 houses in Pima City, Ariz., last year that were LEED Gold. Right now the organization is in the midst of building 88 houses over a period of five years. All of them will have concrete tile roofs because the manufacturer is offering a 50-year warranty.

As this was being written, the news came out that the town of Groesbeck, Texas, was down to a two-week supply of water. Water conservation expertise will increase in importance and John Smith will be leading the pack.

About the Author

Robert P. Mader

Bob Mader is the Editorial Director for Penton's mechanical systems brands, including CONTRACTOR magazine, Contracting Business and HPAC Engineering, all of which are part of Penton’s Energy and Buildings Group. He has been  with CONTRACTOR since 1984 and with Penton since 2001. His passions are helping contractors improve their businesses, saving energy and the issue of safeguarding our drinking water. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with an A.B. in American Studies with a Communications Concentration.

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