Young contractor invests in the right equipment and relationships to build a successful plumbing operation.
By Ken Wysocky
Master plumber Linda Hudek has learned many important business lessons since she established her business, LH Plumbing Services in Fairfield, Ohio, in 2010. But there’s one takeaway that stands above the rest: Trying to build a successful business as the lowest-cost plumber in town is a recipe for failure.
Hudek, age 30, concedes that early in her career, she charged less than she should have, just as many other plumbers feel compelled to do in order to gain customers. One reason was the economy at the time, which had slumped into a deep and prolonged recession. The other centered on her primary clientele back then — mostly commercial accounts that she felt she couldn’t afford to lose.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough work, so I’d cave in to general contractors and customers,” she recalls. “I felt that I needed to keep these people happy because they’re my bread and butter and without them, I’d fail.”
The tipping point came during a service call for a commercial contractor. When Hudek arrived at the company to perform backflow tests, she saw another plumbing company’s truck on site. Turns out they were completing a project on which Hudek had bid.
“I learned that they beat my price by $100,” she says. “I’d bent over backward many times over the years to accommodate that customer. But in the end, there was no loyalty to me — they were always going to go with the cheapest guy, not matter how long I worked for them. The relationship didn’t matter.”
The upshot? As she finished the job, Hudek came to the painful realization that this customer would continually be slow to pay and quick to complain about pricing. So she gave the stack of backflow reports to a receptionist and told her to tell the owner she didn’t want to work for the company any more. “From then on, I started working for people who respected me and respected my work,” she explains. “Now I tell people that I’m not a cheap plumber and I don’t do cheap work.
“I explain to them that they’re paying me for my expensive equipment investments and my knowledge and expertise,” she continues. “The people that buy into that concept are my customers. Everyone else can go pound sand.
“Learning to say no to those kind of customers was huge,” Hudek adds. “And I’m always trying to get other plumbers to realize they have to stop prostrating themselves before these guys like they’re our lords and masters.”
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Educating customers about the value of the services Hudek provides goes a long way toward easing their concerns about higher rates. As such, she emphasizes that plumbers who want to charge more than prevailing local rates must be prepared to answer the inevitable question about why their rates are higher.
“I tell them I’m not just some Handy Andy or Joe Schmuck that doesn’t even have a plumber’s license,” she explains. “I tell them they’re paying me because I’m a professional and I’m taking on the liabilities that come with the job. They need to know they’re not my guinea pigs — that I’ve been doing this for X amount of years and know what I’m doing.
“I can’t attest to whether a customer can afford my services,” she adds. “But I can attest to why I charge what I charge and why my expertise is valuable enough to charge what I charge.”
Hudek says she’s figured out how much time it takes on average to perform certain services, as well as her overhead expenses and costs of materials. Armed with those details, she’s created her own flat-rate pricing system that provides adequate profit margins.
“I do not use a flat-rate price book,” she says. “I use Linda’s flat-rate price book. I’m probably charging double what others charge, but others don’t use a camera to make sure roots are completely out, for example, or provide customers with a copy of the inspection video. Or back up their work with solid guarantees and extended warranties.
“When you’re confident in your work, providing extended warranties isn’t an issue,” she points out. “And it’s a huge relief for customers to know that you are confident in your work. That’s added-value in the extreme.”
Sometimes customers say Hudek’s rates are too high, and that’s fine, she concludes. “But others go with me because I took the time to explain to them exactly what they’re getting for their money,” she says.
FROM AGRICULTURE TO PIPE WRENCHES
Becoming a plumber initially didn’t register on Hudek’s career radar. In fact, she had planned to study agriculture on a scholarship awarded by Ohio State University. “I wanted to study horticulture and get into cut-flower farming,” she says. But fate intervened during the summer before her senior year in high school, when she worked for her father, John Hudek, a master plumber and the owner of J&H Mechanical Contractors in Somerville.
“After I graduated from high school, I went to work for him full time,” she explains. “I found I really liked working with my hands. I also liked the constant variety — the type of jobs and the people I met and worked with were never the same.
“I just enjoyed the controlled chaos,” she adds. “I knew I’d never be bored because there’s always a new challenge; and you have to use your head and think every day because you’re always getting thrown into new situations where it’s basically sink or swim.”
While working full time for her father, she also attended night classes at Miami University of Ohio and earned a degree in small-business management, with a minor in real estate, in 2009. “Sometimes my dad’s employees would drop me off at school after work and I’d be covered in mud and janitors would get on me,” she recalls.
Hudek knows of several other female plumbers in Ohio. But anyone who thinks she became a plumber to become a poster child for breaking the industry’s glass ceiling is mistaken. “I didn’t become a plumber to prove a point,” she states. “Male or female doesn’t matter. I’m a good plumber who’s earned the respect of my fellow plumbers and my customers. That’s what matters. My work speaks for itself.”
LH Plumbing Services’ Facebook page reflects that respect, with numerous testimonials from customers. A look at the site reveals 1,845 likes and nothing but five-star reviews (from 114 customers).
“Linda is extremely knowledgeable and great to work with,” reads one customer’s review. “When I was interviewing plumbers to install a tankless water heater, she was the only one who mentioned the specific code requirements or getting a permit and inspections. She did a great job at a reasonable price. Last Sunday morning, there was water spurting from a connector in my sump discharge pipe. I called her and she came over and fixed it that day. She’s the best!”
NETWORKING PAYS OFF
The company’s Facebook page also includes comments from other plumbers — even some from outside Ohio. In fact, she says a group of one-man shops in her area operate as friendly rather than cutthroat competitors. “We often work together and refer work to each other when we have too much work to handle,” she explains. “Most of us are very close, and we don’t talk badly about each other or steal each others’ customers. It works out very well.”
On a broader scale, Hudek says that through Facebook, she’s also established solid and fruitful long-distance relationships with other plumbers that have contributed immeasurably to her success. She credits colleagues like Thomas Carlisle, the owner of Underground Connections in Wooster; Ben Kohn, who runs Sinks to Sewers in Ventura, California; and Nathan Hudelson, the owner of Schlueter Plumbing in Cincinnati.
“I joined a Facebook group called Plumbing Hacks, which has about 20,000 members,” she explains. “And through that, I was introduced to other groups, including the Sewer Roundtable (Facebook page), which specializes in drain cleaning and drain repair. We post pictures of our jobs, share family events, and discuss various business and work issues.
“By joining the groups and posting pictures of my work and my thoughts on things such as pricing, I’ve met a lot of plumbers, including local guys I actually didn’t know existed,” she continues. “I’ve learned a lot from these people — received business advice or heard about equipment I otherwise might not know about.”
A good example is PipePatch, a trenchless spot repair system for pipelines made by Source One Environmental. Hudek purchased a PipePatch system in summer 2017 for roughly $4,000 and says it has already paid for itself.
In particular, she says Carlisle and Kohn helped her understand the value of investing in better drain cleaning equipment that could diversify her services. They also taught her how to make jetting more profitable, she says. “When I told them how often I had to use other companies to jet work for me and how often the equipment I had at the time couldn’t get the job done, they helped me realize that I had enough work to purchase better equipment,” she says.
Hudek says that fellow plumbers also took time to educate her about how to jet more effectively. Some even showed her their inspection videos, she notes — a valuable instructional tool. “I learned a lot from them about things like the proper methods to inspect and record, as well as better jetting techniques,” Hudek says. “Their advice has been invaluable. And their friendship even more so.”
To provide good customer service, Hudek runs a Chevrolet Silverado 3500 pickup truck that tows a 14-foot enclosed trailer built by Homesteader. The pickup carries a saddle toolbox and a Pack Rat pullout drawer unit from Weather Guard (a brand owned by the Werner Co.). She prefers power tools built by Milwaukee Tool, RIDGID and Hilti.
For drain cleaning, which generates about 45 percent of the company’s revenue, Hudek relies on a RIDGID K-1500 sectional machine; a Jetters Northwest 4009 Brute water jetter (4,000 psi at 9 gpm), skid-mounted inside the trailer; a Speedrooter drum machine made by General Pipe Cleaners/General Wire Spring; a RIDGID K-50 sectional machine; and a Flex Shaft drain cleaning cable made by Clog Squad. Hudek uses cutter heads and chain knockers made by Seweri Finland Oy and also owns two inspection cameras made by RIDGID (a SeeSnake nanoReel and a SeeSnake microReel), plus an Opticam unit manufactured by Insight Vision Cameras.
Starting out from scratch, back when she didn’t have anywhere near as much equipment as she does now, wasn’t easy. Hudek says she struggled early on, subsisting on jobs passed to her by her father or working as a subcontractor for other plumbers. The recession only made things worse.
“I was able to pay my bills and that was about it,” she says. “I tried some coupon magazines for advertising, but I’d never do that again. All I got were calls from people who were looking for cheap work and didn’t want to pay anything. So for the most part, I relied on word-of-mouth referrals … and it kind of blossomed from there.”
CAN-DO ATTITUDE PAYS OFF
Just as important as her skills during those years was her attitude, reflected by her company’s short-and-sweet slogan: “Can do!” Hudek picked that up from her father, who was a Seabee in the U.S. Navy. (The nickname Seabees stems from the acronym for the group’s formal name, the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion.)
“Can do” is the Seabee’s motto, along with, “The difficult we do now, the impossible takes a little longer.” Hudek says that her father started calling her the “can-do kid” when she was a youngster. “He still calls me that, and it means a lot to me.”
Hudek credits other factors or her success, too. “No. 1 is Jesus Christ, who’s blessed me with the abilities to do what I’m able to do. Then there’s my dad, who taught me about determination.
“I remember when I first started working for him, I messed something up with a backhoe,” she continues. “I tried to grade out an area and made an absolute mess of it. I cried in front of him. He said, ‘Why are you crying? That’s not going to fix anything!’ He taught me that without determination and resilience, I wasn’t going to go very far in this business.”
Providing good customer service also has paid big dividends. That includes doing the little things right, like not leaving a messy job site when she completes a job. “I really go the extra mile to clean things up,” she says. Educating customers also has been critical, she says, noting that it’s important to explain to customers what they’re getting for their money.
She also uses small-ball marketing techniques, such as giving customers refrigerator magnets and pens with her company’s name on them.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
As for the future, Hudek says hiring a technician is the only way she could significantly further grow her business, given that she usually is working at full capacity. But managing employees can be stressful, so she plans to keep enjoying the freedom that comes from running a one-person shop, not to mention the great profit margins.
“In three to five years, I might have employees,” she says. “Then again, maybe not. But I don’t mind the unknown.” But will she keep on investing in new productivity- and profitability-enhancing equipment and providing great customers service? Can do.
Making investments in drain cleaning equipment enhance revenue growth, customer satisfaction
It’s not unusual for plumbers to take a pass on drain cleaning. Master plumber Linda Hudek, the owner of LH Plumbing Services in Fairfield, Ohio, used to do just that, owning only the bare minimum of small draining-cleaning equipment and subbing out larger jobs to local contractors she trusted.
But the shoe now is on the other foot. After Hudek decided to invest in various kinds of drain cleaning equipment and pipeline inspection cameras, nearly a dozen local plumbers now hire her to handle their drain cleaning needs. As a result of those investments, Hudek now provides more efficient one-stop-shop services for her customers and amps up her revenue and profit margins — a win-win situation if there ever was one.
“It was a no-brainer,” says Hudek, 30, who started her business in 2010. “I saw an opportunity — the market was there. I was getting enough requests that I knew investing in cameras and jetting equipment would pay off.
“Not only are those machines huge moneymakers, they totally diversified my abilities and company,” she continues. “I went from someone who was just barely into drain cleaning and subbing things out to being able to take care of almost any problem. I want to offer my customers complete service.”
Sure, the equipment represented a significant capital investment. But the financial results prove the validity of the old adage about the need to spend money to make money: Hudek posted two record quarters revenuewise in the last quarter of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018. And this year she’s on pace to double her revenue compared to 2015 and prior years.
If you are a plumber and need help with any of the following, contact seelutions today at (757) 737-1306.