The plumber as a renovation contractor

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Getting to know the staff at your local plumbing wholesale showroom and keeping up to date on trends will pay dividends. Desco’s Jon Leeson, left, holds court at the opening of the company’s new showroom and distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont. last May.

By Mark P. Evans

The City of Kitchener, Ont. is considering new zoning rules that will allow “tiny houses” and “granny flats” to be built throughout my hometown and, sources on the inside tell me, it’s a sure thing. The city is growing at an alarming rate and there’s little room left to expand outwardly so planners are left with few options.

High-rise apartments have sprung up all over town, but even those are not enough to house our ever-increasing citizenship. The next logical step to increasing the population density is to build multiple units on existing properties. Good news for those of us in the building renovating business; bad news for those trying to get across town on an already congested road system.

I’ve plumbed many high-rises but have geared my own business more for single-family dwellings, additions and renovations. It works better for me because I often act as the general contractor on that size of a project and sub out whatever portions of the job I can’t or don’t want to do myself.

Before long, the homeowner has a brand-new bathroom and the plumber has completed a profitable project.

The last several jobs found me doing the dry-walling, taping, painting and tiling. I charge the same rate for that type of work and it allows me to move on-site with my equipment and earn the highest earnings versus overhead ratio.

Also, it allows me to expand my tool selection and service capabilities for future work. Each tool purchase is in an investment and I’ve learned to book jobs for a specific item before buying it, so it’s paid for by others by the time it is returned to the shop. From then on, every charge-out is profit and I get to use the tools for personal projects with no personal expense.

It took years to build a preferred customer base and a network of quality associates but that’s the way any business finds its niche in society.

Turn-key benefits all

Both the customer and the trade associates benefit from this type of “turn-key” arrangement. The customer gets a smooth progression of their project because the worker needed for each next step is often the same person that did the previous step or has been pre-booked. The customer isn’t left waiting for others to coordinate schedules and sync up delivery and installation times. The associates benefit from the arrangement by having a mechanical technician/customer in their own circle of dependable trades-persons to call on when needed.

Another bathroom project by our resident plumber, Upgrades for older people with disabilities are becoming common.

Many of my customers purchase and maintain investment properties here but live out of town. It’s very difficult for them to get quality work done when needed. Smaller projects are especially hard to accomplish. No contractor is going to leave an ongoing project to do a small, spur of the moment patch-up job. That work only gets attention in the off hours or as time allows which drags out the completion time.

There is little hope for an off-site landlord to find a local tile setter to repair a deteriorated wall and then install two square feet of tile in a timely manner so… if the plumber on site to un-clog the drain is up for it, there is plenty of opportunities to turn a small mechanical job into a fair-sized business undertaking. It’s like super-sizing the french-fries for each dinner order at a restaurant. The “up-sell” is a proven formula that costs so little but gains so much. Having grown up doing everything from bricking a chimney to pouring a sidewalk and everything in between, this is the ideal way for me to operate.

Getting the job

But… knowing how to do the job is only part of it if you’re the business owner. You have to get the job first and that takes skills you don’t learn at school. I learned a few sales techniques from a reliable source that taught me the value of having “chutzpah”.

A complete bathroom renovation may start with a plumbing service call.

My father used to keep a brand-new set of taps in his truck which he would take into each home and leave conspicuously in sight while going about the service work he was requested to do. Before long, as the story goes, the lady of the house would spy the shiny new fixture and literally sell herself that item. Once she learned that “the Jones” down the street could afford such a fancy faucet it wasn’t long before she too boasted a brand-new set of kitchen or bathroom taps in her home.

Why not make a little extra at each call along the way? You’re already set up and you can keep the meter running longer with the bird in your hand instead of chasing the two that might be in the bush.

Pops had the biggest plumbing and heating shop in town and didn’t have to go on the tools anymore, but he liked interacting with his service clientele and enjoyed the thrill of salesmanship.

I like it too. I truly enjoy the rise in excitement level as I introduce a customer to the possibility of turning their basement into an income-producing apartment or how they could increase the quality of their life by adding a new ensuite to their home just like “the Jones’s” down the street did.

The project moves beyond the rough-in with tile installation.

Hopefully, the city’s plan to increase my potential client base will allow me to continue using some of the techniques I’ve described. I’m not looking forward to more traffic tie-ups, but I am looking forward to the city’s implementation of new proposals to let us build for higher density because I depend on the city’s growth to pay my never-ending bills.

I learned another very important sales technique from an interior designer who made a lot more than I did on the same job. He told me how important it is to get the customer to examine how they feel when they enter a room in their “sanctuary” – their home.

It’s no small thing; it is “the thing”. If you can capture their imagination, you become their “go-to” guy. I don’t want to do more work, he said, I just want to get paid more for doing it. The renovation business brings those opportunities.

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