Mary Jean Anderson really likes pink. As the owner of El Cajon, Calif.-based Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air, she applies the bright hue to her company’s website, her technicians’ vans, and even the disposable shoe covers her technicians wear when they enter customers’ homes.

As a female-owned HVAC and plumbing business, the pink accents, Anderson said, help the company stand apart from other contractors. In a male-dominated industry, Anderson said her female-led cast has granted her numerous advantages.

“Being a woman-owned business, and marketing that, has given us an edge,” she said. “It’s unusual. Women love to support other women.”

But splashing some pink here and there isn’t what has made Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air so successful in recent years, she said. Instead, it’s the interaction between her employees and their customers, as well as the company’s commitment to giving back to the community that has helped the company gain customers for life.

“Helping others and giving back has brought us a lot of success,” she said. “The community has really taken a liking to us.”

Getting Started

These days, Anderson works side-by-side with her husband of eight years and HVAC service manager, Bryan Rominger; her daughter and office manager, Kelly Jo, 29; her son and plumbing service manager, Kyle, 34; and her more than 100 employees. But in 1978, when Anderson’s then-husband Walter Anderson founded the business in the San Diego area as Walter Anderson Plumbing, Mary Jean was working fulltime as a nurse.

“I primarily worked in doctors’ offices as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), doing injections and drawing blood,” she said, adding that she also worked in oncology administering chemotherapy to patients. “I learned a lot about life very young. I made my decision then about how I wanted to live and run my business based on what I saw, with people fighting illnesses they had no control over.”

In 1984, after Kelly Jo was born, Mary Jean opted to leave nursing and join her husband in the family business, convincing him to expand the plumbing company’s services and hire their first technician.

Personality differences eventually caused Mary Jean to move to the Phoenix area in order to start a second branch of the business. In 2001, the couple filed for divorce, though they continued to run the business together amicably until Mary Jean bought out the company in 2002 and sold the Arizona branch. Walter retired, and Mary Jean took over.

Building a Team

After Mary Jean bought out her ex-husband’s part of the business, she began hiring more technicians and training them in customer service.

“I remember one particular person I hired,” she recalled. “He couldn’t look me in the eye, but I saw something in him in the interview, so I got him some communication training, which I believe is just as important as mechanical training. That tech became such a great plumber, and he started to feel so good about himself. We built a really successful long-term team like that.”

Watching her technicians excel had a profound impact on Mary Jean. “That’s how the plumbing company became solid and profitable, and I began to really love the business because I saw I could really help people,” she said. “Watching these men grow and become proficient in all these different skills was such a rush for me — I thrived on it.”

In 2005, Mary Jean decided to expand the company by adding HVAC services. “I thought, I’m doing this pretty well, I should add heating and air.”

Instead of building the HVAC business from the ground up, Mary Jean opted to acquire an existing HVAC company.

“I decided to buy what I thought was a really good HVAC company, but it was really all smoke and mirrors,” she recalled. “The guy who sold it to me was a con.”

One Bad Apple

In addition to acquiring the HVAC company, Mary Jean also inherited its employees, who she insisted each undergo a background check, per her company’s policy. “I don’t hire anyone with a felony background because I don’t want to send those people into other people’s homes,” she said.

According to Mary Jean, the business’s former owner agreed to run the background checks, though he never followed through. If he had, she might have known that one of the employees handling her company’s money had previously been convicted of embezzlement.

By the time Mary Jean figured out what was going on, the employee had taken $200,000 from her.

“We wrote up an agreement that he was going to pay us back, but we haven’t seen him since and he hasn’t repaid a dime,” she said.

Instead of chasing him down, which could have proven futile and expensive, Mary Jean made the decision to concentrate on turning the struggling company around. But soon, she encountered another hurdle — the Great Recession.

“And then the recession of 2008 hit,” she said. “I kept propping up the business by taking the profitable plumbing company’s funds and bailing out the HVAC business, but that could only continue for so long.”

Turning Things Around

While Mary Jean’s business struggled, she amassed more and more debt. After a while, she was $500,000 in the hole, but she wouldn’t give up.

“I couldn’t fail. I just kept going,” she said. “I had a loyal team, but nothing was working out right. The margins were wrong. Everything was wrong. But I had this core group of great people. So we kept working on turning things around.”

Anderson said she changed the company’s marketing strategy and began rebranding the company. She concentrated on continuing education and customer service training, formed partnerships with local schools, and became increasingly involved in charitable groups and events, including the Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure. Finally, Mary Jean learned to ask for help from others with more experience and knowledge.

And it all paid off.

“It was a really long haul, but we’re successful now,” she said. “We’re going to do $14 million in business this year, and we’re in double-digit profits. The HVAC company itself will probably do $7.2 million, and we’re 14 percent above what we’ve budgeted for this year. Typically, HVAC isn’t profitable in the first quarter, but we’re exceeding expectations.”

A Family Affair

Though Mary Jean loves what she does, she said she never expected or wanted her children to be involved in the family business. She wanted them to find their own paths in life, so both left home to attend college.

But, as it turns out, their paths led back home, anyway.

Mary Jean hired Kyle after he finished college, though she soon “fired him because he wasn’t ready — wasn’t mature enough yet,” she said. “Then, he went to work for another company and stayed there for two years. He did a lot of growing up in those two years. Now he’s back and runs the plumbing side of the company very successfully by himself.”

Kelly Jo, meanwhile, moved to Northern California and earned a degree in radio and television broadcasting with an emphasis in broadcast journalism.

“I wanted to be a sportscaster — I wanted to do on-air field reporting,” Kelly Jo said. “But I always said I’d move back to San Diego from San Francisco, and when I did move back and got married, I worked for the family business for a while and got pregnant with our first child.”

While Kelly Jo admitted to initially being torn between her dream of being a sportscaster and being involved in the family business, her decision was ultimately an easy one to make.

“I’ve seen my parents work so hard for what they have, and I want to be a part of that,” she said, adding that while she is a supervisor now, “I wasn’t put into a manager position right away. I earned my keep.”

And while working with family every day may spell disaster for some people, it seems to work pretty well for the Andersons, though it takes a constant effort.

“It’s tough sometimes,” said Rominger, who first met Mary Jean when she hired him as a technician 18 years ago. “She’s still my boss, and she’s still the owner of the company, though I have bought into it now.”

Still, Rominger wouldn’t have it any other way, and he laughed as he recounted how their romance began. “The motors had burned out in her pool’s filtration system, so she called what she thought was one of her best guys to come take a look at it,” he recalled. “So I replaced the motors and then I moved in.”

He chuckled and added, “OK, maybe not that fast, but you get the idea. It was a perfect fit. She laughed at all of my dumb jokes, and I can still make her laugh.”

Plumbers for Boobies

One of the most important ingredients in Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air’s recipe for success is community involvement. In addition to raising money for young adults who are aging out of the foster care system, Anderson employees have raised more than $100,000 in the past two years alone for the Susan G. Komen foundation, which contributes money to breast cancer research.

“We walk as a company every November, and we invite our customers to join us,” Mary Jean said. “Everyone in our company has been touched by cancer, and we work together on these causes. It brings us together. Our technicians wear the American flag on one sleeve and a pink ribbon right next to their name.”

Rominger said it’s that dedication to the community — and, by extension, to the customer — that sets their technicians apart.

“We just want to have happy customers,” he said. “The success of our company will lie in having our customer base built up.”

Eventually, Mary Jean said she would like to hand the business off to Kelly Jo and Kyle, but in the meantime, she is enjoying watching the company and its employees grow while working to better the community. “We’re not all about making money,” Mary Jean said. “When we’re gone off this earth, we can’t take our money with us. We just want to make a difference while we can.”

Publication date: 7/1/2013 

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