Plumbing seems like a natural fit for many HVAC contractors looking to expand their offerings. But the process of adding this trade is more complicated than it may seem. In many states, adding plumbing services means hiring a licensed master plumber. This makes finding the right person essential to success.
The first challenge comes from answering the question, “Why would a good certified master plumber want to work for someone else, rather than running their own shop?” There are many good reasons, said Chris Hunter, director of customer relations for ServiceTitan. One is a reason common to many HVAC contractors: They love the trade, but not running a business. Joining a larger company allows them to focus on what they want to do.
It also provides opportunities a smaller firm lacks. A large firm can invest in the business and provides access to dozens, sometimes hundreds, of existing customers. A plumber who joins an HVAC firm can quickly grow the business.
There are risks for both parties, though. That’s something Hunter knows all too well. When his old company, Hunter Super Techs in Ardmore, Oklahoma, first entered plumbing and hired a master plumber, it quickly turned from a best-case scenario to a worst-case scenario. The business saw rapid growth as it tapped into its customer base. The plumber, seeing this growth and knowing the state of Oklahoma required his presence, soon tried to renegotiate his deal and threatened to leave.
“They can hold you hostage,” Hunter said.
Hire More Than One Plumber
Hunter Super Techs found itself with a considerable investment in plumbing and no master plumber. The company recovered, but would go through a few more plumbers before hiring the right person.
At least Hunter’s master plumber showed up. Travis Seeger, co-owner of Chesterfield Service in Chesterfield, Missouri, was ready to launch his firm’s plumbing division, but the master plumber he hired never showed up for his first day of work.
Hunter said there are ways for HVAC contractors to avoid the risk of having an entire operation depend on one person. One is to hire more than one master plumber. An HVAC contractor may want to hire someone away from a small business plus take on someone looking at a semi-retirement situation. Of course, that is easier said than done. Plumbing faces the same labor shortage as all the other trades and has even fewer training schools.
“Plumbers are harder to find than HVAC techs, believe it or not,” Hunter said.
Seeger said most plumbing firms in the St. Louis market are family businesses, making hiring a plumber extra challenging. There are some exceptions. Seeger was able to hire a journeyman who worked with his father until they disagreed on the pace of change. Still, it does shrink the talent pool, Seeger said.
“You almost have to be born into it,” he said. “Most plumbers that we found either are second-, third-, fourth-generation plumbers, or they had an uncle in the business. It’s one of those trades that’s very hereditary.”
More Than an Employee, Less Than a Partner
Another way to protect against having the plumbing business tied to one person is to help a journeyman get a master’s license. It takes years to get a journeyman’s license, much less a master’s license. Rick Ilich, service manager at Kellam Mechanical in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is working toward his. Ilich said he’s doing it to better understand the plumbing part of the business because it provides a lot of the company’s growth.
Seeger said HVAC contractors need to understand they are making an investment in hiring a plumber. It’s different than just bringing in another technician or even a manager. Seeger said they should prepare to negotiate.
Ilich said HVAC firms seeking to hire plumbers need to understand the concerns on the other side. They need to ensure there will be enough work for someone joining what is essentially a start-up. An HVAC contractor also need to ensure the plumber that the work follows code. Ilich said the plumbers are the ones putting their names on certification for local governments, so they carry extra risk.
Plumbers are like anyone else, Ilich said. They want a positive work environment.
“They want to be at a company they like, where they feel respected, where they have a voice,” he said.
Clear Goals Protect HVAC Contractor’s Culture
Hunter said any HVAC contractor considering hiring plumbers needs to make sure the main business already operates well. Plumbing seems like a way to grow quickly, something that especially appeals to HVAC contractors in these uncertain times. But he recommends going slowly and focusing on a small area. An HVAC contractor could add a specialty, such as water heaters, or only offer plumbing to service contract customers.
“If you get it wrong, you’ve opened up a headache instead of a profit center,” Hunter said.
The clear goals allow an HVAC contractor and a plumber to enter into a contract that states the expectations of each. For example, Hunter Super Techs always operated under a philosophy of fast, professional service and worked all hours to meet that promise. Plumbers work at a different pace, Hunter said. What seems like a simple job can easily turn into an hours-long project. Plumbers also don’t experience a shoulder season like HVAC contractors, so promotions that try to drum up business often backfire.
Prospective plumbers may be set in their ways, especially after running their own businesses. Hunter said the change management proves the biggest challenge. He said HVAC contractors need to give the plumbers time to adjust, but they must make sure that adjustment doesn’t turn into a problem.
“A company has to protect its culture at all costs,” he said. “You’ve got to get the buy-in right off the bat.”
Reward Plumbers When They Pay Off
Hunter said an HVAC contractor really needs to know the plumber being brought into the business. It doesn’t have to be a partnership, but there needs to be a good fit. He recommends using personality tests to find the right person.
A plumber should be rewarded for growing the business based on the gross profit from plumbing, Hunter said. At the same time, the HVAC contractor needs to insist on non-solicitation agreements to keep the plumber from leaving and taking staff and customers.
If the first hire doesn’t work out, don’t give up, Hunter said. Hunter Super Techs went through a few plumbers before getting to someone who stayed and grew the business. And that didn’t happen through any formal recruitment effort. An operations manager happened to meet him at a gym.
“If I had given up, I would have missed out on a huge benefit,” Hunter said.