Under the leadership of Whitney Mitchell, 30, Pipe Wrench Plumbing, Heating and Cooling in Knoxville, Tenn. achieved remarkable growth during 2017.
Founded in 1998 by Tom Cambron, Mitchell's father, with one employee, one truck and $125,000 in annual revenue, their 2017 growth exceeded all levels in the company’s history. Revenue increased 90.4%, and staff size more than doubled from 25 to 51. Due to a growth of 40% in new customers, 12 trucks and vans had to be added for a total fleet of 29 vehicles.
Pipe Wrench was recently voted by the community as the Best Plumbing Service in Knoxville through the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Best Awards Campaign. They were also voted a Top 10 Place to Work through Nexstar Network’s annual Employee Engagement Survey of over 240 plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical contractors across North America.
Q&A with Whitney Mitchell
Q: How did you get started with the company?
A: My father, Tom Cambron, founded Pipe Wrench in 1998 with the goal of being Knoxville’s best plumbing company. I joined the company in 2006 at age 18, working 6 days per week doing customer service, accounting management and human resources. I continued the accounting management as I transitioned into office management, service management and then to General Manager. Now at age 30, I manage all aspects of the company’s operations.
Q: How did you tackle being one of the only females?
A: It was definitely challenging to be working in a male-dominated industry where the female workforce is only 2.5%. Staff wondered if I even knew how to fix a toilet. To earn their respect, I started ride-a-longs with techs on the job to get to know them better and overcome stereotyping like the boss’ daughter didn’t have to work as hard. And yes, I’d jump into a dirt trench and help them dig.
Q: What do you think catapulted Pipe Wrench to this tremendous growth level?
A: I implemented many specific internal and external systems that significantly influenced the rate at which we were growing. One of my first steps was to create a positive work culture with our employees.
As a young entrepreneur, my philosophy on successfully managing 50 team members is to get to know more about each employee, learn what motivates them and give them flexibility within their job schedule to take care of their families’ needs. My approach that “creating happy employees creates happy customers” was a turning point in accelerating business growth. There was a gradual uptick in our employees’ morale that had a direct, positive impact on customer satisfaction, and in turn, an increase in positive customer reviews after service calls.
To balance being personable while being firm in making decisions, especially hard ones like firing someone, a personal strategy I use is to remind myself that ‘this is business, so I’m making this decision to successfully run this company for the betterment of everyone who works here to support their families.’ Using this simple frame of mind has been an asset in managing the company.
Q: How did you fund what’s needed as a company grows?
A: When my father, Tom Cambron, started Pipe Wrench 20 years ago, our threshold of operating capital was done on a dime. Our growth in previous years was manageable from a capital standpoint since it was very gradual. However, our rapid acceleration this past year required a huge amount of additional funding to keep things operating smoothly, so I developed new systems to generate additional revenue for re-investing in our company’s growth.
Repeat Business and Customer Retention: I implemented regular customer communication with three contacts after a service call (Happy Call, handwritten thank you note, postcard) plus other mailings and newsletters every other month. These initiatives increased new customer growth to 40% and repeat business/customer retention to 56% (industry average is 30%-35%).
Financing Option: I added this in 2015 to make it easier for customers to purchase higher ticket items, and this contributed 30% to our annual revenue.
Digital Transition: I updated our technology where all techs have ipads to give written estimates signed by customers, significantly reducing customer complaints that they didn’t know the cost of the service.
Social Media/Internet Marketing: I’ve implemented a comprehensive social media campaign, developed an enhanced website, and aggressively marketed on Google.
Customer Reviews: I added new interfaces that increased our review volume and allowed customers scheduling via text. Our overall rating is 4.6 across all review resources. For Google reviews, we average 4.7 (Google average is 4.2). We were the first plumbing company to reach 500 Google reviews in Knoxville.
HVAC Services: Representing only 10% of business, I started Home Advisor’s lead generation program in mid-2017, increasing HVAC to 30% of annual revenue.
Growth was so huge that I had to accelerate recruitment, doubling the number of employees from 25 to 51. I gave very serious consideration to the new positions being added to make sure they would fit well within our organizational structure as we continued to grow. To sustain such a rapid size increase, I have carefully developed new systems so that we can continue to increase revenue and achieve our profitability goals. Another critical factor influencing the decisions I’ve been making is that both our plumbing and HVAC services are impacted by unpredictable weather conditions which can significantly impact the workload either upwards or downwards.
Q: What's your strategy to continue your company's success?
A: I’ve added new management positions to our organizational structure to ensure that all operational aspects are running smoothly. I will continue systems already in place and find new systems to enhance operations without compromising quality. Below are several ongoing systems that will contribute to our continued success.
SendASale Program: I implemented this in September 2017 for sales techs making a call to observe if other services are needed and upsell them to the customer, generating $1.25 million in sales (21% of total revenue) in four months.
New Team Structure: One system we do differently from competitors is have a sales team and an install team to call on customers rather than one team doing it all. This conserves costs with the different team pay scales and allows my sales team to concentrate on serving customers and generating additional business through our SendASale program.
Recruitment: I increased our 401k matching contribution to 4% as an attractive recruitment tool for long-term career employment. The recruitment process will continue background checks, drug testing, IQ testing and personality testing to hire people who fit well within our corporate culture. Training and education will be done as new industry technology develops.
Team Morale Building: Structured morale-building activities I’ve put in place will continue, such as a new Employee of the Month program and daily technician activities to foster an energetic team spirit: Monday for playing Pictionary; Tuesday for Nexstar training; Wednesday for washing trucks; Thursday for technical training; Friday for inventory management and job costing tickets for potential improvements.
Q: What's are your words of wisdom to other women who would like to enter the plumbing industry?
A: The business environment is so much more favorable now toward women, and I would tell them to grab the opportunity, hold onto it and do what they really want to do!