Helping service contractors grow their businesses is not just a goal for Danielle Putnam, president of The New Flat Rate, and Matt Koop, vice president of The New Flat Rate — it’s their passion. This summer, that passion culminated in the launch of TNFR’s Business 101 Uncensored event for service contractors, held July 24-25 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
PM had an opportunity to sit down with Putnam and Koop to discuss Business 101 Uncensored, workforce development, and TNFR’s goals moving forward.
PM: Can you tell us a little about Business 101 Uncensored?
DP: We wanted to invite our owners, people who are members of The New Flat Rate, because we're seeing that owners have been sending their techs to training but haven't been coming to training themselves as much. We wanted them to be able to get away from their business while they are making money — in the summer, before the slow season — so we can plan for their future and help plan for what to do in the off season, when it is a little bit slower. Also, we want an opportunity to train the owners and connect with them again.
The purpose of holding this event is so that our members can get to know each other. So they can ask each other: ‘What's working in your company, and what's not? What have you tried and what have you not?’ We really wanted to create unity among our members, and that's why we brought them here.
PM: Whose brainchild was it to hold this event?
DP: Great question. It was actually Matt and I together. Matt said to me, ‘Danielle, I'm at my max — I'm traveling every other week, and I can only train so many people.’ I said, ‘OK, what if I brought everybody together in one spot for you to train at one time?’ He says, ‘Awesome.’ We thought about when to do it and started planning early this spring, and we decided we wanted to do it as soon as possible because we had such great content that we knew we had to share with the owners. It would be a disservice to push it out any further.
PM: What sets this event apart from other similar events?
MK: That's a really good question. Our intent had never been that we purposefully try to be different than anyone. It's just the fact that we always ask the question — the question ‘why?’ The whole purpose of this event was to help answer the question ‘why?’ and it's for everything. We look at the way the industry and even other groups — the best-practices groups and such — run the service calls and the sales calls and the communications over the phone in their companies. It's always: ‘OK, well we know how to do that — we went through it before, and here's the results we were getting. Now why did we do that?’ Because what would happen is if we tried something different? If we started pushing the status quo a little bit to see if we could start communicating to customers differently? Just in the time I've been in the industry, the consumer — the end user, the purchaser for the service companies — they're not the same. Same people, they just buy differently. It's fast-paced. It's a different world. We're here to bridge that gap and to say, ‘What information do we need to keep, and what needs to be new?’ That's really what we're working on accomplishing.
PM: What has been your favorite part of this event?
MK: For me, my favorite part about the event is really the interaction with our members. It's what they're seeing. The fact that we've brought a lot of these conversations to light in the past, but we're just now seeing the light bulbs come on. These are conversations that we kept for the owners but at a time when they're focused on the deep dig instead of trying to implement the program. It's really just the light bulbs that go on when they come out afterwards and they say, ‘That was exactly what I needed to hear — I'm going to take that and I'm going to implement it.’ That one little nugget was worth three days in the middle of summer.
PM: What are some reasons you think plumbers and contractors should be more involved in organizations like Service Roundtable or whatever it may be, and why be a part of a network like TNFR’s membership?
DP: Great question, actually. We focus on three things. We focus on money, time and impact because contractors are out there struggling. They need more money so that they can grow from a position of strength. That's what our system does. Our core goal is to help infuse cash into your company so we can better grow from a position of strength. Then let's bring up your time and help you with your team. We like to help with the team, too, to make sure we're hiring the right people and developing and building the right culture.
Then it’s your impact. What impact did you want to leave — what’s your legacy? All these other best-practices groups, they help provide accountability. You're out there, and you're working by yourself, and it's easy to get tunnel vision. We might have problems in our business, but we're just putting out fires every day, so these best-practices groups provide opportunities for you to hear that other people are struggling with similar issues or have overcome them, and then they help you point in the direction.
Ask yourself: ‘OK, where am I hemorrhaging the most from right now? What do I need to be focusing on?’ So, it helps it clarify. Also, everybody says, ‘Work on your business, not only in your business.’ In contracting, we have to work in our business sometimes, but pulling away at an event like this or with other best-practices groups allows you to step away for a minute so you can actually think, ‘OK, let me work on my business for a couple of days and not just in it.” Then you go back and strategize what to do next.
MK: It gives the 10,000-foot view, because you see other people who may have a company that's exactly like yours, but you see their flaws in it, and then you start to realize, ‘Wait a minute — I have that same problem. I have that same problem!’ A lot of times you can notice how simple they are to fix just because you've broken away and you've taken the time to look at it from a different angle.
PM: Service Roundtable hosted a dinner at this event — why is it important for TNFR to partner with them and similar organizations?
DP: Well, I know what we offer, and then they offer other pieces of the pie, so neither of us is a one-and-done solution. Partnering with other people allows us to provide more value to our members. We're very, very thankful for our sponsors and vendor partners that are here. We don't do service and dispatch software, and so bringing vendor partners here to an event like this allows our customers to see more services that they could take a look at, too, to broaden their reach.
PM: Danielle, I know you're gearing up to become the incoming president now of Women in HVACR — can you tell me a little bit about that organization and why you feel you should be involved in that?
DP: Absolutely. I've been involved with Women in HVACR for about six years now. I've been serving on the board, and what a tremendous group. We have between 300 and 400 members in that group — manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, contractors and technicians. We have an annual conference every year where we bring in keynote speakers, and it's a great opportunity for learning and networking, of course. Then, throughout the year, we have regional meetings where we do more networking.
What I love about the organization is we focus on education and mentorship, and we offer scholarships to help with our education piece. This year we're doing four $2,000 scholarships. We recently launched — and it's really picking up traction and growing — a mentorship program. Think of it like Match.com for mentorships. On Match.com, people go on there to try to find a mate, a spouse or something, right? Well, in the industry, there are a lot of people who want to know how to do better, how to climb the ladder in our industry. You can apply, and it's free.
You can apply to be a mentee, and then you can also apply to be a mentor, and we have algorithms in the back. Women in HVACR matches people based on what it is that you're looking for. We match mentors and mentees, and they get together. They have conference calls. They meet in person. It's a new program, so we don't have a ton of statistics, but the feedback we're getting right now is just incredible. I love that we're tangibly helping people to really learn more and grow, and to climb higher within our industry. It's a great group of women, primarily. We do have some male members, and they're welcome, as well, but it's primarily women.
PM: What do you think the industry is doing right with workforce development, and what can we do better to get more young people into the trades?
DP: Yeah, that's the question everybody's trying to answer, and Women in HVACR is asked all the time, ‘How can I find more techs?’ We help post jobs when people are looking, and at TNFR, we personally go into our local high schools to teach and talk about going into the trades and the opportunity that's there. We're actually going into the high schools and talking about the opportunities in the trades.
Matt's got some great points on how to get your technicians to be the ones that refer, to help bring people in, because they know people who want to work — people who see that their buddy is making good money and want to know how to do what they’re doing.
The big focus is increasing the amount of applicants into a trade — and the skilled trades right now are, in general, millions of positions short, so there's a lot of opportunity. But it is a skilled trade because it does require a training process where we can climb a ladder. So, what we focus on is working with a lot of the companies to build what we call a hiring ladder so that when they talk to applicants, whether it's a high school student or somebody right out of college or from a trade school, they can tell them during their interview, ‘Listen, you're starting right here, and then here's your path to the success — here's the roadmap.’
We find that that young people, especially millennials, need to see it to believe it. They say, ‘Hey, if you show me the path, I can climb it, but I'm not going to stick around and waste my time just by you saying, hey, work hard and when you can do it, then you'll get the rates.’ You have to show them the path. We actually find that a lot more of them can jump on and become what we need.
So, the short answer for how we can increase interest in the skilled trades is, No. 1, is we've got to get apprenticeship programs back in, and we have to start growing our own. We have to build them from the bottom, because the other ones already have a job.
PM: So where is The New Flat Rate going from here? What's next?
MK: You know, that's a really good question. Ultimately, we're big-vision company. We believe in growth, structure and processes, and we believe the end goal would be to be on the Fortune 500 list. It's a lofty goal, but we're working on it one day at a time.
At the end of the day, our mission is to help contractors. We came from the struggling contractor industry, and our goal is to help as many contractors and service technicians achieve their goals as possible. In order to do that, we have to continue to climb — we have to continue to grow. Our first event has a fantastic turnout, so now we just need to add another zero to the attendees. Let's take it to a big room, and then hopefully to a stadium, and we'll go from there.
PM: A stadium. I like that. Do you know the official attendance numbers for the event?
MK: Our room was set up for 86 people, and it's full.
PM: How is TNFR embracing change and helping your contractor members do the same?
MK: Well, we can drop nuggets, but part of our focus has to do with what we call The Wave. And The Wave is, we're all on this wave that's moving forward into the future, but just like a wave, it eventually crashes into the shore and fizzles out. And so we're not so much looking forward on that wave as much as we're finding a way to get to the top and see what's coming.
One thing we look at all time is, what are the projections five years from now for contractors? One of the big players in that arena that so many contractors have been concerned about is Google and what they're doing with contracting with their advertising and everything because Google owns the web space. And then Amazon spends over $7 billion per year on advertising, and all they have to do is put a fraction of that towards their home service plan and they own the market.
When we're looking back and projecting, we're not saying, ‘Oh how we can destroy the most powerful companies out there?’ We instead ask, ‘How can we build a bridge to make sure that contractors can transition and benefit from that without feeling like they're getting ran over?’ That's a big piece of what we focus on with our future Flat Rate programs. We focus on how we can help you jump on the next wave so you can be profitable in the future.
PM: Do you think Amazon is eventually going to have a program where you just order the part via Amazon and they come out and slap it in?
MK: Well, they kind of already do. They launched Amazon Home Services, and they do encourage that customers purchase parts and stuff directly from them. But at the end of the day, we expect that it will be a minimum of five years before Amazon truly launches their own service companies, and ultimately, we don't expect that that's the way they want to go. We think that they will go that way in the event that the contractors don't jump on board. And so our goal, again, is to help the contractors work with them so that they don't decide to take over our jobs, so to say.
PM: What is one interesting thing about yourself you think most people might not know about you?
MK: I'm an astronaut! I'm just kidding. You know, for me, I'm kind of a vacationer and when I'm at home, and I like to grill. And I've got a really nice grill, and so for me, I'm a high-class griller. I would prefer to cook outside versus inside, so that's kind of the most interesting part of me, other than I've got four wonderful children. We go on walks every day when I'm home. That's what we do.
PM: How old are they? Are they going to be part of the business someday, too, you think?
MK: I've got one of them that says he's going to, but we'll see. They're all under 10.
PM: Danielle, what is one interesting thing about you?
DP: I've been to 25 countries, I used to do a lot of mission trips, and so I did a lot of service projects and I've been to some really, really cool and scary places. That was earlier on in life and I loved doing all that. I love to snowboard — I’m an avid snowboarder — and I love fine wines. But now I have two children. I have a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old — they are the joy of my life.
I guess the interesting thing I feel that nobody knows is that I used to be this high-adventure person, and now I'm mom, so I have to maximize my 8-to-5 workday because at 5 p.m., I'm mom, and I don't get to be the president of the company anymore. At 5 p.m. it's screaming kids, changing diapers and all of that. And so then when they go to bed at 9 p.m., I get to go back to being president of the company again and doing work at night.
PM: So how do you keep work and home balanced?
DP: You have make sure they're in a safe and secure place. So as long as I know they're taken care of when I'm not with them, I can focus 150% on what I'm doing. I have to maximize my time when I'm working, and I’ve had to learn to eliminate distractions. I have to plan and schedule my time so I can make the best use of it, because after work, I have to be present at home. There's not a lot of lingering at the coffee pot.
This article was originally titled “New event encourages contractors to ask, ‘Why?’” in the November 2018 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.