People join the trades for many reasons, family business, a desire for little to no school debt, etc. For Dan Cox, CEO and founder of AHS Plumbing, it was a beautiful girl.
Cox was working as a janitor at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, when he met his future wife. Her dad was a plumber, and asked him if he wanted to give the trade a shot. He ended up liking plumbing, but knew he didn’t want to keep working for his father-in-law.
“I was hooked on plumbing,” he says. “I liked the trade. I liked going from house to house, meeting different people, doing different work all the time, never being in the same place for any length of time. I’m not the person who wants to work in an office. My truck is my office.”
After putting in his time as an apprentice at multiple plumbing companies, Cox realized that some of those companies’ business practices were, one, not ethical, and two, not very smart. In working for them, he learned how to better run a business, and eventually started one — while he was still an apprentice.
“I was married, am still married, but I was married at the time, and my first child was on its way, and we needed more money,” he says. “The only way to do that was to go into business myself and to what we call side work. Besides my full-time job, I would do other work after hours and on the weekends to gain more experience and build my business.”
Story behind the name
AHS stands for Always Honest Service. Cox came upon the name after a bad experience at a local automotive dealership.
“I had a free oil change coupon and my wife insisted I redeem it,” he says. “As I’m waiting for them to do the oil change, a gentlemen walks in, tells me, ‘Sir, your brakes are worn out. You need new brakes.’ And the funny thing was I had the brakes changed only a week before. So I knew either he was lying — which was most likely the case because I’d been driving on these brakes for a week — or something was terribly wrong. So I asked him to show them to me. And of course, all of a sudden, ‘Oh, hey, you know what? I think I’ve got the wrong vehicle.’
“I never went back to that dealership again,” he adds. “It left me with a very bad taste in my mouth, metaphorically, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t mind paying for something as long as it’s necessary, and it’s going to be done correctly, but I hate someone trying to rip me off.’ And that’s where the name originated from; I wanted my customers to know that I will always be honest with people — telling them the facts of the real condition, the situation, how pertinent it is, how much it needs to either be done immediately, or that it could be something you do in the near future or something in some cases that you don’t need to have done at all, but they just don’t know it.”
Managing the business
AHS isn’t Cox’s first company, and at one time, he had as many as eight employees with his prior business, but he found that by the time he was done paying for all the employees, the trucks, the insurance and everything else, he really wasn’t making that much more money.
“It wasn’t worth it to have all that overhead and headache, and so I downsized,” he says. “The most I’ve had working for me at this company was two guys, but I let them go in 2020 around the first of the year. Before COVID even hit, I could tell there was something economically going on, so I let them go. I set them up with employment with another company.
“I was 24 when I founded my first company,” he adds. “After 20 years, I sold that company and went to work for another company, to see what it would be like to work with somebody else again. I didn’t like that and went back to work for myself. I was about 45 when I founded my present company. I’m 56 now, and I’m wanting to downsize to where I can get out of the business and walk away by the time I’m 65.”
Now a one-man operation, Cox drives a 2017 Ford Transit 250. He likes the extended height which allows him to walk, standing up inside of the back of the truck. He also loves how reliable it is.
“I currently have almost 118,000 miles on the motor, and I’ve had absolutely no trouble with the motor or the transmission or anything like that; it really moves,” he says. “When I step on the gas, it goes. It doesn’t mess around, and it doesn’t consume a lot of fuel because it is a V6 Ford. The only complaint I would say I have is the rear brakes wear out prematurely due to the fact that they’re too small in size.”
The outside of the truck is also a point of pride for Cox.
“I am a patriot,” he says. “I served the US army, and I am proud of what the flag represents. I wanted to incorporate the colors of the flag, not only in the truck, but also in my logo. I feel it stands out. It also helps that people recognize it easily due to the color scheme, and they already associate blue with water. Signs Now in Mundelein, Illinois helped me put the design together and get it on the truck.
“I get people calling me when I’m out and about saying, ‘Hey, I saw you,’” he adds. “I don’t see them because I’m in traffic, but they see me. It’s a one of a kind truck as far as the design and the way I have the lettering and stuff. Again, I studied what other businesses did, and I realized what works and what doesn’t. Having a hundred words on the side of your truck and saying everything you do in small print, nobody sees that. They can’t read that. They’re listing pumps, water heaters, faucets, toilets, it’s all up and down on the side of the truck. Nobody sees that. And even if they did, it doesn’t tell them who to call. In my opinion, you need two things on your truck, one, your name, and two, your phone number.
“It also all needs to be legible and easily readable at a distance,” he continues. “Both people driving and people in traffic need to be able to see it and recognize it quick. I’m surprised how many times I’ll look at a truck, and they’ll have some really great graphics. And I’m like, ‘Okay, where’s the phone number?’ And it’s like at three inch height, maybe on the door, but nowhere else. If you’re in the back of the truck, you don’t see the phone number because it’s on the side of the doors, so the guy sitting behind you in traffic has no idea what your phone number is.”
Besides his truck acting as a rolling billboard, Cox does guerrilla marketing with yard signs. He has them posted around all the neighborhoods where he does work. He also keeps in touch with all of his existing customers.
“I find your existing customers are your best customers,” he says. “They already know you. They like you. They’ve done business with you, and they trust you. So they’re more likely to buy from you than anyone else. It’s a matter of the always honest service — leave them with the impression: ‘There isn’t a reason to call anybody else. I got a fair deal. He treated me right. He was honest. He did a good job, left the house clean, all the prerequisites.’”
One of the things Cox likes to do is ask his customers three simple questions before he leaves: Are you happy with the work that I did here today? Is there anything you would’ve liked for me to have done differently? If the answer to question number one or two changes, would you please call me so that I can make it right for you?
“What this does for me is it instills in them that I care about how they feel, about how I did the job, but also it’s next to impossible for them to go write a bad review somewhere because I have asked them if they’re happy,” he says. “I’ve only had one person in 30 years write a bad review. And I was able to say, I asked you these questions, and I asked you to call me if it changed instead of writing this review, why didn’t you just call me? Within days, the review was gone, they had removed it. So those three questions are worth their weight in gold in today’s review environment, in which people posting bad reviews can cost you a tremendous amount of work and money.”
The COVID effect
Since letting his employees go and selling his trucks, the amount of work Cox could handle understandably decreased, however because of COVID-19, his business has increased.
“COVID-19 has people at home with their kids and perhaps in-laws, so there was a great deal of work created by the overuse of all these fixtures that didn’t use to get that much use,” he says. “For example, water heaters that maybe only handled two or three showers a day, are now handling seven. And so, I’ve replaced a lot of water heaters.”
Because people are home a lot more, they are hearing the things that normally wouldn’t bother them that much, like a faucet that’s dripping, or a drain that’s slow, Cox says.
“In their normal, busy life, they didn’t even have time to think about it,” he explains. “If they did, they would just want to ‘make it work long enough for me to get out of here and get to work or get to school.’ Now, they’re home, and they have the time to think about it. And they have the time for someone to come over because what else are they doing? They’re sitting at home.
“So, if you’re willing to work hard, and you don’t give up, you’re going to do well. People see it. They respect it, and they want you to be successful.
When they know that you’re giving it your all, they’re going to root for you. So for anybody who’s starting out in the business, and maybe struggling, they need to realize the key to success is putting in the hard work — not necessarily hard as in breaking your back, but in using everything you have going for you to win and to not give up.”
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