The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the economic landscape of the entire world. Small businesses were among the hardest hit by government forced closures, labor shortages and rising inflation. Here in the U.S., there were 37.5% fewer small businesses open nationwide as of last summer compared to January 2020, according to Harvard University’s Economic Tracker.
While most small businesses have struggled to survive the pandemic, residential plumbing and HVAC service contractors have thrived. Deemed an “essential business” by the federal government in March 2020, these businesses saw increased revenues thanks to people spending more time than ever in their homes.
National plumbing franchise brands have also seen growth during the past few years, as they offer contractors access to support, business coaching as well as employee soft skills and technical training.
As of February, bluefrog Plumbing + Drain operates 29 territories across the U.S., with three more opening in March.
“We are what I would call a smaller and emerging brand, which is exciting for me and part of what attracted me to this opportunity when I took it,” says Mike Mushinski, president of bluefrog Plumbing + Drain. “2022 is going to be a good growth year for us.”
Mushinski notes there are a few things accounting for the franchise’s growth over the past few years.
“People learned during the pandemic that home service companies, especially those like plumbing, are what the literal definition of an essential business is,” he explains. “When I look back at the performance of the franchisees in their territories in 2020, the vast majority of our owners saw significant growth over previous years, and then again in 2021, all at a time when many small businesses were struggling and some permanently closing their doors. I think that there’s been this renewed focus — not that it ever went away — but an increased focus on home services in general.”
Additionally, Mushinski says bluefrog goes about the business side of plumbing a bit differently than most traditional plumbing companies. “When folks take the time to sit down and look at who we are and what makes us a little different, people get excited about it. We focus so much on the business side, the margin percentages, technology and things like that that you don’t really associate with plumbing. When people think of plumbing, they think of water, gas, pipes, toilets and stuff like that. While that’s important, obviously, we have just a hyper-focus on the back end of things and that really gets folks excited.”
According to Mushinski, bluefrog has a pretty even mix of franchise owners who are actual plumbers to those having no background in the industry at all. “We provide them an opportunity to become better business people, to allow them to focus on growing and scaling their business by dialing in their marketing efforts, helping them better understand their financials and better tracking of cash flow — things that are really impactful to their business that can help drive higher revenues and increase profitability.
“Our goal is ultimately to have them step out of the day-to-day grind and truly be an owner of a growing and thriving business, as opposed to having a job without a boss, which is what a lot of the small plumbing operators are,” Mushinski continues. “Yes, you have a business and you have a legal entity, but if you’re in the weeds every day, you don’t have the whole American dream thing. Our goal is to take the great skill that they have in plumbing help them teach and mentor people to do that, and then tack onto that the better technology, better business processes and really help them to take their business to the next level and truly have an operation they can sit back and say, ‘Gosh, if I went away for a couple of weeks, this thing would still run.’ That’s not usually the case when it’s just a small, independent plumbing company.”
“As a franchise, we are part of a holding company called Stellar Service brands, and it gives us a significant amount of buying power. We put national agreements in place with everyone from suppliers of equipment and materials to vehicles. This allows us, in most cases, to get in front of any potential issues.” – MIKE MUSHINSKI
Doyle James, president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing, a Neighborly company, notes the franchise company has experienced significant growth through 2021. As of February, Mr. Rooter has about 240 locations.
“Much of that growth has to do with the increased use many homes have seen in the past two years, along with the desire for homeowners to improve their properties while they spend more time in them,” James says. “Higher costs for both materials and labor has also had an impact, and franchise owners have increased their prices to cover the additional costs.”
James notes he is proud of Mr. Rooter, which is more than 50 years old, but continuing to grow at a significant pace. “We believe this is due to our many strong, long-term franchise owners – but also our relationship to the other service-based companies under the Neighborly umbrella. Our franchise owners share our passion to be “so remarkable we become a beloved household name.”
“I never dreamed of owning a plumbing franchise, but it was the best decision I ever made. Being part of a franchise is great. The original reason I got into franchising with Mr. Rooter Plumbing was the support they offered. With their support, I have grown to five locations across Southern California in just five years.” – JOSE PINA
Matt O’Rourke, president of Z PLUMBERZ, notes that since 2020, the franchise has grown to 19 locations around the U.S.
“Z PLUMBERZ has experienced tremendous growth, welcoming numerous new franchisees to our network and doubling our revenue over the past two years,” he says. “We have welcomed a record number of new apprentices to our training program, and are forecasting the same rate of growth in 2022 and beyond.
“Z PLUMBERZ is a franchise founded by plumbers and focused on addressing the needs of today’s plumbing contractors,” O’Rourke adds. “When you decide to become a part of a franchise, you can capitalize on the existing framework that the business has in place, such as brand awareness and corporate image, set business practices, and a network of support and training to continue to grow your business.”
“Having the BELFOR Franchise Group name behind us lets these team members know that they have room to grow and do not have to look elsewhere to fulfill their personal goals and aspirations.” – SCOTT HART
More than just business framework
While those business management processes and framework are important for service contractors, national plumbing franchises also offer their members support in other areas.
For example, bluefrog Plumbing + Drain employs a licensed plumber as a business coach to help with the technical side of the business, as well as research the latest advancements and trends in the plumbing industry and educate franchisees of the latest and greatest technologies available. The company has also helped its owners as they struggle through supply chain issues.
“The plumbing industry itself wasn’t hit quite as hard as some of the other industries — like HVAC — have been,” Mushinski says. “That’s not to say that there haven’t been issues, but as a franchise, we are part of a holding company called Stellar Service brands, and it gives us a significant amount of buying power. We put national agreements in place with everyone from suppliers of equipment and materials to vehicles. This allows us, in most cases, to get in front of any potential issues.
“For example, on the vehicle front, which, in our experience, has been the biggest supply chain issue — even more so than equipment and materials — we have relationships with three or four fleet companies who are really good about giving us advanced notice when vehicles become available,” he continues. “Most contractors are using similar type vehicles, be it vans or box trucks, and I’ve heard horror stories about people having to wait up to six months just to get a vehicle, which can significantly slow down the growth of a business. I’m not saying that it’s all rainbows and unicorns and there’s always a vehicle available, but we just haven’t seen as much of an issue because of these relationships that we have in place.”
James agrees, saying Mr. Rooter’s parent company, Neighborly, has many resources to assist franchise owners.
“One resource that is very important to our owners is our vendor relationship group, ProTradeNet,” he explains. “ProTradeNet enters into agreements with vendors that provide a variety of products and services our franchise owners need while negotiating special programs, incentives and rebates.”
Additionally, Mr. Rooter offers franchise owners access to coaching on budgets, leadership, marketing and other important dynamics that business owners need to master, James notes. “Being in business today is complex and belonging to a franchise allows you to be in business for yourself but not by yourself.”
Z PLUMBERZ offers an apprenticeship program to all new franchisees, allowing them the opportunity to learn and expand their technical skills and obtain the necessary certifications to work in the plumbing industry, O’Rourke explains.
“Z PLUMBERZ does a multitude of things to support their franchisees in their day-to-day operations, such as offering training on new equipment and processes through hands-on and virtual applications, assisting franchise locations with marketing and public relations outreach and providing 24/7 Call Center Support to all franchise locations,” he says.
And when it comes to overcoming the supply chain issues, Z PLUMBERZ has incredible buying power as one of almost a dozen BELFOR Franchise Group brands.
“BELFOR Franchise Group has more than 4,000 locations in more than 55 countries, which enables us to have buying power for PPE, vehicles and marketing materials,” O’Rourke says. “Our partnership with BELFOR Franchise Group also allows for a larger economy of scale, meaning together we have more impact than say with a single-unit operation. That’s not to say we haven’t seen challenges due to global supply chain issues, but having the larger relationship certainly helps the entire network get through these difficult times.”
O’Rourke adds that Z PLUMBERZ also has outstanding relationships with many leading plumbing and drain manufacturers and wholesalers, which help gain access to equipment, materials and fixtures without much delay. “Our franchise also tries to be proactive as possible, training our employees to find creative ways to approach a problem with viable solutions.”
Franchisees weigh in
While growing up, Jose Pina’s mother always told him he would be a great businessman because he always did odd little jobs for his neighbors for money. When he grew up, he became a carpenter before switching trades to plumbing after work slowed at the carpenters’ union.
After working for years in the plumbing industry, Pina decided to open his own plumbing business. During the start-up process, he was approached by Mr. Rooter Plumbing. At first, not knowing much about franchising in general, he looked into it. The more he learned, the more he liked about it. Today, Pina owns five Mr. Rooter Plumbing franchises in the Southern California market: Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Victorville; Mr. Rooter Plumbing of San Bernadino; Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Riverside; Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Inland Empire; and Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Pomona Valley.
“A friend introduced me to plumbing and showed me how this field never gets slow,” Pina says. “I never dreamed of owning a plumbing franchise, but it was the best decision I ever made. Being part of a franchise is great. The original reason I got into franchising with Mr. Rooter Plumbing was the support they offered. With their support, I have grown to five locations across Southern California in just five years. My goal is to be able to pass the torch off to my sons if they are interested.”
Scott Hart, owner of Z PLUMBERZ of Ann Arbor, opened his ZPLUMBERZ location in winter of 2020 after previously operating his own plumbing business since October 2017.
“Being a part of the BELFOR Franchise Group gives my business access to their successful and systematic approach,” he says. “Franchisees start off with a solid business plan that allows us to grow at a steady pace and keep cash flow stable, and BFG coaches me on how to operate a business that is successful and profitable.
“Since joining the Z PLUMBERZ team, my franchise has steadily increased revenue every year and we’ve been able to add more people to the team,” Hart adds. “I started another franchise location — Z PLUMBERZ of Toledo — with one of my best former team members, now making him a partner to further expand and keep valuable talent under my umbrella.”
Hart notes that in a labor market already stretched thin, it is extremely important to retain talent in any way possible.
“Having the BELFOR Franchise Group name behind us lets these team members know that they have room to grow and do not have to look elsewhere to fulfill their personal goals and aspirations.”
Additionally, Hart likes not having to spend valuable time searching and reviewing what is needed to be successful in the plumbing and drain cleaning industries. As a ZPLUMBERZ franchisee, he has access to many different vendor programs to help grow the business and provide a wide range of business-related expenses, including insurance, software, advertising, marketing, printing, communications and more.
And while all those are inarguably important, Hart’s favorite thing about being a ZPLUMBERZ franchisee is networking with other franchise owners within the BELFOR Franchise Group family.
“The BFG ‘family tree’ has so many branches that extend globally, which makes you feel you are really a part of something special,” he notes. “A group of business owners is so much more powerful than being a stand-alone entity. The failure rate is drastically reduced when you have a network of successful people to mentor the newer franchisees along the way. Success breeds success!”
Photos courtesy of bluefrog Plumbing + Drain, Mr. Rooter Plumbing and Z PLUMBERZ.