If at first you don’t succeed… try, try again.
Aaron Gaynor took that old adage to heart. After joining the plumbing industry out of high school in 1997, he and a friend decided to open a plumbing company in the early 2000s solely focused on new construction. They grew the business to $3.5 million before losing it in the Great Recession of 2007. Instead of throwing in the towel, Gaynor saw it as a lesson learned and started over with a new residential plumbing service company.
Today, The Eco Plumbers is a standout plumbing contracting company well-known for its top-notch customer service in the Columbus, Ohio area. Its Google reviews speak for themselves — 4.9 stars out of 8,143 reviews as of September 2022. That combined with the all-around best practices and commitment to training the next generation of tradespeople has nabbed The Eco Plumbers honors as Plumbing & Mechanical’s 2022 Residential Contractor of the Year.
Rising from the ashes
When Gaynor lost his first plumbing construction company, he was forced into bankruptcy.
“We tried really hard to keep the company,” Gaynor explains. “But it was all new construction driven, and we were losing housing contracts. It’s like the book, ‘The E-Myth,’ when you think you can do it better, you think you should start a business. We knew how to plumb, and we had a bunch of guys who knew how to plumb, so that’s what we did — we went and plumbed houses and light commercial. We were just technicians who tried to turn into managers and entrepreneurs, and quite frankly, we just didn’t really know how to run a business. Many other factors contributed — the economy, the market, but at the end of the day, we didn’t know how to run a business to survive through that.
LEFT: Steve Clark, HVAC service consultant for Eco Plumbers, works in the field. RIGHT: Nolan Miller is a former Eco Plumbers University graduate who now serves as a plumbing service consultant for the company.
“It was probably one of the worst things that ever happened to me, but it also ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he adds. “I ended up with nothing, that’s when I restarted and knew I had to be in the service area where I could control my destiny.”
Gaynor noticed the companies that came out the other end of the recession were service companies. He wanted to build a brand with the ability to scale and grow, and that’s just what he did. Phoenix Plumbing was founded in 2007, right after Gaynor’s bankruptcy. This time, he went into business with his sister, Roslyn Fitzgibbons, who now serves as the company’s human resources manager. Aptly named “Phoenix” for all of the apparent reasons — rebirth, starting over, rising from the ashes — Gaynor felt there was something missing from his brand.
“I was looking for something new, innovative and different,” he explains. “I found an organization out of Australia called Green Plumbers. At that time in 2008-2009, there were big droughts in Australia, and they created a program around water and energy conservation and were working with plumbing contractors on it. I saw they were coming to the U.S., so I signed up for their training classes. I felt like if I wanted to get into the service business and grow, I needed something different. And I truly believed in water conservation and energy conservation — they just spoke to me really well. I felt like it was something I could buy into and really support.”
And that’s what he did. The name Green Plumbers was already taken by the Australian company, so Phoenix Plumbing became The Eco Plumbers in 2009.
“It was all about being eco-friendly with water and energy conservation — we were even paperless in 2009,” Gaynor says. “That was the movement of our company. Things like that are standard now, but they weren’t back then. We had the first generation iPads in 2010. Our customers would go ‘Oh my God, my plumber has an iPad and I don’t.’ It blew people away because it was the first time many of these people even saw an iPad. Our techs were handing them over and showing them how to use it — it was all part of our brand development at the time.”
Located in Hilliard, Ohio, Eco Plumbers is 100% residential service, repair and replacement serving the Columbus and Dayton markets. The company has grown to 222 employees (with seven in the pipe to hire) and 124 fleet vehicles on the road, though Gaynor has 26 trucks sitting empty, ready-to-go, just waiting on new hires.
Work hard, play hard
When Gaynor approached Fitzgibbons about staring the new company, it was a no-brainer because she wanted to help him bounce back.
“I’ve been here ever since, just supporting his vision and dream and helping along the way,” she says. “He’s very much the visionary, and I always read the instructions. Over the years, my role has changed. It started out doing anything and everything you do when you’re first starting a business. I did call center and dispatching, found our location, set up our software and even did gorilla marketing. Over the last four to five years, I’ve settled into being the human resources manager, so I handle everything from recruiting, hiring, retention, culture, events, training and onboarding.”
Though admittedly cliché, Fitzgibbons describes The Eco Plumbers culture as “work hard, play hard.”
LEFT: Zach Moran is on Eco Plumbers' excavation team. RIGHT: Brandon Payne, HVAC service manager, works in the field.
“We do work so hard, but we try to have as much fun and appreciation as we can along the way,” she says. “We have lots of parties, giveaways and recognition to make sure everybody is a person and never a number. I think it goes a long way for our people.”
With a background in corporate finance working for Fortune 500 companies, Mike Barnhart, chief financial officer (CFO) for The Eco Plumbers, fell into his current gig after meeting Gaynor at a party through their wives, who are friends.
“We were at a party together that neither one of us wanted to be at,” Barnhart says laughing. “We were sitting there talking, and I asked, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m a plumber. What do you do?’ I told him I was in finance, then he said he wanted to learn more about what I did because he wanted to grow his company to $100 million. I asked, ‘Where are you today?’ He said $1 million. I said, ‘Alright, you have a ways to go.’ I was used to going to night school, so I said I’ll come hang out with you and teach you a little about finance. We ended up forming a friendship. We worked on this project of what the company would look like financially and operationally at $100 million. Then we kind of backtracked to see how many years it would take to get there.”
After closing last year at $30 million, Barnhart says they are on track to meet their goal of $100 million by 2025.
Eva Rhode, marketing manager for The Eco Plumbers, got her start on the agency side before making the jump over to the plumbing service company in 2017.
“I was feeling like I really needed a change, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be looking at an agency again,” she explains. “Eco Plumbers put out an ad for a marketing manager, and I was familiar because we had done work for them before. I didn't specifically work on their project, but they had done a rebrand so I was aware of them. And in my personal life, I moved into older homes and flipped them, so I thought that it could be a good fit. We had an interview and we just clicked. They decided to take a chance on me and I was excited for the change and to be able to really focus on one brand and not be working on a bunch of different clients.”
Rhode worked on getting all the company’s marketing materials up-to-date and consistent.
“We’re now the biggest plumbing company, and we have the most trucks and get people out quickly,” she says. “We have always tried to deliver five-star professional service for every client. We want to become the household name in home service in Ohio, and we’re not going to stop there.
Rhode notes Eco Plumbers cares about its community and is involved in several charities.
“We are committed to Nationwide Children’s Hospital — we’re a corporate partner of theirs and have been for five years. We’re also involved with the Mid-Ohio Food Collective. And then, there’s Hope Hollow, which provides lodging, gift cards and other items to people getting cancer treatment in the city. We also help out Star House, which is the teen homeless shelter. With them, sometimes it will be a monetary donation, but we also donate plumbing services to them because they have teens coming in and out staying at their facility, so their plumbing gets a lot of hard use. Aaron and Mike have always said as the resources become available, we want to make sure we’re giving back to the communities because they’re the ones that support us by hiring us. We want to make sure we’re giving back in ways that can benefit them. It’s a nice way to say ‘thanks.’”
LEFT: Barron Jewell (left), an Eco University student watches Eco University Trainer Del Morgan (right) replace a faucet. RIGHT: Eco University Trainer Del Morgan (left) teaches Class 6 at The Eco Plumbers University.
Eco Plumbers University: Solving the labor shortage one class at a time
Much like many other businesses in the trades, Eco Plumbers was having difficulty finding new talent to grow. So Gaynor decided to take matters into his own hands, forming Eco Plumbers University two years ago — right as the pandemic hit.
“Plumbing has been my whole life — it's all I've ever done since graduating high school in 1997,” he says. “And frankly, plumbing is what saved my life and it's just given me so much opportunity to do things and find a real path in the trades and in life. I owe it back to a trade that’s given so much to me. The other part of it was just the shortage of people learning the trade — we don’t have a great way to even learn a trade, not like we used to have. Trade schools kind of disappeared and people have been going in other directions for too long. So we wanted to give back to the trade, but at the same time, we also need to staff our growth. It was a great opportunity for us to do that. So I said let’s make it happen and figure it out.”
Being members of Nextstar Network, a best practices organization for plumbing, HVAC and electrical service contractors, certainly helped. Eco Plumbers used Nexstar’s NexTech Academy to jump start its curriculum for Eco Plumbers University. Gaynor secured a 5,000-square-foot building located close to his main location and built a training lab. On average, each class has about 16 students, who are hired on as Eco Plumbers employees after graduation. The team recently celebrated its sixth graduating class.
“We pay them while they’re at school — we pay them to learn,” Gaynor explains. “They’re guaranteed a job after they graduate — they’re guaranteed a truck right away. We have trucks just waiting for them to get out and work and help them start earning a living.”
Gaynor says there is no one method for recruiting classes — Eco Plumbers University looks everywhere from high school graduates to immigrants as long as they want to work with their hands and pass all of the employee screening, including a drug test.
“It’s definitely a lot of work,” Fitzgibbons adds. “You’re trying to hire all these people at one time on the same day for the same job. We’re out there with ads, social media, the Internet, trade shows and schools. We’re out there selling a future, a career vs. a job right now. We bring them in, show them the company, the university, and they do a ‘Ride and Decide’ where they spend time with a former student and get an idea for the program.
“This is a great career where you can build a wonderful life and do lots of great things,” she continues. “I love passing that on. And when Aaron does his speech with the students about being in the trades, then becoming an owner of a company and persevering through to make a really great life for yourself, it’s just neat to see and hear that, and to be part of it.”
LEFT: Eco Plumbers Owner Aaron Gaynor fist bumps an employee at the start of the day. RIGHT: The company has grown to 222 employees (with seven in the pipe to hire) and 124 fleet vehicles on the road.
On top of founding a training and education program during a pandemic, Eco Plumbers found a way to thrive when most small businesses were closing their doors.
“We have a resilient team,” Gaynor credits. “They have a lot of grit and they work hard. We went back to the office in October 2020. The university actually gave our team something else to focus on while the pandemic was going on. It gave them a challenge — something else for them to work on and think about. It’s brought us together during a time when things just seemed so crazy.”
The fact that The Eco Plumbers team was already growing was a plus. The company grew 70% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We just buckled down, and I told the team, ‘Hey, look, we’re not going anywhere. This is what we’ve been given, and we’re going to find a way to win at it. Nobody is losing their job here, we’re going to figure it out,’” Gaynor explains. “I had saved more than enough cash to cover the business for four months even if we didn’t collect a single dollar from anybody. I decided to put more money to marketing, we bought more billboards, radio and TV ads. We were just going to get out there and figure out a way to win in a time while everyone else was retreating. I got money from the Paycheck Protection Program loan, but I never used it. The one thing I didn't want to do is be indebted to anybody. I sure to hell didn’t want to be indebted to the government. So I told the team that I was sending all the money back, and we're going to go it alone and we're going to make it happen without them."
Besides dealing with the after-effects of the pandemic, Gaynor points to the vast amount of mergers and acquisitions in the industry as one of the biggest challenges a contractor is facing right now.
“There's more opportunity in the contracting business than there's probably ever been,” he notes. “But some of the biggest challenges is all these private equities coming into the game, which is causing more companies to roll up. There are more companies being consolidated and the terrain of competition is larger, but also smaller. What I mean by that is there’s greater competition because of these large private entities, but also smaller because there are less businesses out there to compete in the space. We’re going to start seeing less sharing into the future because these companies are giant corporations, and they’re not going to want to give away their secrets. I think you’ll see less entrepreneurial spirit — less plumbers, HVAC techs and electricians starting up businesses because they just won’t be able to compete financially. It’s going to be a lot more challenging.”
LEFT: Eco Plumbers University Class 5 signs the class wrench on Graduation Day. RIGHT: Aaron Gaynor, owner of The Eco Plumbers, keeps fleet vehicles on-hand, ready to go for new hires once they graduate from Eco Plumbers University.
Gaynor is quick to point out these private equity firms bring an upside in the industry as well in terms of bringing more capital into the space. “They’re going to make the industry stronger and better over time, but it’s just going to be harder for new companies to come into the space in the future.”
Fitzgibbons points to retention as the biggest challenge the company is facing.
“I think most companies are feeling the struggle,” she says. “I wish I could say 100% what it is that makes people come and go, but people are just more in flux in their work lives now. It’s just easier to pick up and move, or change their mind and want to do something different. We do our best to give and create a great culture, and people will have all types of reasons to move on. Retention is tough.”
She adds that she hopes getting back to in-person company events following the pandemic will help improve employee retention. “We weren’t able to do many of the things we used to. This past June was our first chance in two years to throw an entire company party and feel comfortable doing so outside where we were able to get our employees and their families together at a farm we rented out. It was really cool. We gave Ray-Bans this year to everybody. It was fun.”
Eco Plumbers University Class 5 on Graduation Day. Pictured in front, from left to right: Eco University Trainer Brent Clifford and Eco University Dean Don Bocook.
In addition to having two locations in Columbus and Dayton, The Eco Plumbers is planning another expansion after securing a building in Cincinnati. Gaynor is planning to be up and running there at the first of the new year.
And if that wasn’t plenty, the company also recently added HVAC services to its repertoire. As such, it is in the middle of another rebrand that will be ready to kick off an exciting new year.
“We looked around and thought about whether we wanted horizontal or vertical growth,” Gaynor says. “We started looking at our growth and where we were with our goals. We’re going to finish plumbing in Columbus at around $42-$43 million this year, and we’re starting to hit that saturation point. The only other way to create new growth opportunity in this market would to be either start doing other plumbing services that we didn't want to do, or pick up a service line and stay in residential. And we did not want to do commercial construction. So we figured the best thing to do would be go ahead and add HVAC. We feel like we kind of earned the right to do that.
“A lot of people who want to add multiple trade lines before they get to the point where they dominate in one area,” he adds. “We felt like we were the dominant player in the plumbing market in Columbus. Hopefully, if we’re getting this many people who value our plumbing service, we hope they would do the same thing when it comes to HVAC.”
“To a certain extent, we’re very much still learning the HVAC part,” Barnhart adds. “We definitely don’t have it all figured out, but as a company, we value being fast, making decisions, having small failures and tweaking things along the way. That’s certainly been our experience with HVAC. When June came around and it got really hot in Ohio, we thought we were pretty cool. We were selling heating and cooling left and right. Now that it's not so hot in Ohio, we realize maybe we're not that cool because the calls stopped coming in so much. But with anything else, it's just a learning experience, and we generally like to learn. If you have the right resources, for example.
“Having Nexstar trainers and Scott Brinkley as our business coach has been great. He came out at the beginning of August and we really worked on what our morning huddle should look like for HVAC in the morning, what metrics we should be monitoring and how we’re laying out our calls,” he continues. “He worked with our call center to learn a script to reach out to our Care Plan Members during the shoulder seasons. That’s just not something we ever had to do before because plumbing is not very seasonal — more of a demand-based business.”
In addition to adding HVAC services to Eco Plumbers’ offerings, Barnhart notes they also plan to add HVAC training to Eco Plumbers University beginning next year.
“We just built the platform to extend HVAC training, and we’re adding all that equipment in there,” he says. “We have an HVAC trainer who is going through and developing the curriculum now.”
According to Gaynor, Eco Plumbers is totally focused on reaching its goal that he set when he founded the company — to reach $100 million by 2025.
“We’re on the right track and should be able to hit that by 2025,” he says. “We want to own the state of Ohio as Eco. I’d love to see us one day grow to $1 billion in revenue. There are already companies out there doing that, and I feel like I am still young. I’m only 44.”
And one of his largest obligations was to build a company that runs without him, Gaynor explains. “I don’t mean that I’m leaving or retiring, just that if the time came or I wasn’t the right person to run this organization anymore, or God forbid I got hit by a bus, that this is a company that can move on and grow because it has the right leadership, the right people so nobody is going to miss a beat and the business is going to keep going and growing for them. I’ve heard too many stories where family members take over the company and it falls apart. I don’t want that to be the case for us.
“This is one of the most exciting times to be in this industry,” he adds. “There are so many new things coming our way and so much new opportunity for growth and jobs. We’re not going to be outsourced. At least, not yet — not until they figure out how to have robots go in and do the work, right? You still need someone to show up and manually do this work, regardless. I’m also excited that people are starting to realize how important the trades really are to them as they see less people in it and realizing they need us, especially as people are also becoming less and less mechanically inclined. People aren’t doing a lot of this work themselves anymore. I think that’s a great opportunity for us.”