Contractor As Consultant
Just about anybody and everybody walks into Hill Plumbing's two Naples, Fla., showrooms. Long-time customers of the three-generation family business. First-time shoppers. Builders. Interior designers ¿ some with clients in tow, others without. Even general contractors.
Some consumers may attempt to handle the installation themselves. Others leave coordinating the job up to the company itself.
Some jobs aren't much more than replacing an old water closet and vanity. Other jobs require demolition down to the studs.
How does Hill's president Rob Hill III juggle all these different sets of demands and needs?
"We are a consultant in its purest sense in that people come to us to hear our ability to explain the features and benefits of these products and how these products are installed," he explains.
That's one problem with plumbing contractors today, Hill says, they've never seen themselves as consultants.
"That's too bad because there are plenty of other 50-year-old family businesses like ours that can stand tall and say we are the reason why plumbing products have become so popular," Hill says. "In remodeling, there are umpteen dozen questions about why this would or wouldn't work. The person with the expertise to advise consumers should be the plumbing contractor."
Hill laments that too many contractors aren't into what's new, just happy with making sure the box fits into the blueprint. Far too few are into what the customer wants.
"Customers always tell me they had no idea they had so much to decide on," he adds. "And that's all because there's so many products they haven't been told about."
After spending a day talking with Hill, you get the feeling that his firm's knowledge is just as much on display as his product lines.
"As with anything, there's a learning curve to knowledge in a particular field," Rob says.
Take, for example, an overhead showerhead. "Great product," he explains. "But I'm going to make sure the water doesn't trickle out because the valve wasn't sized right. I'm going to update your water heater so the water doesn't go cold in five minutes. I'm going to position the showerhead just right so it¿s not too close that it's ripping your hair out or too high that you can't clean it. All those little things that no one thought about, that's what we get excited about and talk about, and everyone says, wow, you really thought this through."
Small Baths:One reason Hill excels at consulting is that the business "majors" in remodeling small bathrooms ¿ traditional-sized 5- by 8-foot spaces with little room for cost errors. Projects can be as small as $2,000 to as much as $35,000, depending on the quality of the plumbing and extent of the remodeling.
"You wouldn't believe what we see once we rip out a tub unit," Rob says. "We've been in different condos of the same building, and you'd think you were in a completely different building, built 10 years before."
Problems with small spaces can easily snowball unless properly explained to the customers first off. When you pull the vanity away from the wall, for example, you end up pulling off the wallpaper; if you have to paint one part of the wall, you have to end up painting four walls and the ceiling.
"It's like dominoes," says Rob's wife, Mary Lynn Hill, operations manager. "You look at the hours and realize you didn't make the profit you planned on. When we started, we found out that a 'simple' $5,000 remodel really ended costing $6,000 ¿ but we still did it for $5,000."
Considering the cozy surroundings, there's plenty of hand-holding before, during and after the sale.
"If we don't help the customer through the learning curve they feel like they've been cheated or you end up eating the extra cost without charging for it," Rob says. "It helps to bring up everything about a project at the beginning so that you can get paid for adjustments. What makes happy customers is how well I've covered potential problems or issues that may arise. If these problems or
issues occur, customers are more tolerant of time delays."
Mosquitoes To Millionaires:Which isn't to say that Rob started out 10 years ago with this philosophy firmly in place.
The family business goes back to 1952 when Hill's grandfather figured Naples looked like a better retirement option than Cincinnati. As it turned out Hill's father was the family member to open the doors. At the time, Naples was just a small fishing village. The company got its legs doing new construction as the mosquitoes got booted out to make way for fairways and million-dollar housing developments.
By the early 1980s, the demand for prior customers to do repair and replacement was so great and the risk and rewards of doing new construction were so out of whack, Hill's father changed the focus to service and repair.
Rob, who had spent much of his career out of college in office equipment sales, got a call from his father in 1989 to see if he was interested in joining the business. As luck would have it, that same week his commissions were cut and his territory, too. The family business never looked better.
He joined the business in the summer and by September knew he wanted to run a showroom. His first hint was that consumers routinely came in asking a number of questions about replacing product. At the time, Hill could only pull out manufacturer catalogs.
"The showroom was his baby," Mary Lynn says. "I'm sure everyone thought here comes the college boy ripping up the old place, throwing out thousands of fittings everyone else swore up and down that we'd need one day next May."
Rob thought at first that the showroom would function more as replacement than remodeling. "Remodeling in my mind at the time was something a general contractor took care of," he says, "the scope of which would be anything from a new patio to a new addition." Rob also figured he'd be happy simply selling product, leaving the installation to whomever.
"I didn't think it would be too bad just acting as a broker," he adds.
But consumers kept returning with more questions. Not just about plumbing products this time, but anything and everything under the Florida sun.
"I found myself answering questions about edge treatments, cabinetry, mirrors, lighting, you name it, and how it all went together," he remembers. "There was a real need for someone to explain the whole process as well as do the whole process."
More than both the Hills dreamed, the business ended up "selling the whole package" to consumers, designers, and sometimes even other contractors. As their advertising slogan reads: "We sell it, deliver it, install it and service it."
"Nobody does what we do to the extent we do it," Mary Lynn says. "One of the largest plumbing wholesalers has a showroom nearby, but they don't offer installation since they'd be biting the hand that feeds them. Home Depot offers installation, but it has a
great deal of disclaimers that protect it from liability of poor installation."
Tip Of Iceberg:To set his business further apart from the crowd, Hill searched for product lines that were not commonly found in other competitive showrooms.
Like most contractors, Rob relies on the traditional name brand plumbing products to get people in the door. But unlike most contractors, Rob quickly found that he could give himself an advantage by buying many lines directly from manufacturers eager for distribution.
"It's not that the name brands are not good products or that we don't want to sell them," Rob adds. "We do, but it's just that there is so much more out there for people to consider. What we're trying to do is match a consumer's ideas with our products."
We've run showroom stories in the past in which contractors buy some product directly from manufacturers. But those lines, typically ancillary buys such as towel bars, usually fit into a corner of the showroom. Rob's direct deals are the showroom, making up no less than 100 lines of fixtures, faucets and decorative accessories.
By buying directly from manufacturers, Rob often gets better discounts, and oftentimes, a direct link means quicker delivery times, too.
Essentially, many of the manufacturers Hill first started doing business with at his first showroom, Hill's Showcase of Fine Plumbing, are the kind that fall under the radar screen of traditional wholesale channels. Take, for example, his four direct faucet lines. The makers are American companies who buy their brass overseas and do the plating and assembly in the United States.
"The length of time you've been in the market, your location and sales volume has a lot to do with whether or not you're part of that distribution chain," Rob says. "The name brands have been around for 40 years. For most plumbers from Maine to California, that's all their local wholesaler has sold them or educated them about. For newer manufacturers' products, the quickest way into the mainstream is to go with, in our case, a contractor who has an established showroom."
Or in Rob's case, two showrooms. Being able to buy even more product directly was the main reason he bought his second showroom, Eurobath, two years ago. In this case, the lines are European and Japanese name brands ¿ not exactly household names in this country.
But products, no matter how many or how good the discount are only a small part of the story. A plumbing "consultant" must understand the differences between products as well as their functionality and maintenance.
"Obviously, having product is what makes customers stop in the showrooms initially," Rob says. "But you're not going to get the business nor is any business you get going to be profitable unless you take care of all the little details of the entire package."