Two great examples of a right-hand man.

You have big plans for your company. You see a better world, better pay, better working conditions, better customer service, and lots more money for you and your employees.

So why can't your employees see that? Why do they fight you on every issue? Why do they quit when you know you are offering the best game in town?

What's wrong with them?

Maybe it's you. Your big plans make sense to you, but your employees may be suspicious.

Hang in there. Hold on to your dreams. Uphold your standards. And focus on making one sale. Sell one person at your company on your vision. You need a Right Hand. You need someone to back you up, and get this big plan sold to the rest of the team.

Let me tell you about two terrific Right Handers. I mean no disrespect to the two very successful owners they work for, but I gotta tell you: Their companies didn't take off until they got the Right Handers in place.

Jimmy Jacobini
Ed Wolfe Plumbing and Heating
Newburgh, N.Y.

Jimmy wasn't a top student in high school. He was outspoken, a bit rebellious and very ambitious. He started as a plumbing apprentice and worked up to journeyman.

He married his sweetheart, Barbara. Marriage and kids fueled Jimmy's ambitions. He was then making $16 per hour. He got into the overtime game. If he couldn't get the overtime, he would work side jobs. Jimmy routinely worked 80 hours a week. And he socked the extra money away. Really, he would stuff cash into a sock in his top dresser drawer. Jimmy is a saver. Jimmy and Barbara scrimped and saved and bought their first house. But it wasn't in a great section of town.

One day, one of their kid's friends picked up a loaded gun he found in the street. Jimmy and Barbara decided to sell their house and buy a home upstate. Jimmy kept his job in Manhattan and the 80-hour workweeks and added a 90-minute commute each way to work plus the bigger mortgage. He kept this up for three years. Though he now had three kids, Jimmy rarely saw them. He was starting to burn out.

Barbara saw an ad in the local paper for Ed Wolfe Plumbing and said, "This looks like it!" Ed's shop was just down the road from where they lived. She nudged Jimmy to call Ed and arrange an interview.

When Jimmy arrived, Ed took him through a four-hour interview and testing process.

"He was pulling parts out of a box and asking me to identify them. He had me take a personality test. I thought the guy was a nut, that he was looking for Superman.

"I left thinking I wasn't sure I wanted that job. I was nervous. I liked Ed, but I had never been through that kind of interview. Here he was with four service trucks. I was working for a company with 100 trucks, and they never put me through the paces like that. I left that interview totally confused."

Additionally, Jimmy had always worked for T&M companies. Ed Wolfe Plumbing was a flat rate company.

Still, the commute was killing him, so Jimmy decided to sign on with Ed in October 1995.

Jimmy did all right with the flat rate system. In fact, he posted great sales right out of the gate. But there were some old-timers at Ed Wolfe Plumbing, service techs who had been there before Ed changed everything. They complained about the flat rates, the high prices, the new policies for uniforms and truck stock. Jimmy started to question his employment choice.

"I was spooked. We were down to four service techs and Ed fired this guy for not cutting his hair. Why did he care so much about a hair cut? Ed kept hiring guys to replace the ones that left, but after nine months, I was the old-timer in the shop. And I was the one whining about everything. Then, Ed told me he wanted to send me to a four-day sales training class. I told him to save his money because I was going to quit."

Jimmy went to work for a new construction company. He quickly lost interest in the company's slow moving, milk-the-clock culture. Three months later he talked to Ed about going back to work for him.

"Ed never told me to go to hell. He never wavered in his commitment to me. He started to win me over."

As Jimmy's trust in Ed developed, he felt comfortable talking to him about the problems in the field. Ed had the right idea with some of his systems, but there wasn't any follow through. Ed started to pull Jimmy into the office once or twice a week to go over financial reports and talk about how they could improve the company. Jimmy was shocked when Ed showed him a big loss on the bottom line, and that Jimmy was actually making more money than Ed.

"He was teaching me how to keep score in business. I'm a huge sports fan, so once I got that connection, I could understand the business."

Jimmy was promoted to service manager - the right-hand position. He was sold on Ed's plan for the company, and he could sell it to the rest of the techs. He found a videotape of Mark Messier. Mark had led the Edmonton Oilers to five NHL championships. Jimmy showed the tape to his techs, encouraging them to relate to their jobs like a game. They were a team. They would have to take lumps for each other now and then. But, if they were going to win, they would have to work hard and get the puck in the goal - and that meant making sales.

They are up to 17 service techs at Wolfe Plumbing.

Jimmy and Barbara have four kids now, and are moving up the ladder. And Ed Wolfe is moving up the ladder, too. Ed and Jimmy are a great example of the synergy of a visionary leader and an undefeatable Right Hander.

Jimmy's advice for new managers:

  • Without sales, there is nothing to manage. Get over your issues with sales.
  • Pick and choose your battles. Some are worth it; others are not.
  • Don't tolerate "morale busters." You can't change how people think, but don't allow them to dump their negative thoughts on others.
  • When reporting to the owner, deliver the bad news in the morning and the good news at day's end.
  • Training is critical. Teach them how to do the job right, and teach them how to sell.
  • Hold them accountable for performance, and make sure their compensation is tied to performance.
  • It's better to save him than fire him.
"I believe everyone can be saved. I made a 180-degree turnaround. I will give it all I've got to save someone from burning out, or from leaving. I can get into a tech's head. If I am having trouble with somebody, I'll look at life from his angle until I get a fix on the problem. Then, I can help him see the situation better. If he is willing, I can make a winner out of him."

Tony Sperduto
Sanford Kramer Plumbing, Heating and Air
Washington, D.C.

Tony took a different route to right-hand man. Both of his parents died before his 21st birthday. He grew up in a hurry.

"I was the baby in a family of six kids, and I was spoiled. My parents' deaths made me realize that I wasn't going to be taken care of. I knew I was going to have to make a living and I saw plumbing as a good career."

Like Jimmy he got into an apprentice program while he was in his teens. He spent six years learning the trade and became a journeyman plumber. He worked for a family business, owned by three brothers. The brothers occupied the good jobs; there was no career path for Tony.

"I wanted to be a manager and move up the ladder. I spotted an ad for Sanford Kramer Plumbing, Heating and Air. The company was local, so I made an appointment to meet with Sandy, the owner.

"I told Sandy that I wanted to move into management. I was ready to get off of my hands and knees. Sandy told me straight out, 'I don't need a manager.' He was trying to fill his service trucks so that he could step out of the field and be a full-time manager himself."

So while it wasn't just what he was looking for, Tony signed on with Sandy.

"I liked Sandy right away. He wasn't playing any political games. Though it was a lateral move, I took the job. There weren't a lot of management jobs available in the industry at that time. I figured I could demonstrate my potential by doing a good job."

About a year later, Tony started to get restless. He was thinking of making another move. One day in the field, he had a moment of epiphany. He was going to work on a job at Sandy's sister-in-law's house. He had instructions to let himself in, and he did. Suddenly, the burglar alarm went off, and Tony had to wait, blood pressure building, for the cops to arrive. (Don't you hate that?)

He decided to make another move. He took a job as an inside salesman in a Washington, D.C., supply house showroom. He and Sandy left on great terms. They spent their last day together at Sanford Kramer playing golf.

"I never burn bridges. Sandy and I had a lot of respect for one another. I just wanted to move into management, and figured I could learn a lot with this new position. I was right! I learned how to manage purchasing and inventory. In the showroom, I learned the importance of product knowledge and how to sell upscale merchandise."

A year later, Tony planned another move. He had been deliberately gathering the skill set he needed to become a manager. He had a list of all the contractors in the area - it was his customer list at the showroom. He sent out resumes, listing Sandy Kramer as a reference.

Sandy called Tony to ask him what he was up to. Sandy was now ready to add a manager at his company! He still had the same number of trucks, but he could see that a right-hand person was essential for really growing the company.

"I met with Sandy and told him, 'I know it takes 50 hours a week to keep the techs working 40. I'll do what it takes.'" Tony moved back to Sanford Kramer Plumbing. The company was doing just more than half a million dollars in sales.

"I didn't know much about management, but I knew this: I was going to be the best damn manager there was."

Tony and Sandy committed to growing the company. They joined Contractors 2000. They got beat up on by Frank Blau. They made the move to flat rate pricing.

"Sandy practiced 'open book' management with me, though we didn't call it that. He showed me the numbers so we could figure out how to make more money and provide great wages and benefits for our employees.

"Sandy and I make a good team because we have different personalities. Sandy is driven and thinks in terms of black and white. I can 'sell' our ideas to the techs and keep things moving smoothly. We really balance each other. We act as a mirror for each other."

Sanford Kramer Plumbing, Heating and Air has boomed under the direction of Sandy and his right-hand man, Tony. They have 21 employees and their sales are just under $3 million. They won honors at Contractors 2000 for the greatest improvement in customer service.

Tony's advice for new managers:

  • Beware of the absentee owner. Unless you are skilled at management already, you are going to need the owner to be your mentor.
  • Keep an open mind. You can't learn anything if you think you know it all already.
  • A really good service tech can make more money than you! Remember, they are on the front line, and you are on the sideline.
  • You are only as good as the people who work for you. The best part of the job is helping people grow and improve.
  • You play a supporting role to both the owner and the employees. Work on your communication skills.
  • Take business classes and seminars. (Both Jimmy and Tony credited Contractors 2000's Gold Star Management Academy with helping them learn what to do to better manage sales, as well as how to do it.)
By the way, I asked Tony, "Since you know so much about running a company, do you ever get the urge to go out on your own?"

Tony replied, "No way! Sandy puts his assets on the line every day. It's a gamble and the risks are huge. I don't want that headache. I owe a lot to Sandy. I'm living my dream job. I like working with someone to create something great."

Want to be wildly successful in your business? Find a Right Hand. Teach him or her. Learn from each other. Make lots of money together. Have lots of fun.

Hats off to Jimmy and Ed and Tony and Sandy for showing us how it's done!