How one woman succeeds in what is perceived as a male-dominated industry.

Stephania Alexander didn't start out as a plumber. Back in the early 1990s, she was a stay-at-home mom in California raising her two daughters. She and her husband, Bruce, were co-owners of a George Brazil Plumbing-Heating-Cooling shop. But in 1994, the local economy took a nose dive. And the Alexanders had some hard decisions to make.

"We decided that a move from California would serve both our business and personal goals, so we called an old friend in Seattle, Chuck Sternod," she explains. "We inquired about opportunities in the Northwest and Chuck told us about Mr. Rooter plumbing."

The Alexanders sold their business in California and Stephania bought the rights to the Portland, Ore., Mr. Rooter franchise in June of 1994. Five years later, she sold that store and purchased the rights to the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, franchise. Her husband is one of her key managers.

In her first year in Dallas, Alexander exceeded the $1 million mark, setting a new record for the entire Mr. Rooter franchise network, comprising more than 200 locations nationwide. In less than three years, she has grown the company to 17 trucks covering the metro Dallas and Fort Worth area.

In recognition of her efforts, Alexander was recently named Mr. Rooter's Woman of the Year at its national convention. As of this writing, CNN was preparing to interview Alexander for its "Business Unusual" segment, possibly riding along with one of her Mr. Rooter techs.

Success Secrets

Alexander rejects the notion that the plumbing service industry is male-dominated. This perception, she says, comes from some of the men within the industry. "I have had the opportunity to meet many owners of plumbing businesses over the years and most are husband and wife teams who work jointly to make their business successful."

She does admit that the general public is not aware of the female influence in plumbing. But that influence, she says, improves the industry.

"Our attention to detail coupled with our sensitivity to the needs of the customers give us a definite advantage over the stereotypical 'butt-crack' plumber," she explains.

Plumbing and drain cleaning is dirty work. When Alexander's employees come to a customer's door, they are wearing crisp, clean uniforms and wipe their feet on a Mr. Rooter doormat. They wear booties over their shoes, and provide carpet protectors and work mats to minimize the mess associated with any kind of home repair. They only enter the room that needs attention, and they always follow the same traffic pattern to and from the truck so they don't interfere with other rooms. Up-front menu pricing and guarantees on workmanship round out the package.

This respect for the home wins high marks from women customers. "Most of the customers who answer the door when we arrive are women," Alexander says. "They have been handling the maintenance of their homes for years and are accepting of a female plumber in their homes."

Gender Issues

Occasionally she'll receive a call from a vendor looking for the owner and assume that Alexander is the "little woman," but she's encountered very little gender bias in the plumbing industry.

"Sometimes there is hesitation from a new employee," she adds, "but the existing employees clear that up with them immediately."

Her advice to aspiring female plumbers? "Go for it!" she says. "There is no reason why any female cannot become a plumber. This is a very stable industry and the money is great. And the industry is looking for more women plumbers to work side-by-side with men. The only thing holding women back is their own fear."