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Fine-Tuned One-Man Band

I read with great dismay Randall Hilton's recent column (“Are You Destined To Be A One-Man Band?” February 2004). I believe the backbone of the plumbing and heating industry are the small shops. Is it so bad to run a one- or two-man shop if it is run professionally?

To quote Frank Blau in his June 2001 column: “People sometimes criticize me for emphasizing aggressive marketing and growth, but that is misreading my message. I have never told anyone they must grow big. There are many advantages to a one-man firm ...”

Hilton states that in a one-man shop, craftsmanship suffers. Are you kidding me? A good part of my business is returning phone calls from homeowners who want me to fix the problems created by hiring one of the big companies you hold in such high esteem. Unfortunately for them, I am not taking on any new clients at this time.

To infer that an owner of a one-man shop is lazy is insulting to many hard-working proprietors. Hilton also contradicts himself. How can someone who, as he puts, “suffers from the unrelenting onslaught of paperwork, phone calls, meetings and all the other trappings of owning a business” be lazy?

As a fourth-generation master plumber whose business dates back to 1889, I feel qualified to speak on the effectiveness of a small plumbing shop. Yes, it is just my father and me but I take great pride in operating a professional and profitable small firm. If I am the one-man band (or duet, as it were) that you are talking about, I assure you that I am playing Beethoven!

I love your magazine, but please think twice before printing a column that so maligns the small plumbing company.

Kip Ferguson
Ferguson Plumbing & Heating
Bala-Cynwyd, Pa.

Randall Hilton responds: Thank you for your thoughtful response as well as your commitment to our industry.

In a nutshell, I'm concerned that our pool of professionals, such as yourself, is drying up. If we're not doing something to bring in new recruits, then the problem is only going to worsen.

To exacerbate the problem, as the general population ages, the needs for our services will increase, which means we're faced with a shrinking pool of professionals being asked to serve a growing market. We must bring in new people.

If I can nudge, prod or kick some of our professionals into expanding their operations to include apprentices, then that's what I'm going to do. There are one-man bands out there that may not have thought about it much but would be willing to do their part to grow. My cause is to get them into motion.

You are certainly free to recruit or not, but, to be quite frank about it, you will not be my target audience. My mission is to help our industry grow. We need more professionals. We need craftsmen such as yourself to train them.

Look at it this way - you can admire the craftsmanship of your hands or you could be admiring the craftsmanship of your craftsmen. Which serves consumers and our industry better? Which would give you the most pride?