Frank Blau: The Servant Leader
Frank was struggling, swimming against the current of the cold, frigid waters of Lake Michigan. The teenager was cold. He was tired. He was scared. It would be so easy to surrender, to give up, to let the storm swallow him. But it wasn't just his life at stake. The lives of others depended upon him. He had to keep going. His father and his friend were counting on him. They were behind him somewhere, clinging to an overturned boat, hanging on.
The storm had come up suddenly, swamping the small boat, losing the motor. Frank was the best swimmer of the three. The 17-year-old was the only one who had a chance to make it to shore and find help. It wasn't much of a chance. He had to carve his way through a mile of water. He started to cramp, so he changed from a crawl to a backstroke. When he could no longer maintain the backstroke, he switched to a breaststroke and then to a crawl. Over and over, stroke after stroke, he kept moving. By now, every movement was agony, but he drew comfort from the agony. The pain proved he was still alive. The pain seemed to hold the hypothermia at bay.
He couldn't see the shore. He swam by dead reckoning. It was a miracle that he swam straight. It was a miracle that he covered a mile in the turbulent, icy water. It was a miracle that he was found soon after he stumbled ashore, freezing to death. It was a miracle that he managed to hoarsely whisper the information about the others drifting on the water. It was a miracle that the Coast Guard found them.
The next day, the local papers told the tale of the “17-year-old hero” who beat the odds to save his father and his friend. And Frank Blau has been miraculously saving people ever since.
Frank saved countless others through his life. He may not have saved them as dramatically as that nearly fatal day on Lake Michigan, but he saved them nonetheless. He saved them from themselves. He saved them from the poverty of their ignorance.
Frank Blau was a union plumber. He persevered through a low wage apprenticeship to become a journeyman. Then, with $500, he launched Blau Plumbing. With his brother as business partner, Frank built Blau Plumbing into one of the largest new construction plumbing companies in the country. He built a showroom and convinced builders to send people to the showroom where Frank sold upgrades, increasing the profitability of his company and of the builders he worked with.
The showroom was an innovation in its day, one of many. Many business practices that people take for granted today were unusual at best and often controversial when first tried by Frank Blau. For example, Frank was one of the first to see the lucrative potential of the service business and he changed the direction of his company to pursue it. As a service business, Blau Plumbing became smaller, but also more profitable.
Frank coined the unique selling proposition of “sudden service.” He hired professionals to work on a logo and tested different logo concepts. To take advantage of the space fever gripping the nation during the Kennedy administration, Frank and his brother settled on a spaceman in a bathtub with a helicopter rotor. Both the logo and the USP have been imitated.
When every other plumber merely listed his company in the Yellow Pages, Frank saw the opportunity presented by a large Yellow Pages display ad and took advantage of it. He purchased large panel trucks for the mobile marketing billboard effect they offered.
He was the first service contractor to flat rate. He was the first contractor to give his technicians handheld computers (loaded with the Blau price book). He started the practice of valve tags. He developed a simple, efficient and effective inventory control system. He created his own truck shelving system that maximizes inventory and simplifies inventory control.
Frank has always been an innovator and a pioneer. He's got the arrows in his back to prove it. But, like the lead sled dog, Frank's always had the better view.
Maybe Frank's greatest innovation is also his simplest. He came to the revelation that plumbers, operating at the top of their game, should be rewarded for their efforts. Not only should the owners be rewarded, Frank concluded, but also the plumbers and technicians who helped them earn their wealth.
Frank paid his people well, gave them and their families health insurance, and created profit sharing and fully funded retirement plans. If a plumber was to give Frank 20 to 25 years of service, Frank wanted him to be able to retire in comfort. His motives come from the heart. Frank chokes up when he talks about the wealth his employees managed to accumulate through his company.
So Much To GiveIf this was the story, it would be a good one. But this is merely the start of Frank Blau's story. Other plumbing contractors heard about the things going on at Blau Plumbing and they sought Frank out to learn more. Frank welcomed them and selflessly taught them.
The demand and need was so great that Frank went on the road. He taught pricing seminars from coast to coast. He wrote a very popular and widely read column in Plumbing & Mechanical (that is now written by Service Roundtable Plumbing Czar, Randall Hilton). When he couldn't convince his trade association to focus on the service business, Frank was instrumental in the foundation of Contractors 2000 (now Nexstar), one of the first contractor alliances.
Frank's message was first that contractors “should” earn a decent living, “should” be able to take care of their people and “could.” You might say that Frank became the psychotherapist for an industry.
Once he convinced someone they deserved more, Frank taught them how. He taught them how to allocate overhead and how to price for profits. As his books are titled, Frank taught the “Business of Contracting” to thousands. He taught thousands how to make a living.
Few people have given as much to others as Frank. The lost would read his column and call him. He took these calls from strangers he had never met, gave them a seminar on the phone, told them to “take the medicine,” and pointed the way to the promised land of profitability.
When the Service Roundtable first announced the creation of the “Servant Leader” award, it took all of 30 seconds for the first of our members to nominate Frank (first, but not the last). Frank was presented with the award last week. The inscription on the statue read:
“The truest, most noble form of leadership is that of 'servant leadership.' The Servant Leader leads by example, not command. The Servant Leader is compelled to help others, to serve. The Servant Leader Award recognizes individuals who have selflessly devoted a lifetime to serving others in their field. They are servants first, who have become notable leaders through their service to their fellows, enriching us all.”
Frank Blau has led by example his entire life. He has served his customers, his employees and his industry. Through his service he became the most renowned leader in the field of plumbing.
Today, Frank has retired a wealthy man. He purchased a large tract of land in west central Wisconsin, built a hunting cabin, and is practicing quality deer management with the same enthusiasm, vigor and excellence that he applied to his business and profession.
Frank has been a mentor to many. As a successful businessperson, he's been a role model. Yet, his greatest professional role is that of servant leader. We should all aspire to positively touch as many lives as Frank Blau. We should all aspire to become servant leaders like Frank Blau.
Here's to you Frank!