PM readers may remember the familiar face in the center of this month's cover -- Tab Hunter made our front page back in 1999.

From 2004-2006, Hunter’s franchised business grew more than 60% and saw its customer base grow significantly throughout the Nashville metro area.

PM readers may remember the familiar face in the center of this month’s cover. We put Tab Hunter on the cover in 1999 when he was busy building Tab Hunter Plumbing into one of Nashville’s best-known plumbing companies.

“Our image is so powerful,” he told us then, “that parents come up to me and say, ‘My son is looking for a job. Is there anything you can do?’”

His company’s shine hasn’t lost any of its luster, but it does look considerably different. For one thing, his name isn’t over the front door.

In the past 10 years, Hunter turned the independent company he started in 1992 into a Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchise, invested in another HVAC franchise created by Clockwork Home Services Inc., Ben’s parent company, sold those two franchises back to Clockwork in 2006 when they both earned about $5 million in sales and, as part of the acquisition, went to work at the corporate headquarters selling other contractors on the benefits of franchising.

“Because your name is on the door,” he told us when we took a tour of Clockwork’s Sarasota, Fla., headquarters last January, “you become the smartest guy in the room and everyone wants to know what you want to do next. But it doesn’t mean you have all the answers.”

Looking for all the answers is what propelled him to first be a Ben Franklin franchisee and now persuade others to do the same.

Hunter joined the company as a vice president, but is currently Clockwork’s president of franchise development and has seen the sales of the franchised businesses grow to $282.5 million last year.

We put Tab Hunter on PM's cover in 1999 when he was busy building Tab Hunter Plumbing into one of Nashville’s best-known plumbing companies.

A Little History

If buying a franchise means buying into a particular philosophy of business, Hunter’s own path to running his contracting business ran a similar “by-the-book” approach. While there’s a deep independent streak running through the majority of residential service-and-repair shops, there are also plenty of ways an independent can depend on “best practices” or affinity groups to stay on his own. (Clockwork got started itself founding Plumbers’ Success International. For more on the company, read “Jim Abrams And Clockwork.”)

That’s what Hunter did, in fact, before he graced our cover for the first time. After getting “royally beat up” doing new construction during his first few years after starting the business, Hunter joined an affinity group and quickly learned the benefits of entering service and repair, and doing so on a flat rate basis.

“In 1996, we plumbed 310 new homes,” Hunter says, “and in 1997, it was zero.”

By 1998, Hunter employed one of the youngest staff we’d met - the dispatcher appearing with him on the cover was just 19 - all looking good in common uniforms and trucks. Employees learned the Hunter way through a formal 15-day training program that included in-house presentations along with ride-alongs with experienced techs. He even had a catchy jingle to advertise his business. His average service invoice was $380.

“We got to be known as the highest-priced plumber in town,” he says. “But we provided the ‘Cadillac’ of service and not the ‘Yugo.’”

Shortly after our 1998 visit, Hunter was on his way to almost franchising himself. He had hired a consultant to map out a plan to replicate his Nashville business to expand into a few other cities to essentially blanket the state with his brand of service.

Around that time, however, he started to hear more and more about this new franchise company called Benjamin Franklin Plumbing. He admits he was reluctant to check it out at first and told us he was shocked when a good plumbing friend of his from Minneapolis called to tell him he was a Ben franchisee.

Still, he did attend a meeting in Las Vegas and was impressed by the overall system the company was providing.

To prove his point, Hunter grabbed a current copy of the company’s OpX Manual, which spells out essentially what a franchisee needs to run a service business.

“This is what I really wanted and had been trying to do on my own,” he adds. “Tell me how it’s supposed to be done and I knew we could kick it in the butt.”

From 2004 though 2006, Hunter’s franchised business grew more than 60 percent and saw its customer base also grow significantly throughout the Nashville metro area.

Joining Corporate

Since he joined Clockwork, Hunter is an essential spokesman for the company and what it can do for independent contractors. According to 2008 figures, Clockwork added 21 new Benjamin Franklin Plumbing franchises for a total of 249 territories served. (We’re only interested in plumbing, but Hunter is charged with also selling HVAC and electrical franchises. For more information, see the sidebar “By The Numbers” on page 32.)

“What do contractors want?” Hunter asks. “No. 1, they want more profits. A close second is that they want some freedom. They typically can’t get away from the business or, rather, they’re so good at the technical side that they can’t create time to dedicate to being a businessman.”

Our January visit coincided with “Gearing Up 101,” a four-day seminar for the company’s newest recruits. The afternoon we stopped by, for example, the franchisees were going over everything you’d possibly want to know about proper invoices.

From there, franchises can take advantage of Clockwork University, an online school that teaches just about everything you’d need to know to run a business, delivered in four tracks common to providing service:

  • Customer service
  • Technician training
  • Sales and Marketing
  • Business Management

We’ve also attended other company conventions that attract upwards of 300 franchisees to learn the latest services from the company, as well as network with like-minded contractors.

About 1,100 contractors belong to PSI and Clockwork’s other affinity groups, essentially business schools for independent contractors that also share many of the same services and educational opportunities the franchisees enjoy. Hunter says the main difference between membership in PSI and buying a Ben Franklin franchise is one of accountability.

There’s not much leeway around the fact that franchisees have to do things a certain way. After all, the very key to any franchise’s success is consistency in product and service, no matter what big city or small town the business is located.

But Hunter adds there is plenty of built-in support along the way. For each franchisee, Hunter says there’s a staff of 25 Clockwork employees there to help, with a core of about 10 actively going over daily numbers that franchises submit and conducting weekly conference calls with a set group of contractors.

The process is also carefully presented in a sequential manner. Hunter picks as an example a tankless water heater sales program that everyone wants once they hear about it.

“But you aren’t going to get it unless you can show evidence that you have your call center in order, that you’re selling Ben Society agreements [the company’s name for service agreements],” Hunter explains. “In other words, we make sure the cart doesn’t go before the horse.”

Brand Name

Besides the extensive training, most Ben Franklin contractors we’ve met along the way tell us that having a nationally recognized brand name is a vital benefit - one that goes a long way toward taking the sting away from not having your name above the front door any longer.

In planning the plumbing franchise, Clockwork executives polled more than 1,600 residential service customers and found that most customers consider plumbers as honest, frugal and hardworking. The real Ben Franklin was certainly all of these things and, maybe, the only mark against him was he wasn’t a plumber.

Related to the brand image are the company’s slogans like “The Punctual Plumber” and “If There’s Any Delay, It’s You We Pay.” If a Ben Franklin franchisee can’t make it to a service call on time, customers get $5 for every minute they are late - up to $300. (Timely customer service is the hallmark of the other two franchises’ slogans, too. For more information, see sidebar “By The Numbers” on page 32.)

Last year, Clockwork started national advertising for its franchisees with a full-page ad that ran in USA Today inviting customers to produce their own homemade commercials for the brands and post them on YouTube. The winner was based on the number of hits earned by each commercial. Last January, John Hill, a mortgage loan officer from Orlando, Fla., received the winner’s check for $26,000.

The “Win26k” promotion generated more than 15 million impressions, according to the company. (Watch the YouTube video at the end of this article.)

Brand names, slogans, recognizable uniforms and the like may be the most familiar parts of a franchise. But that’s only from the outside looking in. Change those directions and you can also see some synergies built when people are brought together under a common mission.

For example, Hunter told us how franchisees in Florida are banding together to share advertising costs. Also, a call center in Phoenix, started by another group of franchisees, is now a Clockwork service offered to as many as 35 franchisees.

When Clockwork first started selling franchises, PSI members had first dibs on scooping up a particular territory before the company would approach any other contractors. At this point, Hunter says the Ben Franklin name itself has become well-known among contractors. As a result, the company is long past making cold calls and is starting to actively target the leading business of areas of the country they want to fill in with franchises.

In addition to the usual presentations for prospective contractors, Hunter told us about the #8220;snap” surveys that they’d also conduct to help contractors judge their name recognition. Basically, it’s a survey of 100 local homeowners asking them to recall the names of local plumbing companies.

“Most find out that not as many customers know their businesses as much as they think,” Hunter says. (Franchisee Scott Rohrer had an interesting story on this. For more information, read “Standing With Tab” here.)

By The Numbers

According to 2008 totals, here’s how the numbers break down for Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, as well Clockwork Home Services Inc.’s two other franchises:

Benjamin Franklin Plumbing
Motto: “The Punctual Plumber – If There’s Any Delay, It’s You We Pay”
249 territories

One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning
Motto: “Always On Time Or You Don’t Pay A Dime”
245 territories

Mister Sparky
Motto: “We're On Time, You'll See Or The Repair Is Free”
80 territories

Ben Franklin Winning Video: John Hill, Orlando, FL