An educated businesswoman (she has a bachelor’s in finance and a master’s in accounting), Ryan understood the concepts of how to run a business, but knew little about plumbing. Nevertheless, this 37-year-old woman took Houston-based Village Plumbing from the verge of shutting its doors in 1992 to a $2.5 million operation this year, all while fending off family problems and the consolidation movement in her backyard.
“I knew it was going to take a lot of effort to keep the doors open,” says Ryan. “It was unbelievable all the stuff that had to be done with no money. I went into the office and started working, and I don’t think I left this place for three months.”
In Her Beginning: It wasn’t easy for Ryan to orchestrate the turnaround of her father’s past business. Ryan’s father, Bob Wark, opened the doors to the family-run business in 1946. He had been one of the industry’s most imaginative and successful service contractors of his era. But as he phased out of operations, the company faltered. From the time Ryan joined the company in 1984 until the early part of this decade, she watched the company slide downhill. Ryan had enough in 1992. With the company $200,000 in the hole (and only $1.2 million in revenues), she fired her brother and took over as company president, setting off severe family problems.
“He and I had very different philosophies,” shares Ryan, who purchased the company in 1993. “I thought if you have a family member working in the business, they take your interests to heart. That’s not what happened here, and often that’s not what happens. It was extremely difficult.”
Ryan says the situation was a nightmare because she had no clue about plumbing. Two of her competitors came over to her shop at nights and on weekends to teach her all the parts and how to order. Even her dad came back to help. During the period, she acquired her plumber’s license, and learned the ins and outs of the industry.
“It was a difficult lesson to learn, but it was really good for the company in the long run,” says Ryan. “The employees had a lot more respect for me afterwards. I don’t think anybody expected I would do that - I didn’t even expect I would do that.”
After the shaky period, Village Plumbing excelled to new levels it had never seen before. The company, in a 6,000 sq. ft. facility, sits at 30 employees and 13 trucks, and plans for three additional trucks next spring. She became a member of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling-Contractors - National Association, Quality Service Contractors and Contractors 2000. She met people who had similar problems.
Ryan, who was appointed to the NAPHCC’s Professional Product Line Committee earlier this year, managed the turnaround through training, superior customer service and flat rate pricing. She empowers all company employees to do “whatever it takes” to please the customers. Village Plumbing holds a mandatory meeting each week to discuss and resolve problems that occur. Ryan provides plenty of in-house training, which teaches her workers how to sell while overcoming customer objections.
The company kept workers with top-notch attitudes, and replaced those who didn’t have the right approach. New workers face a tough interviewing process - with a former homicide police officer. Ryan decided it was more economical to farm out the interviews than train someone to do it. Village Plumbing interviews about eight people a year and does not want to hire any criminals, she says. “It would be a disaster.”
Earning The Respect: Colin Bull, Village Plumbing’s general manager, says, “Wherever we go, Monica has the utmost respect from people in the industry. She has a fantastic business head.”
Some people think Bull, who owned his own plumbing company in England, owns Village Plumbing, he says. “When I point out that Monica owns the company, they act surprised. ‘Really, a woman?’ Once they get over that little surprise, there are no problems at all. Some guys come in and think they know it all, and then they talk to Monica, and find they can’t pull the wool over her eyes. She knows what she is talking about.”
Other employees share the same attitude - it’s an advantage working for a woman in the plumbing industry. “I’ve been married for 16 years, so I’ve pretty much worked for a woman for quite a while,” chuckles Larry Wilson, a field supervisor. “It’s not really a whole lot different. If anything she has a little more understanding about your family life and your home life than a male boss would. She realizes there are other things that are more important than just work.”
Ryan makes a point to communicate more clearly when dealing with men in the industry. To make sure she understands what needs to be communicated, Ryan set up an advisory board to examine the company. The group, which consists of about 10 people, will meet four times this year and has discussed everything from financial statements to moving the company.
The group provides a new set of eyes for problems while providing additional information to resolve different situations. For instance, Ryan considered moving the company from its current location, but the advisory board presented information that showed it would cost her an additional $10,000 a month in advertising to keep the same name recognition. Ryan decided against the move.
Picking Up The Pace: Word of Ryan’s company has spread throughout the Houston area. She’s picked up eight employees - “cream of the crop employees” - from competing companies, including two major consolidators (American Residential Services and Group Maintenance America Corp.) in her own backyard. As the consolidation movement continues, Ryan is finding her company benefits from consolidator mistakes.
“The consolidators came in and made promises that haven’t always come true,” Ryan says. “These organizations got people’s hopes up, and then when things didn’t occur, employees decided to leave. Some of their real good people have come to our organization.”
Both Bull and Wilson came to Village Plumbing from companies that were purchased by ARS.
“I think the consolidators have created more of a challenge,” says Bull, who also worked for Roto-Rooter when he came to the United States in 1991. “We are constantly watching what everyone is doing. It made me realize there are a lot of plumbing companies, and now there are a lot of plumbing companies out there with money.”
After ARS purchased the company Wilson was working for, he “stuck with them for six months. I didn’t like the atmosphere. It was kind of like when I was in the service, I was happy to be a civilian again. And now that I am out of that big conglomerate, I’m happy to be doing the one-to-one thing again.”
Employees are not the only thing Ryan is picking up from the consolidators. She’s also picking up their customers. “We’ve picked up a couple thousand customers directly from the consolidators over the past 18 months,” she claims. Village Plumbing significantly cut its advertising - eliminating radio and television spots and downsizing from a full to one-third size page ad in the Yellow Pages - because of the extra business.
At first, Ryan admits she was afraid the consolidators were going to come in and wipe everyone out. “I realized the people who are smaller and quicker can change fast enough to stay ahead of them. It makes me have to work harder at that end of the business. It’s something we work on constantly - how we treat our customers.”
Village Plumbing already does things that take larger corporations years to implement, such as personalizing customer phone calls through a database of information. Customers are greeted by being asked how recent installations are performing.
Still, Ryan wouldn’t rule out selling Village Plumbing to a consolidator down the road. She’s been approached but says, “I don’t think the company is worth the money that I would like to be paid for it. I think in about two years we’ll be closer to that point. It would be a good fit if we ever got all the things worked out.”
She’s Got Next: Village Plumbing has already set its sights on the future. Ryan has the company ironing out its inventory system before a planned expansion. “We didn’t want to add more people until we fixed the problems,” Ryan says. “The inventory system was not sophisticated enough to handle more trucks and people.”
To solve the problem, she’s bringing in her husband, Dan, a former NASA computer scientist, to implement a computerized inventory system. The company is also building a salesroom to entice outside speakers and manufacturers to come in and talk to the staff. Ryan wants to expose her guys to different ideas.
A different idea from Ryan? Go figure. Maybe Bull puts it best: “This woman thing is good.”