Mr. Rooter’s double-digit growth results from creating the best experience for its customers. 

Mr. Rooter President Mary Kennedy Thompson spends as much time as she can with technicians and franchisees such as Glenn Gallas (pictured here), owner of Mr. Rooter of Central Arkansas. Photo credit: Mr. Rooter.


Mary Kennedy Thompson, president of Mr. Rooter, began her eight-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps as a logistics officer after graduating from the University of Texas. In her early 20s, she commanded a Beach and Port platoon of 58 Marines who moved military people, supplies and equipment from one place to another, in places such as Japan, Korea and the Phillipines. These Marines were longshoremen and would load ships and aircraft going off to exercises or heading off to war. They were the first on the ground to set up tent cities and coordinate all the facilities needed to house hundreds of military personnel.

“You can’t believe the coordination it takes, even something simple as setting up latrines!” she says. “I laugh about it now because I’m in the plumbing business and I think about toilets all day long. But I can remember being in Korea, trying to set up what we call host nation support, and I’m talking to someone who speaks very little English and I speak next-to-no Korean, trying to give him the number of latrines we need set out.”

And after working with plumbers for six years, Thompson sees similarities between Marines and Mr. Rooter technicians.

“They do a difficult job that a lot of people don’t really want to do, but they do it proudly and the world is a better place because they do it,” she states. “It’s not the giant things, it’s the small things that you do in the course of your service to the customer that make the difference in the big picture.

“And it’s the same in the Marine Corps; it wasn’t that I was traveling to a country I’d never been to or that it was freezing cold or any of that stuff - it was trying to communicate with someone that we need bathrooms! For me, coming to Mr. Rooter six years ago was like coming home.”

And being a woman in the Marines or heading up a national plumbing company is a nonissue for her. As one of nine children (of which five are female), Thompson was raised to believe she could do anything if she works hard.

“I’m here as a leader to do a job,” she explains. “I appreciate being a woman, but I don’t let it define what I do with my life.”

Thompson joined Mr. Rooter after 12 years at Cookies By Design - first as a franchisee, then a stint at the corporate office before becoming president in 2004. Because of her experiences as a franchisee, she considers franchising the “great American dream.”

“Franchising is the science - and the art - of working with people to help them take their performance to the next level,” she explains. “I didn’t know anything about business when I started at Cookies By Design, but because I was a franchisee, I was more successful and created more wealth for my family. I’m not sure I would have had that if I hadn’t been part of a system that taught me and helped me grow and enhance my performance to the next level, that gave me good coaching and mentoring.”

Taking what she learned in the Marine Corps - discipline, leadership to guide people in a common mission and understanding systems - Thompson and her husband Will grew their franchises into top-performing businesses and sold them, creating the family’s retirement fund. “You should always have an exit strategy, you should always know what your endgame is,” she advises.

She was wary about joining the “dark side” of management, but in 2000 eventually agreed to take a mentoring role at the company, teaching other Cookies By Design franchisees what she did to grow her companies. That led to her becoming the company president, which put her in the same circles as Dina Dwyer-Owens, chair of Mr. Rooter’s parent company, The Dwyer Group.

Mary Kennedy Thompson, who served eight year in the Marine Corps, chairs the International Franchise Association’s VetFran committee.

Growing the brand

“How could I go from cookies to plumbing?” Thompson asks. “It’s about the customer experience. I used to have a sign on all my office doors: ‘The customer is not an interruption of our work, but the purpose of our work.’ At Mr. Rooter, we survey every one of our customers within 24 hours of a service call. And we ask them one very important question: How likely are you to refer us to friends and family?”

That question is the basis of the Satmetrix Net Promoter Score, which allows companies to track three groups - Promoters, Passives and Detractors - and measure performance through customers’ eyes. Customers respond on a 0-10 scale and are then catagorized into one of the three groups. The NPS is determined by the percentage of Promoters divided by the percentage of Detractors.

Mr. Rooter tracks its Net Promoter Score closely, Thompson says - by technician, by franchisee, by region and by the company as a whole.

“Are we doing what we say we’re going to do, and does that grow our business? It keeps that customer experience in the forefront,” she explains. “I think it’s a dangerous culture to be in when you start patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘Wow, look how well we do that.’ We should be looking at how we can improve each individual experience.”

Thompson starts every day examining the key metrics in her business - from profitability to productivity to the customer experience. “If you’re only looking at one, you’re missing something,” she says. And she frequently goes on ride-alongs with technicians to keep the customer experience, the technician experience and the franchisee experience fresh in her mind.

About 75% to 80% of Mr. Rooter franchisees are former independent plumbing contractors or come from the plumbing industry. While they understood how to fix a customer’s plumbing problem, they didn’t have a good grasp of their business.

“You can be the best plumber in the world, but if you don’t understand how to interact with your customer, how to market to your customer, how to manage your numbers and train your people, it doesn’t matter how good a plumber you are,” Thompson says. “That’s where we spend our time to help create growth - for our franchisees and for our company.”

Mr. Rooter technicians wear a baseball cap that says, “Growing the Mr. Rooter brand one customer experience at a time” on the bill. And referrals are how Thompson has grown the Mr. Rooter brand, with double-digit growth and robust same-store sales during the recent recession.

“We want our customers to be telling their friends and family that they had a great experience with us,” she says. “We’re very involved in social media; we have more followers in social media than any other plumbing company. We listen and talk to our customers. We keep our ear to the ground because it’s an important part of how we grow our brand.”

The company has 5,534 likes on its Facebook page and 2,201 followers on its Twitter page. And Thompson writes the Mrs. Rooter blog, where she not only talks about Mr. Rooter, she also gives advice to homeowners, in layman’s terms, on ways to save money on their plumbing.

“I believe that part of a plumber’s job is to be responsible for all things water in and out of the house,” she notes. “We’ve worked with companies such as 3M on water filtration and being green. We spend a lot of time in social media talking to our customers and helping them understand how they can conserve water and other resources.”

If a faucet is dripping in your house or business, Mr. Rooter has a drip calculator on its website. Count the faucet’s drips per minute and enter that number into the calculator. You can find out how many gallons of water are being wasted daily, monthly and yearly from that faucet. On the company’s Facebook page, kids can play the Drip Game and help Wally the Wrench stop water leaks. Both help people “remember that water is a very precious resource that we have to be careful with,” Thompson says.

“Customers want a company that can teach them how to use less water, how to turn off the water behind the toilet if the toilet is overflowing,” she adds. “They want practical advice, not just a sales message.”

Marines and plumbers share much in common, says Mary Kennedy Thompson, pictured with her husband, Will.

Helping heroes

Thompson chairs the VetFran committee of the International Franchise Association. The purpose of VetFran is to help returning service members access franchise opportunities through training, financial assistance and industry support.

“Our service men and women have gone without many things while  risking their lives serving their country - that’s as deep a commitment as you’re ever going to see from a person,” she states. “They’ve done the hard stuff and when they come back, they’re trying to figure out what to do with their lives. They’ve got all this leadership training, and they understand discipline and systems. They deserve the franchise opportunity.”

Now a strategic mission of the IFA, VetFran was created by Don Dwyer Sr. in 1991 after Desert Storm as a way to thank the country’s veterans for their service. He formed a group of franchisors to offer discounts to veterans interested in buying a franchise. Dwyer died in 1994. Dwyer-Owens, his daughter, brought the mission back to the forefront after 9/11 because she believed the franchise community could do more for veterans.

VetFran membership has increased by 18% in the last six months, Thompson says. It has partnered with First Lady Michelle Obama in the Hiring Our Heroes program. The IFA has committed to hiring 75,000 veterans by 2014; what it calls Operation Enduring Opportunity. The Dwyer Group committed to hiring 300 of those veterans.

Since 1991, The Dwyer Group has brought 240 veterans into franchising and given discounts of more than $1.3 million. And Mr. Rooter recently was named in the top 10% of military-friendly companies by G.I. Jobs magazine.

“When you talk about creating jobs, franchises create jobs,” Thompson states. “A study conducted by Price Waterhouse and Coopers reports that one out of every seven jobs in the United States is created through franchising. The last census said there were 66,000 veterans who were franchisees.”

Thompson believes that Mr. Rooter differs from its competitors in three areas:

1. A clear, concise set of values and systems that everyone follows that helps create a top-notch customer experience.

2. A proven system to help focus franchisees on strong, growing shops that create fulfilling lives for franchisees and their employees.

3. A network of 284 franchisees who share best practices.

“We have a mantra here - ‘We make it right by creating outstanding and courteous experiences,’” she says. “We teach that to every one of our technicians and our franchisees because that’s what it’s all about.”

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