Southern California brings to mind a sunny and warm climate, beautiful beaches and great waves for surfing. Mary Jean Anderson— president and owner of El Cajon, Calif.-based Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air — is more comfortable bodyboarding than surfing, but her company has been riding a wave of success in the last few years, going from substantial debt to double-digit profits.
Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air began in 1978 as Walter Anderson Plumbing. At the time, Mary Jean Anderson was a nurse, but in 1983 she joined her then-husband Walter Anderson in running the plumbing new construction company. By 1985, Mary Jean Anderson had convinced her husband to move into plumbing service.
“He really liked new construction, but I slowly got him to see that service and repair was the right direction to take the company,” she says.
The couple divorced in 2000 but continued to work together until 2004, when Walter Anderson decided to retire and Mary Jean Anderson bought out his interest in the $4 million company.
In early 2006, the company ventured into the heating and air-conditioning sector by buying up a local HVAC business. The intention was to grow the company by offering additional services to its customer base. But after the acquisition, Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air began to have problems.
“We bought a company that was smoke and mirrors,” she says. “We couldn’t pay our bills and ended up being $500,000 in debt.”
She was taking profits from her plumbing company to shore up the HVAC business. Then the Great Recession hit, and business fell off. Around the same time, Anderson found out that her accountant had been convicted of a felony for embezzlement at another company.
Frustrated and discouraged, Anderson was set to close the HVAC business and concentrate on her plumbing business. She realized her mistake in thinking that plumbing and HVAC were the same, that she could manage each business the same way. Many contractors who add services to their businesses don’t understand that each trade has its own challenges as far as workers, skills, equipment and billing.
“We were going to close it; we were really frustrated,” Anderson notes. “But then we focused on the positive, which was making it grow, and that’s when we found Nexstar.”
Andersonknew she needed help and joined Nexstar Network in 2006. With the help of her business coach, she was able to pay off the HVAC company’s debt in four years and now has double-digit profits.
“We turned the company around and the HVAC business is the most profitable between the two companies,” she adds.
Nexstar provided Anderson with the business and sales tools to right her ship and navigate it in the right direction to become productive and profitable. Debbie Williams, a 17-year Anderson Plumbing veteran and the company’s general manager since 2009, recently attended Nexstar’s first General Manager Training Program.
“The training helped me build a better relationship with my managers,” she says. “We now meet on a weekly basis. And every morning I do a mandatory ‘huddle’ for about 10 to 15 minutes with all the staff. We talk about what other departments are doing and what our goals are so we can help each other. If one department is slow but another is busy and needs apprentices, we switch things around.
“I love working for Mary Jean and I try to follow her integrity and her values with our employees. She truly believes that her success comes from her employees’ success.”
With her business profitable and growing, Anderson treats her employees with respect and pays them well. “Plumbers work very hard and deserve to be paid for it,” she states. “They put their hands in places doctors would never touch!”
All in the family
While marketed as one company, Anderson’s HVAC business is separate from the plumbing business. Anderson owns the plumbing company, while she and husband Bryan Romingerown the heating-and-air business. Rominger also is the HVAC sales and service manager.
Anderson’s children — Kyle Anderson and Kelly Anderson— also work in the family business. A licensed contractor, Kyle Anderson is now the company’s plumbing service manager. He started his plumbing career at Anderson when he was 18, working on new construction while going to school. He worked in the company’s copper repipe division while an apprentice, and frequently rode around with Sixto Salcido, Anderson Plumbing’s technical training safety compliance officer.
Kyle Anderson left the family business to work in new construction for about five years. He even tried out for the U.S. Border Patrol before returning to Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air.
“I wanted to give plumbing service another try,” he explains. He worked in several departments before becoming assistant manager of the plumbing service department, taking over the department when the manager left the company.
He has attended many Nexstar training sessions, such as how to coach plumbing techs on the various processes and systems. “It’s a constant learning experience,” he says.
Daughter Kelly Anderson is not only the company’s operations manager, she is the 2012-2013 president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of San Diego.
“My father served as the 99th president of the San Diego Chapter in 1991-1992,” she says. “The PHCC organization, and all those who have been involved in its success over the years, has given a tremendous amount of time and dedication to our industry. I felt it was my turn to give back to an association that has done so much for our industry.”
Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air has been a PHCC member for more than 30 years. Mary Jean Anderson praises the educational and technical training that PHCC provides it members, but there is one thing she values more.
“Most important is that PHCC represents us on the national front,” she explains. “When legislation, regulations or other legal issues come into play that may affect the plumbing and heating industry, PHCC represents the industry in Washington. It works behind the scenes to make sure industry concerns are heard.”
One issue the industry is dealing with, she adds, concerns gas and electric utilities trying to enter the industry by selling and installing or leasing water heaters for their customers, who are billed for those services on their gas and electric bill. So PHCC is working on those kinds of issues.
PHCC members can become part of this process through the association’s Legislative Days, held every spring in Washington. Attendees are split into groups to visit senators and congressmen and discuss three or four small-business or industry issues. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes peek into the day-to-day business of government.
“We are huge advocates for the PHCC apprenticeship program for ongoing training, education and journeyman certifications,” Kelly Anderson says. “We believe it is one of the few programs left that provides the necessary education and hands-on training, which our plumbers need to succeed in an ever-growing industry.”
She adds that the company has sponsored the apprenticeship program over the last four years, continually sending its apprentices and providing 100% of the funds for their tuition and training. One of her goals as PHCC of San Diego president is to begin expanding education opportunities to include training and certifications for HVAC techs.
“I truly believe with expanding our apprenticeship program to include HVAC education, we will in turn grow our membership and reach out to more contractors in our industry with added benefits to becoming members of our association,” she states.
When it comes to recruiting new members for Anderson Plumbing’s crew, Human Resources Manager Megan Morrishas specific criteria she is looking for.
“I’m always on the hunt for good people,” she notes. “We’re providing a service, but we’re also in business to make money to support our families. So I’m looking for people who are friendly, easy to talk to and who want to work. For technical positions, you have to have some kind of mechanical aptitude, curiousity about how things work. My basic test is, ‘Would I be comfortable sending this person to my grandmother’s house?’ Plumbers and HVAC techs have a different kind of intelligence, a special kind of skill set.”
One of the recruiting avenues Morris uses is an open house, an idea from another Nexstar member. She posts the date and time on the company’s Facebook page and on Craigslist. Seeing potential employees in a group setting gives her a good idea of who will fit with the company as well as the position.
A certified Women’s Business Enterprise, Anderson Plumbing, Heating & Air employs two female HVAC service techs. Mary Jean Anderson hasn’t had luck finding female plumbers, but she continues to look for the right women to join her company.
The company also is the first in the area to be certified by GreenPlumbers USA. Water-conservation and energy-conservation issues are important to Anderson Plumbing and its customers.
Work can be fun
One of the company’s unique marketing ideas came from Kyle Anderson. He wrote, produced and starred in a music video called “Pull ‘em Up Rap Video … Don’t Hire a Plumber with His Pants Hanging Down.” The video is a parody of the American Idol sensation “Pants on the Ground” and contrasts the sloppy image of some plumbing companies with the professionalism of Anderson Plumbing Heating & Air. You can find the video on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2DyG3Uz4C4.
Andersonemployees work hard, but they like to have fun, too. Each July they build a float for and march in the Gay Pride Parade. The company supports the Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer Foundation, donating money (a total of $63,000 to date) and in-kind donations such as commercial time, as well as walking in the annual Walk for the Cure.
“I never wanted to be the biggest plumbing company in the area, but I wanted to be the best,” Mary Jean Anderson says. “And because of our people, our integrity and our values, we are.”