When MacGregor Plumbing President Julie Wieman graduated from college with a psychology degree, she didn’t envision a career in plumbing. She was looking for a position in that field when, in 1991, her father John J. MacGregor asked her to help out at the family business.
“Two employees had health issues, it was in the middle of summer and they were crazy busy,” she says. “So Dad asked if I could come in and help, even though I had some other jobs going on. I came in and I’ve been here ever since.”
Wieman worked in every position at MacGregor Plumbing, except in the field, and her dad named her general manager in 2001. When he died in 2009, she inherited the company.
Harbor Springs, Mich.-based MacGregor Plumbing covers Emmet and Charlevoix counties in the northwest area of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. With 30 employees, the company does work in plumbing, heating and air, drain cleaning and pipe patching. Its two divisions are service and retrofit. The retrofit division not only does equipment changeouts, but small- and large-scale remodels and new construction as well.
When Wieman started working for her father, a founding member of Contractors 2000 (now Nexstar), she did encounter pushback from some people.
“It was interesting; when I went to my first Contractors 2000 meeting in Chicago in 1994, I was the only woman at the conference,” Wieman notes. “So that was intimidating. I used to get questions in the early 1990s, even at those meetings, like, ‘Oh! Are you a CSR?’ Nobody was ever rude to me or derogatory. It was just more an assumption that I must be a secretary or in an office position.
“But over the years, I believe I’ve earned respect with my Nexstar colleagues. When I was one of the first ones coming up through Nexstar, people would say, ‘Oh my gosh! You’re running your dad’s company! That’s so cool!’ It was a lot of the men who had daughters and they were hoping those daughters would follow in their footsteps. And many of those daughters did join the industry.
“I think as years go by and you prove that you’re working in the company, you’re not just somebody who has a job because your dad was here — that makes a big difference and people start to see you on an even basis.”
She believes some derogatory treatment still goes on in the industry, especially where women are in management positions such as service department manager, install manager or dispatcher. Some male service techs have trouble with a woman supervising them.
With positions such as finance manager, general manager or company owner, Wieman says that attitude has disappeared.
When her dad was alive, he ran the crews and employed male managers throughout the company, Wieman says. Now many of MacGregor Plumbing’s managers are predominantly women — not intentionally, she adds. She just hired the best people she could find.
“If the one who signs your checks is a woman, you better get used to it or hit the road,” she says. “And almost 90% of buying decisions are made by women. So it behooves everyone to learn how to properly deal with women.”
Riding out the storm
In a resort area where people from Chicago and New York have second homes, MacGregor Plumbing does new construction on some very high-end, custom-designed homes. The company doesn’t chase new construction anymore; it has been working with a local builder for more than 20 years on these big-scale projects, Wieman says, which is steady, year-round work.
“Our biggest year was in 2005 — we made just about $5 million, primarily in new construction,” Wieman adds. “Then the bottom dropped out in Michigan in 2006 and the new construction business went away. But we’ve almost built that completely back just on the retrofit service side. We were able to pay our bills on time every month. We continued to work. We continued to market like crazy. We increased revenue and grew the business a little bit every year and started coming out of it about 2009. So yes, I’m very happy to be out of new construction.”
However, some of her local competitors didn’t make it through the Great Recession. Like anywhere else, northern Michigan has many one-man plumbing or heating companies that come and go. Harbor Springs also has two good, respectable companies its size that have been in business for a long time.
However, Wieman notes MacGregor lost 14 area competitors from about 2006 to 2008, some of them larger shops, not just the one-man outfits.
“We never lost money during the recession,” she says. “We continued to be profitable every year and I credit that to a lot of systems we have in place, great employees, a great customer base, and the fact that our company is debt-free and has been for decades.”
She notes that the experience MacGregor plumbing and heating techs give customers — respect, cleanliness in their homes, offering options, listening to the customers and engaging them in making decisions — is what sets MacGregor apart from being “troubleshooting technicians.”
“We got away from that a long time ago,” she adds. “Our guys can go into a situation that looks like a spidery mess from a previous install and when they leave — it’s a piece of art. They take a lot of pride in what they do. We have testimonials and reviews about them all the time, about how clean they are, how polite, how professional. So everybody here takes pride in the work they do and it shows.”
When times are tough, the worst thing a plumbing or heating service business can do is cut its advertising or marketing budget. Unfortunately, too many industry businesses do just that.
“The biggest thing we hear in our industry is: ‘I can’t afford to advertise. I can’t afford marketing right now. It’s too slow,’” Wieman states. “I say, along with many others in the industry, that you can’t afford not to advertise or market your company. That’s the last place to pull money from when you’re struggling or trying to make ends meet. Without it, your customers aren’t going to know whether you’re still in business, especially if they use your services once a year.”
MacGregor conducts year-round marketing and hired a marketing manager, Kalynn Fowler, a little more than a year ago. Fowler “catapulted” the company into social media — Facebook and Twitter, a mobile-optimized website, monthly newsletters and email blasts — and “review buzz has been huge,” Wieman says.
Fowler provides a Google Analytics report at the Friday afternoon managers meeting, which details where the best marketing leads are coming from. She’s disappointed that Yellow Pages is still the No. 1 marketing resource for new customers in the Harbor Springs area. Many of MacGregor’s clients are retireees with their second homes.
“I know it’s strange to a 23-year-old; her generation doesn’t use phone books or most other printed material — everything is digital,” she explains. “However, I understand the demographics of our customers. They’re getting out their phone book and looking up a phone number. Some may not have an email address. It’s not the social media crowd. But it’s nice to have someone on board who is into all that, especially for younger people moving into the area.”
MacGregor Plumbing’s other marketing efforts include direct mail pieces, gift cards and referral cards. In 2013, the company made a leap of faith with cable advertising — a year-round program with three area news stations.
Marketing also can come from being active in the community. MacGregor Plumbing, which celebrated its 52nd anniversay this spring, is conscious about giving back to the communities it serves in many ways, one of which involves chartitable works. McGregor Cares is a monthly community giving program where local charity groups, fundraiser events and people in need are nominated via an online form. The company selects five groups from the online nominations, which are then presented to all employees at the monthly company meeting.
The groups are rated one to five. The top three are posted online and votes are taken. The winning group receives $500.
“We recently started it; it’s been something we’ve been conceptualizing for several months,” Wieman explains. “I got the idea from other Nexstar members who were very successful with it. We aren’t choosing who the winner is; it’s done independently on the website. We had our first winner in March, our local hospice.”
Being conscious of the environment is another way MacGregor gives back to its community. The company has cardboard dumpsters for recycling at both locations. And it recycles construction debris and anything else it can at jobsites.
“Anything we take away from sites, we recycle,” she says. “We always have. We’ve got a recycling bin out back for our local transfer station, for paper. We work with a local salvage company on all the HVAC equipment, so it’s taking all of that scrap for us.”
Although some of the summer residents are concerned about water conservation, it is not a big issue with the locals as Harbor Springs is built over thousands of artesian wells.
“We have some of the cleanest drinking water in the world right out of the ground,” she notes. “So we do an awful lot with education here on water treatment. It’s pure water and doesn’t have to be chlorinated, but we do have minerals in our water. We sell a lot of water treatment systems.”
Energy efficiency is another matter. MacGregor promotes heat pumps, high-efficiency furnaces, geothermal and radiant floor heating. Dennis Firman is the company’s master plumber, as well as its hydronics expert. Area companies call him to help diagnose systems. “He’s absolutely brilliant with hydronic systems and floor radiant,” Wieman says.
Radiant floor heat became popular in the area during the early 1990s. MacGregor Plumbing has installed radiant floor heat in many large-scale homes over the last 10 to 15 years. In addition, about 95% of the geothermal systems the company installs are residential.
“We have done some larger geo projects in the area, where there’s upwards of five geos on them,” Wieman says. “Some residences have five and six geos for their homes. And we have one downtown that has 16 wells just for the geothermals.”
The future of the industry
Wieman’s passion for the plumbing and heating industry makes her an ideal choice as president of the Nexstar Legacy Foundation, which provides scholarships and other educational opportunities for people who want to enter the industry. The group launched two programs in the last couple years — Troops to Trades and Explore the Trades.
The Troops to Trades program provides technical and/or service skills training to military veterans and helps them find jobs in the service industry. Two scholarships are available: Troops to Trades Professional Scholarships for veterans interested in attending a Nexstar Service System, HVAC Sales, Sewer Sales or CSR/DSR training class; and Build-a-Tech Training Scholarships for veterans interested in learning a technical trade. All scholarships cover training, travel, food and lodging costs.
So far, three veterans have gone through the program and have been placed in jobs. The foundation has four more veterans in training this year. Wieman says one of its goals this year is to work as closely as it can with the National American Legion.
The goal of the Explore the Trades program is to actively drive students into the plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical fields through education of students, businesses and schools.
“Do we need a million more doctors? Do we need a million more attorneys? Do we need a million more computer science engineers?” Wieman asks. “I don’t know, but I don’t think so.”
She notes that the consensus seems to steer away from talking with high school counselors and forging relationships with school superintendents in order to have more influence over curriculum for students not interested in attending a college or university.
“If we truly want to have a successful nation and we truly want to have quality of life here and turn things around for our young people, then we need to get real about, ‘What do we need in this country?’” Wieman states. “We need qualified individuals in plumbing, heating and electrical. We need welders. We have all these specialized trades that we are really lacking nationwide, and it’s going to get so much worse as the economy picks up, the construction industry picks up and no one is available to do the work.”
Wieman contributed to the design and content of Nexstar’s recent series of spring meetings centered on recruiting, hiring and on-boarding qualified technicians, which is an important aspect of a successful business. However, the dilemma of plumbing and heating contractors, and the entire industry, is how to get young people out of high school, into the trades and train them properly.
The Nexstar Legacy Foundation is in the planning stages to create a kit that will be a how-to guide for companies nationwide on bringing young people into the plumbing, HVAC or electrical industries.
“It will be a ‘go-to-market’ kit for growing your own technicians,” she explains. “We’ll not only teach employers how to do it, but give them a cost and time commitment they can expect for a return in investment, set-up education agreements, etc.”
One of the industy’s challenges is how to change the perception of the trades. The professionalism espoused by industry associations and best-practices groups has helped over the years, but much work still needs to be done. And that conversation can be started in small communities such as Harbor Springs or big cities like Chicago.
“I still see it and I hear it every day across the country — ‘I can’t find enough help.’ People have got to stop using that in their vocabulary because it’s not going to change. You’re not going to find help. Our industry needs to start figuring out how to create our own help. This isn’t about just Julie’s shop or John’s shop or Tammy’s shop. It’s about all of us.”