Starting your own business is not easy. I watched my dad build up his real estate company into a successful enterprise while he dealt with increasing overhead costs, the ups and downs of the local economy, the eccentricities of buyers and sellers, and clashes with business partners.
Many readers of Plumbing & Mechanical also are entrepreneurs, striking out on their own after spending years learning the trade while working for someone else. It’s a daunting task, taking that first step to independence. It’s like learning to drive. Or leaving home for the first time. Or going for that first job interview. Or applying for a business loan.
So imagine starting your own business at the same time you are learning the plumbing trade. That is what 20-year-old Jennifer Lannon is doing. She and her father, John Lannon, opened Jen’s Plumbing & Heating in Sandwich, Mass., in March 2014.
“We could not be happier with the way things have turned out for us,” Jennifer Lannon says. “The majority of our customers have come through word-of-mouth. It helps, too, when people see the white Mercedes Sprinter work truck with ‘Jen’s Plumbing & Heating — Father-Daughter Owned & Operated’ on it; it catches their eye. People love the idea of my dad and I working together.”
John Lannon left his job of 30 years at plumbing and mechanical contractor J.J. Bafaro of Worcester, Mass., to work with his daughter and teach her the plumbing trade. He briefly had his own business, Lannon Plumbing, before going back to work with Joe Bafaro so he could spend more time with his family, eventually becoming the company’s vice president.
“It was bittersweet for my dad because he looked up to Joe as a father,” Jennifer Lannon notes. “But he will tell you he doesn’t regret the decision he’s made because he’s happy with what we’re doing.”
John Lannon agrees: “The stress of having two people in the field is much less than overseeing 70 plumbers. I missed working with the tools after sitting behind my desk for as long as I did. I’m happy with where we’ve come in a year and happy that I get to spend this time with my daughter. This is for her and I’m glad to see how well she’s doing so far.”
Just as her father did, Jennifer attended Upton, Mass.-based Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School. He started his plumbing apprenticeship training; she took business technology courses. A plumbing career wasn’t what she wanted.
As a junior, she took a co-op job with Consigli Construction in Milford, Mass. There she worked with people in each department and got a feel for the planning and work that goes into big commercial jobs. “Between project management, project engineering, accounting and marketing, I caught the ‘construction bug,’” she says. “I was fascinated by the entire operation.”
She continued working at Consigli as she enrolled in a local community college and gained college credits while still enrolled at Blackstone. “I remained open-minded to different careers I might be interested in pursuing at the University of Rhode Island,” she says.
While attending URI’s freshman orientation in June 2013, she was overwhelmed with the choice of careers open to her — such as kinesiology (the study of human movement), nursing, pre-law and fashion.
“That summer was crucial for me because I had to choose what future career I was going to study for over the next four years,” she explains. “In late July I had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t ready to commit to being a college student. I didn’t know what I wanted to study, so to spend $200,000 for four years’ worth of school and have a degree that either I didn’t want or wasn’t going to use didn’t make sense.”
While she was waiting to re-enroll in community college, the idea of a plumbing career took root. Lannon was frustrated she couldn’t find “something that gave me the feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day, a job I could be proud of.” An old Lannon Plumbing T-shirt was the catalyst for father and daughter to talk about plumbing as a career.
‘Princess of the porcelain throne’
With the decision made to start the business, the details needed to be worked out. Where would the father-daughter team open their new enterprise? The Lannons’ Cape Cod house was used on weekends only, but the family loved the area. So they sold their Grafton, Mass., home and moved to Sandwich — a difficult decision as John Lannon had built the house himself in 1984.
While the business is in Jennifer Lannon’s name, John Lannon is responsible for its financial health. Because of her high school business background, she takes care of the bookkeeping and is hoping soon to take on estimating jobs. She is registered as her father’s apprentice, as he has maintained his Master Plumber’s license for 40 years. Jennifer started as a plumbing apprentice when she was 18; her goal is to become a journeyman plumber at the age of 23 and go for her Master Plumber’s license the following year.
“I know I’m only a second-year apprentice, but the first year went by so quick,” she says. “I want to learn as much as I can and have enough practice and guidance from my dad before he signs the business off to me.”
After spending a few months setting up the business as a limited liability company, opening a business bank account, finding a truck, designing logos, finding an accountant, setting up the various business insurances needed and setting up accounts with local supply houses, Jen’s Plumbing & Heating officially opened for business March 31, 2014, focusing on residential work. The duo keeps busy with service calls, but over the past winter they worked on three new homes, two of which were for the Habitat for Humanity of Cape Cod.
“The Habitat for Humanity homes were great practice for me. I could see the concepts that I was learning in night school be put to work,” Jennifer Lannon says. “My dad has been more than patient with me over the past year. At first it was a lot of just watching what he was doing and asking questions constantly, but over time he’s allowed me to go ahead and do certain things on my own while he works in another area.
“Having that slight bit of independence has gone a long way because it’s the best way for me to rely on my own knowledge and put everything I’ve learned to use.”
Starting out with smaller tasks gave Jennifer the chance to get comfortable with the work. “I’ve always been a hands-on learner, so choosing to work in the trades is exciting because I knew I would learn quickly,” she explains. “It’s easier for me to be on the jobsite working and putting different concepts to work vs. reading out of my code book trying to imagine how it’s going to work.”
There’s no shortage of plumbers on the cape, yet newcomer Jen’s Plumbing & Heating stays busy. The Lannons make sure they answer their phones whenever possible, return voicemail messages in a reasonable amount of time, arrive at jobsites on time and inform customers by phone if they will be late. To Jennifer and her dad, it’s just the courteous thing to do. No one wants to wait around all day and wonder when the plumber is going to show up. Treating its customers with respect and providing exceptional customer service is how the company stays busy and successful. And customer referrals are better than any marketing or advertising campaign in gaining new service customers.
The “Clean Pipes, Happy Life” slogan came from Jennifer, a take on the old saying, “Happy wife, happy life.”
“Anyone will agree that having your drain lines backing up, whether it’s your kitchen or your bathroom, is never enjoyable,” she explains. “However, the sound of hearing the blockage clear after running the snake through the line is a great sound.”
The company markets these services on its website: faucet and fixture repair and replacement, water heaters and boiler replacement, pipe repair and replacement, drain cleaning and video camera inspection, drain and water pipe leaks, heat pump water heaters and radiant heating.
“I still think back to the day when my dad and I picked up our truck after it got racked and lettered; that was when it hit me we were actually going into business together,” she recalls. “I’m so proud to say I am my father’s daughter because anyone who knows him knows what a great man he is. My dad and I have always been close. I’ve always been ‘Daddy’s little girl’ but now I’m his ‘princess of the porcelain throne.’”
With a company name of Jen’s Plumbing & Heating, customer’s obviously expect a woman to come to the door for a service call. And for Jennifer Lannon, being a woman in a male-dominated field has been no problem at all.
“I think it has to do a lot with my attitude, though; I don’t sit back and watch my dad do the work while I paint my nails,” she says. “I used to love getting my nails done but now I consider a nice hot shower and a little extra scrubbing of my hands to be a good manicure. I work hard, and I have no problem saying that because I prove it.”
Women are primarily the ones who take time off work to be home for service calls. Unfortunately, the public still hangs on to the old plumber stereotype. Lannon believes her gender puts women customers at ease.
“It’s a good feeling when we get to a customer’s front door and she is so excited to see a father-daughter team,” she remarks. “It’s not something you see every day, so it’s just as exciting for us when we hear how happy our customers are about the idea.”
In her opinion, it shouldn’t matter whether a plumber is a man or a woman. However, she does believe that women may have something to prove working in a male-dominated trade.
“Many men think it’s great when they see a woman stepping into the trades and making a mark, but there are also men who are going to give you grief for the same reason,” she notes. “No matter what profession you decide to get into or where you end up in life, you always have something to prove to your boss, your co-workers, your employees if you own your own business or to yourself.”
Her experience on Cape Cod has been positive and people have welcomed the idea of a young woman coming into the trades. “My dad has told me many times that not enough young people are entering the trades, so for me being as young as I am and being a woman, I believe it’s going to be a great thing for my business in the years to come,” she adds.
Lannon acknowledges that a plumbing career was not her dream job — she was uninterested in a career she associated with “toilets and everything that gets flushed down them.” Like many people working outside the plumbing industry, she didn’t realize all the training and knowledge a person needed to be a plumber. She didn’t understand the different types of products and systems plumbers work on, the technology that is used every day.
“I have a new level of respect for those who have worked in the field all their lives,” she says. “It’s not easy; there’s always a challenge to face, but there is this sense of satisfaction when you figure out the problem and are able to finish the job. I enjoy the feeling I get every week when I look back on what we did and new situations I came across; it’s a learning experience and I love that I learn something new every day.”
For Lannon, she believes her business success comes from hard work. “I love the feeling of depositing my paycheck and feeling that I truly earned it, that I worked hard for it,” she adds. “I am so proud of how far I’ve come. I also am aware of how much more I need to learn, but that excites me and makes me look forward to the jobs to come.”
As the plumbing industry struggles to attract more young people to the trades, Lannon believes it may be a work ethic issue. People must decide if they want to put everything they have into learning a trade — the schoolwork, the jobsite work, dealing with customers in a professional manner, doing the job safely and correctly, working long hours.
“It’s not easy, and I think working in the trades is something that turns away some younger people because they don’t have a good work ethic,” she explains. “One day you could rough-in a house, on your way home you might stop and fix a faucet, the next day you might go replace a boiler. You’re going to get out of it what you put into it. If you have the drive to give everything you have, every day, at each job you go to, then you will set yourself up for success. That’s how I’ve gone about everything in my life and why I am where I am today.”
Do you know any women plumbers or other successful women in plumbing? Leave a comment below and tell us about them!