Frank Blau: The Most Influential Contractor Of The Last 25 Years
A complex, controversial man on a mission who’s helped thousands of contractors.
A moment stands out in memory that speaks volumes to endorse our tribute to Frank Blau as PM’s Most Influential Contractor. It was at a “Super Meeting” of Contractors 2000 (now Nexstar) held in New Orleans in fall 1997. At the closing banquet, President Brad Martin presented Blau with a customary plaque upon conclusion of his two-year term on the board of directors. Then, speaking to an audience of more than 300 people, Martin invited everyone among them who had been personally helped by Frank Blau to come toward the podium.
Virtually every seat emptied as contractors surged forward and surrounded the stage. Then a spontaneous, thunderous and sustained ovation arose, the likes of which this reporter had never before witnessed at any business event.
That audience represented only a small fraction of the service contractors Frank has helped over the years. Their numbers certainly stand in the thousands.
By “helped,” I don’t mean in a casual way. The “Business of Contracting” articles Frank wrote for this magazine for almost two decades were indeed helpful to thousands upon thousands of readers, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Reading Tiger Woods’ tips in Golf Digest might well help improve your game a bit, but it doesn’t compare to how good you could become if you had the great fortune to receive a bunch of extended personal lessons from him. Frank Blau has given that kind of hands-on attention to myriad contractors over the years.
For years he hit the road conducting paid seminars that usually ended up around the break-even mark once all expenses were tallied. Beyond that, he has spent countless unpaid hours chatting on the phone with contractors from near and far. Many of them have made a pilgrimage to visit Blau Plumbing & Heating in Milwaukee to see details of an operation that ranks as one of the most successful PHC service companies in the country — again, without charge. (Frank retired from the business several years ago, and it is now run by two of his nine children, sons Jim and Bob Blau.)
Frank doesn’t believe in business secrets. He’s always been willing to share operational best practices even with direct competitors. His abiding philosophy is that a rising tide raises all ships. To him the biggest competitive threat is not from companies that operate like his at the upper rungs of professionalism — and charge for their services accordingly. Instead, he sees the entire industry dragged down by hordes of contractors who may be technically astute but clueless about running a business. Frank spent the first half of his career making himself and his family financially secure. He’s spent the last half as a man on a mission helping fellow service contractors realize the same kind of prosperity.
A crowning achievement of Frank’s career was the formation of Contractors 2000/Nexstar, of which he was the driving force. Almost a thousand firms have been members since the affinity group was formed in 1992, and they have been privy to some of the best business and marketing information available to service companies in this or any other industry. Most of those members past and present would tell you that crossing paths with Frank Blau was one of the best things that ever happened in their lives.
Customers Get What They Pay For
Frank is one of the industry’s pioneers of flat rate pricing for residential service work. He has been controversial in that role because it’s common knowledge that flat rating is a method to disguise high labor rates that otherwise would cause customers to gasp if broken out in a time and materials format. This brings charges of gouging by folks who tend to overlook the flip side of this coin. Frank Blau has always preached top-notch customer service and high employee compensation along with elevated prices. He’s also been generous donating to industry, community and charitable causes.
One of the things that always impressed me about Blau Plumbing & Heating was that a vast majority of the company’s business came from repeat customers. Gougers can get away with fleecing someone once, but when people keep coming back for more, you have to conclude they perceive value in the services rendered at the prices charged.
As important as all the expertise he’s passed along has been the boost Frank’s given to the industry’s self-esteem. No evangelist has ever preached with more fervor than he has — a gospel centered around the message that PHC technicians and contractors bring valuable skills and services to society, and deserve to be compensated accordingly. Smoke comes out of his ears at any notion that there ought to be limits to how much money a plumber or owner should make.
Years ago Frank coined the term “slugs” to refer to business-challenged contractors that he contends are responsible for the industry’s poor image. During the years he was writing for this magazine, I had a running battle with Frank over use of the term, which I felt — still do — was uncharitable and needlessly alienated many contractors who might otherwise be more receptive to his message. But getting Frank to change his ways is like trying to command the wind to stop howling. We agreed to disagree about this issue, and it points to an aspect of what I term his curious charisma.
Charisma is one of those words hard to define but you know it when you see it. It’s a rare trait of personal magnetism and persuasiveness, and Frank’s version is curious because charisma usually is associated with charming personalities. Although I count myself among his close friends and admirers, neither I nor most of the thousands of other people who are members of this club would associate the word “charming” with Frank Blau. He can be blunt and profane to the point of insulting, and is about as un-PC in his political and social views as one is likely to find in modern mainstream society. Many people with thin skins can’t stand Frank Blau.
Yet, it all translates into that curious charisma for the vast majority of us who know him. When Frank walks into a room, the center of gravity shifts in his direction. His charisma stems not as much from personality as from the power of his ideas and wisdom, and his generosity in sharing them.
Frank’s outspokenness obscures perhaps the most pronounced characteristic that has contributed to his success. I’ve observed him in hundreds of settings spanning large meetings, small groups and one-on-one conversations. The thing that strikes me most from all of these interactions is that Frank is one of the best listeners I’ve ever known. It’s said the best salesmen talk only 10 percent of the time, and in most encounters with Frank that’s about where his voice ends up. He listens intently to what others have to say, and when he does finally speak up, it’s clear he has absorbed the wheat and discarded the chaff.
Soon to hit 80, Frank Blau still maintains an office at his old company but spends much of his time tooling around at a rustic wildlife preserve he owns in central Wisconsin. But he’s still quite active giving business advice to old and new friends, and serves as honorary chairman of the Nexstar Legacy Foundation, whose scholarship program is named after him.
During these past 25 years, I’ve encountered a few other contractors who have been just as smart and just as successful as Frank Blau. But in terms of being influential, of touching other peoples’ lives in a positive way, he vaults to the top of the list.
To read about 24 additional contractors that PM editors selected as the most influential in the industry, click here.