You think you have what it takes to own your own plumbing business? Every first-year apprentice dreams about it. But owning your own business someday takes hard work, perseverance and a willingness to learn. Recently, we talked with four prominent business owners about what they thought it took to go off on their own, and Read more
You think you have what it takes to own your own plumbing business? Every first-year apprentice dreams about it. But owning your own business someday takes hard work, perseverance and a willingness to learn. Recently, we talked with four prominent business owners about what they thought it took to go off on their own, and what they have learned from their experiences of ownership. Here is the advice that they shared:
Owner, LH Plumbing Services LLC
The most important things were knowing my worth as a professional and licensed plumber. So many people start a business thinking their previous boss was overcharging or “lining their pockets off my back,” in their words. Don’t undercharge. Knowing and understanding expenses is so important. Your wage is not the same as the business profit.
It’s also important to not fall for the temptation of going into business too quickly when you are not knowledgeable enough in the technicalities of you field. Being uneducated or undereducated and inexperienced in plumbing can cause major property damage and even death to yourself and your customers. I went into business still lacking some knowledge that I had to learn the hard way.
Owner, Baker Plumbing Inc.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Cash flow is KING! You can be the best tradesperson on earth with skill and knowledge oozing from your pores! None of that matters if you ain’t getting paid. So many people start their business by market research—what’s the average hourly rate. They phone around and get some pricing and figure the average is $115 an hour so I’m going charge $105 and steal my piece of the pie through price.
Initially, it seems like a decent plan but the guy starting his business three months after you has the same plan and before you know it you’re losing those cheap clients to the cheaper guy. My suggestion is add up all your monthly expenses—rent, fuel, truck, your personal wage, etc. and determine what you need to make to meet your needs. Distill that down to an hourly rate and stick to it. If you’re good, the clients will come.
Also, the best tools don’t make you the best. It’s a hard one with all the cool tools out there these days and their splashed all over social media. Set yourself a tool budget and stick to it. The formula pertains to skills, knowledge, experience, and then tools. Expensive tools don’t make you money, your skills and knowledge do. Tools make your job easier but as I’ve told my boys, learn the hard way first so you can appreciate the easier way.
Maybe this one is too old school but I think it tracks. Your personal appearance matters! You need a uniform—you ought to wear clothes that are cleaned, pressed and smell good. You need keep your appearance neat, clean and tidy. You, your person, needs to look presentable, smell good, teeth brushed, hair combed and be well put together.
It seems obvious but I’ve seen so many people starting out looking like they slept in the back of their trucks on some random Thursday. Even in today’s wide scope of acceptance, the disheveled look is always a bad one. Personally, I carry a brand new black shirt—still in the packaging—a variety of hats and a can of deodorant in the truck for those days where the first job of day goes horrible wrong. Your first impression is of vital importance and yet so is the 10th. People notice that stuff even if it’s sub-consciously.
Owner, Mickelson Plumbing & Heating, LLC
I wish I would have known how to anticipate the time required to run the behind-the-scenes portion of our business, not sure it would change anything, but nonetheless it would have been nice to know what to expect.
I have learned that every employee has their own baggage and quirks that show up occasionally and require a special set of kid gloves to handle.
I also have learned that I need to be open minded when it comes to trusting my employees to do their best and allow them to make choices that sometimes might not completely align with what I would have done.
Owner, Lomonaco Coast Plumbing,
San Clemente, Calif.
Make sure you know business; it takes more than being a good technician and wanting to go out on your own to be successful.
Know your competition, and what separates you from your competition.
Know what your definition of success is, and where to draw the line. It’s about how much money you save, not how much money you spend. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. To start your own business is a major commitment. It’s a lifestyle change that doesn’t stop. It is a huge toll on all aspects of life that you will have to juggle.
If you’ve ever seen Bob Baker’s Instagram page (@bakerplumbing), you’ll notice a few posts sprinkled in that show the beauty in this world, the good in people and an optimistic underlying tone. “It’s really become a focus for me as it seems that much of what is ugly and unkind dominates the news and many Read more
If you’ve ever seen Bob Baker’s Instagram page (@bakerplumbing), you’ll notice a few posts sprinkled in that show the beauty in this world, the good in people and an optimistic underlying tone. “It’s really become a focus for me as it seems that much of what is ugly and unkind dominates the news and many feeds I see. Honestly, it is therapeutic for me to focus on the wonderful things that this life, the world and the trade has to offer,” says Baker.
While it’s hard to escape all of the negativity, Baker sees the more positive approach as more of a mental exercise more than anything, to keep him focused on the good, simple, beautiful things that surround him if only he took time to notice. “I try not to let that negative stuff affect my mood and relationships so positive posts are really reminders to say the world, my life and this trade are wonderful, and have blessed my life and the life of my family more than I realize.”
Baker Plumbing started in 1956, as Bob’s grandfather was an aircraft mechanic during WWII, and after the war he moved from Ontario to Alberta to start a family and started rehab training—provided by the military—to become a plumber. He got his license in 1952, then went on his own in 1956.
He had four boys—three of which became plumbers—one went stateside to become an engineer, one started a plumbing business in Cardston, and Bob’s father, Gerry, stayed in Calgary running mostly new construction, remodel, and eventually was heavily involved in septic fields and water treatment.
Fun fact: Alberta is actually the sunniest province in Canada with an average of 312 sunny days per year. The winters are dry, sunny and cold with an average temperature in January of -14C or 6.8F, but can get as cold as -51C (-59.8F), which it did for several weeks last year.
Probably the most unique feature of Calgary’s winter weather is what’s called a Chinook, where the warm winds from the Pacific Coast lose their moisture in the Rocky Mountains and then blow warm, dry air over Southern Alberta. The record is a 41C rise from -19C to +22C in an hour and once the Chinook is over the temperature can quickly drop to below zero. “That type of weather change is really hard on the HVAC equipment, which provides a lot of opportunities to maintain, upgrade or replace everything from RTUs to residential furnaces. It’s never a dull moment around this place,” says Baker.
Bob Baker now runs the company and he has been on his own since 1998, focusing on commercial service and renovations—multi-national restaurant and hotel chains. “It makes for an exciting and diverse scope of work. which frankly I love, and it keep me interested and highly involved in the day-to-day. The next generation is on its way as my two boys have taken to the trade as well. Isaiah just completed his journeyman tests (and passed) and Pete is half through his training.”
Baker has never actually been out of the trade, really. With his grandfather, dad and several uncles trained as plumbers, he started out plumbing at three or four years old. Riding in the truck with his dad, making putty snakes, hauling garbage to playing gopher boy. That role continued until he finished high school and was accepted to university.
Baker spent a few years there, then switched to obtain a computer science degree. He got married and needed to make some money, took a job as a maintenance man for the several apartment buildings while continuing his schooling. “I actually realized that that all those years working with my Dad, I actually learned a lot and that I loved doing plumbing. I eventually quit computer science, went to trade school, got my ticket in 1997, and have been plumbing ever since.”
Baker owes a lot of his success, in life and in his career, to his father. He spent a lot of time working with him, appreciating what he was teaching him as both a man and a plumber. “Since he’s been gone, in almost every situation I find myself in, I ask myself, how would dad handle this? The end goal really is to leave the same impression on my own children.”
Sadly, Baker lost his Dad to brain cancer in 2006, which was swift and brutal. “Prior to that experience I never really thought about legacy or traditions or even family as in generational stories, so in the midst of dealing with the emotions of loss, pride, sadness and gratitude, I felt the urge to create something meaningful to me, my business and hopefully to my kids,” said Baker.
Hence, the Baker crest of arms was initiated. The Bakers have a lot of English and Scottish blood and have some prints of family crests dated back to those eras. “I stole some of those ideas and created a few of my own and the response has been exactly what I’d hope for. As for symbols it goes like this: Fire for Heating; Water drop for Plumbing, The Snake head for Drain cleaning; the Winged Foot, because we’re fast; The Skull, because we’re Bakers that are Plumbers till death; and the inscription is: If We Can’t Do It, It Can’t Be Done in Latin. Of course, we have Baker and 1956, which is our beginning.”
For the Love of the Job
For Baker, that’s an easy one. He loves the people he’s met and worked with, and he has created some lifelong friendships with some fantastic people all because they plugged their toilet or their pilot light went out.
“If you’re able to walk into a stressful situation and be calm and reassuring all while actually delivering on the solution, most people consider that heroic. It’s one of the absolute coolest feelings in the world.”
Being an effective problem solver, says Baker, is an addiction, and plumbing and heating provide almost endless opportunities to get that fix. “Over the years I’ve tried really hard to learn and know a person’s name and then use it every time we met—it’s a difference maker. All those piled together have made the plumbing trade for me, more than I had hoped for some 30 years ago.”
Yet, according to Baker, the biggest issue facing the trades is the oldest issue. “Trades in general are thought of as second-tier jobs. Yes, I mean jobs. Nobody outside of the trade thinks of it as a career.”
Just last year Baker went to the local high school to talk to the principal about contributing to trade education. “He took me to the shop class and proudly pointed to the toilet and sink they had set up and said, ‘We got the plumbing side handled.’ Great guy and really good at his job, and I’ve even worked in his home, but plumbing is NOT a toilet and sink.”
The technology that is being developed for plumbing and heating systems will require some of the brightest and motivated minds, says Baker. “The message from us all in trade should be we need you. We need to do a better job at promoting ourselves and not in a selfish way but by being fine, upstanding citizens involved in current affairs, coaching little league teams, being out and about in our communities. As with anything else, the message starts and ends with each of us. The question is what message do we send both in and out of the work vans?”
Social Media—A Game Changer
“Being self-employed with your mentors being your dad and granddad makes for a pretty small circle. While clients and contractors are amazing and great to work with, no one really gets plumbing and its problems like plumbers,” says Baker.
The social channels have brought dozens of plumbers into Baker’s life in the most positive of ways. Other than the salacious DOPE-GATE scandal, Baker can’t think of a single negative interaction online, unless you count the private no-names that try to ignite fires where ever they go.
The summer of 2019, Baker spend a fantastic week in Chicago and was given the first-class treatment and tour by several of the plumbers from the area. While others in his group were hitting tourist traps, Baker was in the heart of Chicago until 2 a.m. experiencing some of the most amazing things.
Baker also went to WWETT in March of 2020 and spent three “unbelievable days visiting with some of coolest plumbers and people I’ve ever met, and all because I post my work on social media. It’s mind blowing,” says Baker
Every tradesperson experiences aches and pain sooner or later, says Baker. Some of those can lead to debilitating injuries if not properly looked after. Having experienced all of them—shoulders, wrists, knees, back, etc.—one in particular in 2015 put Baker out of commission for several weeks. “It was a wake-up call that unless I started really keeping myself healthy, my time in the trade was ending soon. With a family to feed and being self-employed, I needed no further motivation.”
It started out simple with a few back exercises but exercise has grown into something Baker really enjoys. With the onset of COVID, I got serious about the home gym and the Baker Barn was born. “It’s been a life saver, both physically and mentally, to have a place where I can burn some calories and relieve some stress. I generally try and spend 90 minutes per day in the barn, and at 50 years old, I honestly have never felt better. If you’re not working out, then all of the fancy tools in the world won’t work by themselves,” says Baker.
To the Future
According to Baker, for the past 28 years or so there really wasn’t much of a work/leisure balance. Raising five kids was truly a 24-hour endeavor, but Baker has been humbled as his kids have turned into men and women to start their own lives. Both Baker’s boys have chosen the plumbing trade path, and they can now start to take over some of the duties. “My new passion has fallen to bees. This past year was my second full year as a beekeeper and so far it’s been a lot of fun learning something totally new. The hope is to turn bees into the next Baker Empire over the next five years, but I’m just enjoying the nuisances of the new craft,” says Baker.
2020 was a hell of a year. COVID wreaked havoc on a lot of what Baker does. Being mostly hospitality focused proved to be challenging, but Baker has some tremendous relationships with many of his clients, and as he has supported them, they have supported him back. It’s also given the company a chance to zero in on its 3,000 residential clients that use Baker’s services once or twice a year. “With the boys taking a more active role, we’ve been able to provide faster and more efficient service to those sequestered at home. Of course, it’s also provided ample opportunity to reflect on the blessings of being considered essential, and helping those that need some assistance as things appear to get a wee bit darker.”
But as the calendar flips to 2021, Baker expects a banner year. He’s secured some great new contracts, and with the help of his boys, the ability to serve even more continues to grow. “We’re grateful that everyone is healthy and progressing through the challenges that our little moment in history is giving us the opportunity to participate in. We’re optimistic about the future and truly believe that there is no better time to be in the trades. We wish everyone, everywhere all the best in 2021. I’m especially delighted to start the year off by answering these questions and contributing to the foundational work Mechanical Hub provides at no charge. I do mean it: I think you and the team are doing great and important things,” says Baker.
Finally, when asked the last time he said, “today is a great day,” Baker can honestly say that he says that almost daily. “Maybe not in the moment of things going sideways, but the days of discouragement and disappointment are few and far between. I am a blessed man, mostly because I’ve worked hard to be so.”