When I called Suzie for our interview, she was just wrapping up a service call. She said, “I am helping a really nice couple bring their house up to code. They just sold it, and we have a few punch list items to take care of. Next, I’m heading to the house they just bought. They need to update the venting and gas line. After that, I’m scheduled to work at their son’s home. The referral came from a mutual friend, who is a realtor. My clients are friends, and we’ve become family.”
Customers don’t just like Suzie. They love her. She is building an awesome business, one relationship at a time.
As a kid, Suzie was always creative, artistic and loved being self-sufficient. Though no one in her family was a plumber, her father made a living as a building contractor and helped her learn basic fix-it skills.
School wasn’t a great fit for Suzie. She dropped out of college and bounced from job to job.
“I was feeling like I was all over the map. I didn’t have direction or focus. I wanted to move beyond my small town, which had a population of about 2,500 people. So, I joined the Air Force.”
Suzie embraced the excellent training, discipline and adventures. When she was finished with her service commitment, Suzie came back to the states. She moved to the Chicago suburbs, got married and had a daughter, Madeleine. Still searching for a good-fit career, a plumber friend encouraged her to become a plumbing apprentice. At the time, there was only one other woman in the local union chapter.
I asked Suzie if there were any advantages to being a ground-breaking woman in a man’s plumbing world.
“Not really. I was under a microscope. There were a lot of guys who just didn’t think women should be plumbers. One of my foreman asked me, on my first day on his team, ‘Have you been harassed?’ I wasn’t sure what he meant so I responded, ‘Why? Are you going to harass me?’ He just grunted and said, ‘I provide for my family, and my wife takes care of our kids.’ He let me know that I was not in the right place. Another foreman directed me to move 55 gallon fitting buckets — full of fittings — to the next site, about a quarter mile away. When I asked for the keys to the van, he replied, ‘Oh, you are carrying them.’ So, I did. I’m small, but strong, and I wasn’t going to be intimidated.
“I loved the work, but some of the technical skills didn’t come easily to me. I wasn’t ‘getting it’ fast enough. Or at least, that was what my supervisor at the union said. Also, I was a new mother, and that brings so many challenges. And, my marriage was falling apart. I wasn’t sure I could make it as a plumber.
“One day, my supervisor asked me, ‘Is your heart in it?’ As I answered, ‘YES!’ I knew that I had found the career I was looking for. I love how creative plumbing is. I love the big kid ‘Tinker Toy’ aspects of putting jobs together. I love sweating pipe. I realized I would do what I needed to do to master the skills required.”
Not surprisingly, this is when a wonderful mentor entered her life. Chris was a fourth generation plumber and eight years younger than Suzie. He was her foreman and understood that Suzie was “on the bubble” as far as her job went.
Suzie shared, “He asked me, ‘How can I help you?’ What an awesome thing for a boss to say! Chris is a nice, good guy. The way he trained me, the way he presented instructions … it was like a light bulb going on. He made all the difference in my career, and at just the right time.” Suzie developed solid skills and an unstoppable work ethic.
She knew she was going to make it as a plumber. Her personal life, however, was a mess.
“I got divorced. I was broke and moved back to Minnesota to live with my mom. Madeleine was three years old, and I knew I needed to continue with a career that would support us.
“Yet again, I was one of very few woman union plumbers, and had to make a new start. So many of the people I worked with were unhappy. I decided that it would be my mission to make people smile. I wanted to have fun at work and be a great friend and co-worker. This is when I decided to come out as a gay woman. I was going to be me, no matter what. I overcame barriers by being open, honest, accepting and loving. When you cultivate those qualities in yourself, you bring them out in others, too.”
Suzie had thought about starting her own business, and in 2010, she got the nudge she needed.
“Work slowed down, and the union let go of lots of plumbers, including me. To keep people from losing their houses, they offered to cash out our retirement savings. I used that money to buy my service truck and start my own business.I was pretty clueless at first. I paid a service plumber friend $50 to show me how to rebuild a faucet!”
She also dug into the internet, devoured YouTube videos and joined plumbing chat groups.
“I met so many wonderful industry professionals who have become mentors and friends,” she said. I’m good at building relationships. That makes it easy for me to really help customers and offer appropriate options. I’m straight-forward with my recommendations. One of my rules is, ‘If it’s older than me, we aren’t going to repair it. We are going to replace it.’
She continued, “I love the marketing side of business, too. It’s another way for me to be creative. I have to give credit to my daughter for the name of the business, Suzie B’s Plumbing. ‘It’s YOU, mom,’ she said. I embraced the retro-styling and colors because I have identified that many of my customers are baby boomers.
Suzie discussed some recent, exciting changes and continued vision.
“It’s time to add a second truck. I’ve got help with call taking and accounting. Now, to bring on a team member who can help me serve more customers. It’s scary, but exciting! I’m just hitting my stride. I have a loving partner, Patricia. She, Madeleine and I live in Minneapolis. I love the vibe and culture of the Twin Cities. After a wandering path, my life is focused and full.”
I asked her to share some thoughts for other women who may be considering a life in the trades.
“Don’t be intimidated just because it isn’t a common career choice. It’s a great way to make a living. I love the independence I have. The freedom. Plumbing is creative, too. Not long ago one of my clients said, ‘Your plumbing is like artwork!’ Wow. I think so, too. I skipped all the way home that day.
“I do what I do because my purpose is to help people. Plumbing allows me to do that. I make people smile. That’s what it’s all about.”
Suzie, you made me smile! Thanks for a look into your life!
Ellen Rohr is president of the franchise company, ZOOM DRAIN, and offers “in the trenches” insights to contractors and family business owners. Reach her at (417) 753-1111 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For free business tips, problem-solving webinars, money-making tools and lots of love, visit www.ellenrohr.com.