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Company growth requires personal growth and no shortage of change. I started my skilled trades career in 1986, doing plumbing, heating and electrical on Long Island, N.Y. After six years, I left the trade and entered the technology sector. I learned a great deal from my Dad, who was a lifer at IBM. After about a decade of working with him, I joined a security company that served the financial sector in Lower Manhattan.
Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001. The economy tanked and so did my job. I returned to the plumbing and heating trade, a welcome change. By 2012, I’d grown weary of the traffic and high taxes in the Empire State and moved to Pennsylvania. I started a company called Patriot Water Heater Co. a year later.
It was a one-man shop offering residential plumbing and HVAC. My son, Richard, moved here five years later and became my partner. We began dabbling in hydronics and commercial work and hired two helpers. As children often do, Rich spread his wings and joined another company to see if the grass was greener elsewhere.
By this time, Patriot’s work was primarily hydronics. One day, completely out of the blue, we received a call from a YMCA to solve a pool heater issue. They’d gotten our number from a manufacturer’s list of certified service companies. I didn’t know we were listed on any pool manufacturer’s websites. However, we were hungry at the time, so I dove in. Apparently, several other service companies had tried to rectify the problem without success.
We figured it out and the pool heater referrals started pouring in. Patriot Water Heater later became Patriot Pool Heating, though we still did conventional hydronics.
Today, the company name is Patriot Water Works, which encompasses everything we do, including agricultural applications and zoo work. If it involves water quality or making water hotter, we do it. Our team now includes 11 staff, serving a much bigger territory.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
With growth comes risk, and my first real taste came in 2019 while we were working on a heating system for a commercial aeroponic greenhouse. The greenhouse contractor we were working for went out of business mid-project.
I hadn’t been paid and knew I wouldn’t, so the only course of action I saw was to hire the contractor’s people and finish the job. It was a big roll of the dice, but we gained two technicians and an operations manager.
With the increased workforce (and larger payroll), I found myself at a fork in the road. We could continue what we were doing, or I could put all my energy into growing the business. I’d complained to my wife about joint and back pain for years. I’m no longer a young man, and I knew that the only way to continue in the trade without battling chronic pain was to grow to the point that most of my time was spent in the office.
After hiring the three new team members, I knew it was time to ante up and play my hand. We moved the business from my house to a leased shop. We bought new vans, new tools and new software. I hired a sales rep to knock on doors and promote the business.
The sales rep and I were driving down a road I’d never traveled before, and we passed a giant waterpark resort I didn’t even know existed. I told her I wanted to do work at that facility. She was very persistent and landed a meeting with the park’s management. Now, the facility is our largest customer.
We started exhibiting at trade shows, joined industry organizations and met with major heating equipment manufacturers. Many companies preferred our approach and began referring large commercial work to us. This was about the time Richard began helping us again, mostly during paid time off from his other job. Then, I offered him a full-time job as a service manager.
Work volume increased to the point where staying in the office was no longer a choice for me; it was a necessity. Of course, that’s when our operations manager moved out of state to be closer to family.
So, we brought two new folks onto the team. Before joining Patriot, Don White was a designer at an aquatic architecture firm that I’d collaborated with on other projects. He’s now our design and project manager. Tara Barto, our business development manager, came from the hospitality industry.
They came on board to generate and develop a lot of new work right around the time I had to completely dedicate myself to running a bigger business. I had successfully traded joint pain for headaches and higher blood pressure
Achieving my goal of staying out of the field required me to develop an entirely new skill set. Now I’m 20 percent salesman, 20 percent technician, 20 percent therapist, 20 percent accountant and 20 percent lawyer.
Some of the biggest hurdles have been learning about workman’s comp insurance, workman’s comp audits and the tax code intricacies of working interstate.
Then there’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance, Department of Transportation compliance, first aid and personal protective equipment. The COVID-19 pandemic upended everything.
Are we essential? How many people can ride in a truck together? It felt as if the mandates changed every five minutes. One customer told us we’d be fired from the job if he saw our techs wearing masks one more time. The next customer was insistent that masks be worn. You couldn’t win.
Drivers’ license checks. Commercial auto insurance policies. Do we buy vans new or used? Do we pay cash or finance them? How about leasing? What’s the best way to stock parts, and how much inventory should we have? How do we manage it? Should we use a field workforce management system and, if so, which one?
As jobs became more complex, we needed more tools, bigger tools, more specialized tools. What’s the best way to purchase them?
Getting invoices out the door and collecting money on time is a bigger consideration when you have a payroll. My dependents now include my team members and their families. Cash flow dictates more than whether I can make my mortgage payment now.
We’re now at the point where we’re developing new processes and procedures while refining the ones we have in place. Sometimes, you throw an existing plan out entirely; you can’t be afraid of change when you’re growing.
We’ve been fortunate that when the workflow has slowed down, something has always come along. When you’re on top and making money, you need to remember that it will slow down again. Anticipating the ebb and flow is critical.
If You Want To Grow
If you’re at the intersection of being a one-truck shop and hiring a crew, be careful what you wish for. I work harder now than I did alone. It’s not as physical, for sure, but it requires much more mental energy.
Maybe your age and physical condition are forcing you to grow. If you follow the path toward growth, proceed with a clear succession or sales plan from the beginning. This will give you a target destination and guide many of the decisions you make along the way.
If building and selling the firm is your endgame, proceed accordingly. Your company is a tangible asset.
I’m very fortunate my son is involved in my company. I’ll still have my benefits and income stream when I retire. Remember to plan from the very beginning. My goal is to create something my family can take to the next level. It will sustain me, my children and, hopefully, my grandchildren.
Finally, the best advice I can provide are to look for customers where you wouldn’t think to look, and always under-promise and over-deliver.
Next month, I’ll cover how to build the right team: how to surround yourself with the people who will help you win