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Steve Solla used to be easy to find. During the day, you could track him down at the mailroom of a pharmaceutical company. At night, you could swing by the neighborhood Ruby Tuesday and head back to the kitchen where he’d be washing dishes. And if you needed him on the weekends, you’d find him at a carpet store.
Three jobs. Almost 100 hours a week. No chance for any overtime, since they were all part-time jobs.
“It was just constant, just always working,” Steve said. “But, I wasn't making much at any of them.”
He knew he had to do something. As luck would have it, Zoom Drain and Sewer, had a contract to handle drain work at the pharmaceutical business. One conversation led to another and soon, Steve, with zero trade experience, was sitting in a classroom learning the ropes as a paid apprentice.
“I was looking for a trade, but didn't really have money to go to trade school,” Steve said. “I was just looking for anywhere I could get my foot in the door, and I got lucky that they took a chance on me.”
For a month, Steve spent his days riding along with experienced techs helping wherever he could. At night, he learned through classroom instruction along with hands-on training in a specially built drainage facility onsite at Zoom that featured working plumbing fixtures and drain lines. Zoom runs its operations throughout the Philadelphia metro area from an office in Norristown.
That was eight years ago. Steve worked his way up from apprentice to junior tech, then senior tech, and now field supervisor. With each change in title came additional training and pay boosts.
“He’s on his way,” said Jason Criniti, service manager, who handles most of the tech training and owns the business along with his brother Jim, the general manager.
“I think that one of the big things that I do here is to help recruit, hire, train and retain techs,” Jason said. “We could build an army with the structure we’ve put in place.”
Jason said the training program can take anyone with an interest in learning a trade and have them out on the road as a profitable tech in six months – three months if they have some background in plumbing and drain cleaning.
In addition to classroom and hands-on training to instill the basics, Jason also teaches from manuals that spell out various procedures for most every aspect the tech will need to conduct business. And, the training delves into much more than just the technical side. For example, Jason will teach techs how to handle customer objections and other soft skills anyone who interacts with people throughout the day needs.
Zoom’s orchestrated system of training alone would make a worthwhile cover. But Zoom is using that system in a way that makes it even more newsworthy. Along with two well-known consultants who have signed on as partners in the endeavor, Zoom plans to franchise the business. And while the franchise plans are at a very early stage, Zoom has already sold a franchise to a successful 30-year-old plumbing business on Long Island.
But before we talk about Zoom’s future, let’s talk about its past since it wasn’t always looking this rosy for the brothers.
Jim and Jason started Zoom in 1995, but had worked in the plumbing and draining cleaning business with their father long before they decided to focus solely on drain work. In a short amount of time, the business was prospering. But by the early 2000s, they needed some help to revitalize the business.
“It was all the usual contractor frustrations that everybody has,” Jim admitted. “It’s hard to find help. Even when you do, a tech will still disappoint you. It got to a point where I just didn’t like coming into the office anymore.”
From Jason’s vantage point, the company was doing some things right, but just not enough.
“We would have it in writing one day and lose the paper the next,” he said.
For help, Jim and Jason reached out to Ellen Rohr, PHC News columnist and someone who has long helped contractors through her Bare Bones Biz consulting work. Ellen, by and large, helps straighten out companies' finances.
Around the same time that Ellen was working on the company ledgers, the brothers also called in Al Levi, another top-notch contractor consultant who specializes in developing winning systems that are spelled out in operations manuals. Levi provides contractors with a virtual library of successful contractor practices.
“A lot of Ellen and Al’s work is just common sense stuff,” Jim said, “but you need that kick in the butt to push things along."
After Ellen and Al completed their assignments, Jim and Jason continued to build Zoom, more energized than before. Jim not only enjoyed the work again, but also quit smoking and even ran a half marathon.
A couple of years ago, Jim and Jason started to think about franchising. Neither knew too much, so Jim eventually went to some franchising conferences. Ellen and Al, along with Ellen’s sister, Gail Gudell, routinely hold an annual meeting of the minds to consider what further directions they each or all together might take. And, at last year’s meeting, they began thinking about franchising.
Ellen already had solid experience in the field as a past president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, which was part of Clockwork Home Services, which also had electrician and HVAC franchises. (Those franchises all continue to operate following an acquisition several years ago by Direct Energy.)
The three had all done work to right the wrongs of contracting business throughout the country. Would it be a challenge to put some of these practices to work for a business they could nurture into a potential franchise?
Ellen wanted to take a more leisurely pace of building such a business.
“I did not want the pressure to sign on X number of franchises every month,” she explained. “I ended up signing 47 franchises in under two years when I was at Ben. That was a great experience for me, but it also made me wonder, could I have moved less fast and focused on fewer businesses?”
For the record, no one wants to take the singular credit for formally launching Zoom onto franchising. So, let’s just chalk it up to serendipity. Ellen now serves as president of Zoom with Levi as a partner, along with the brothers, who also have ownership stakes.
Hub and spoke
One business aspect that the partners believe will help the franchise is by implementing a “hub-and-spoke” approach to growth. Think of the hub as one central office. The spoke – and, of course, there can be many spokes that radiate from a hub – are essentially the service centers of the business. Taken together, the hub and its spokes would make up a Zoom franchise.
“The hub would take care of the administrative functions, the financial, the marketing, legal, operations and the call center,” Ellen said. “Then the spokes would access those services through a field supervisor who oversees a service and install crew.”
Now, another important element to the plan is that the partners want to remain in urban areas. Think “big city” and the first thing that probably comes to mind is “traffic.” As a result, the spoke is best situated, say, 30 miles from the hub. That way, the techs can get to their calls without spending undue, unprofitable time spent stuck in traffic. Such a plan frees up the techs to do what they do best.
“The great things about the hub-and-spoke model is that we can peel off field supervisors and senior techs from here and put them at their own locations,” Jim said. “That’s the game plan.”
According to Ellen the techs are the key players in this franchise approach.
“Everyone talks about this dearth of manpower but there's plenty of manpower and woman-power out there,” she said. “When I go to a convention, when I talk to a lot of people in our industry, they are not talking nicely about their team members, and I've had it with that. I want the honor and respect techs because they're the ones who are going to help us grow this thing.”
Another vital aspect to the game plan is what Ellen calls a “pure play” approach. Which is to say that the company plans to stay in the business of drain cleaning services and drainage systems installation. Other franchises, for example, might start off in, say, drain cleaning, but then venture into plumbing as a primary means to grow the overall franchise operation.
Jim and Jason figure there’s a good reason to specialize in drain work.
“It seems like a natural offshoot of any plumbing business,” Jim said. “But it can be a distraction if they aren’t geared up to do it. At this point, there is so much to the technology with drain cameras and water-jetting equipment that plumbers are realizing that they need a lot of expensive equipment if they were going diversify into this type of work and do it right.”
Not surprisingly, Zoom considers plumbers as there No. 1 source for referrals on new business.
Zoom already has a new franchisee by way of Ray Gremaux who has run Ray the Plumber, out of Islip, N.Y., since 1984. A quick look at the business’ website shows local accolades for its long-time service. Ray's partner with Zoom is Jason Kim.
“I think our training is what Ray, Jason and everyone at the Long Island business loved the most about the idea,” Jason said. “We can get guys on those trucks quickly by giving them the technical experience and knowledge that they need. “
Jim agrees. “He’s had a hard time training techs, but he’s very confident in his abilities to get jobs. Ray’s a very good marketer. He'll have plenty of calls. His problems always been training, and that's where we fit in to him,” Jim said.
In the meantime, Ellen will be keeping more businesses like Ray's in mind. The types that are successful but continue to come up against the common lament about hiring the next generation of techs.
“Ray is a very good fit,” Ellen said. “What I'm looking for is someone who wants to solve the 'I can't find good people' problem, and seize an opportunity of working in a small like-minded group to be better together.”