March is Women's History Month and ServiceTitan is spending the coming weeks celebrating the Women In The Trades! This blog series will profile some of the most dynamic and inspired women who are currently working in the trades, defying barriers, and making singular contributions to the industry. In this blog, we speak with Ellen Rohr of Zoom Drain Franchising Company!
"Business planning has everything to do with answering the question, What do I want to do? What do I want to do with my life? What do I want to do with my business? Why am I here?"
For Ellen Rohr, these questions have been central to her career in trades—but when an unexpected tragedy first threw her into her husband's plumbing business, she found herself with few answers and a lot of learn about herself.
"We had no money. I didn't know what I was doing, my financials were a wreck," she recalls.
But that was a long time ago.
Ellen's journey through the trades has been a winding one, but there's no mistaking the fact that she has arrived. As President of Zoom Drain Franchising Company, she now is in charge of expanding the Zoom Drain brand into new markets all over the country.
"We started in Philadelphia. We're at seven franchises right now," Ellen explains. "We have locations in six big cities across the east coast, and now Omaha, Nebraska is our newest partner. We are committed to finding right stuff partners, willing to grow. I couldn’t be more proud of the people who have come on board so far."
Ellen knows that she isn't a typical trades franchisor, but that her determination to learn the trades—and connect with the people that work in them—has sustained her career.
"My technical skill set isn't what got me there," she says, "My willingness to engage other people is what made it happen."
Twist of Fate
Unlike a lot of other tradespeople, Ellen didn't grow up in the trades. In fact, her career spanned various industries before finding its way to the plumbing business.
"I got to my career because I married a plumber," she explains. Her husband, Bob “Hot Rod” Rohr, had a plumbing business with a partner and the two men worked ceaselessly to keep their business afloat.
But the stress of making that living took an unexpected toll. Ellen remembers the last time she spoke to her husband's partner as he rushed off to a last-minute job: "The last words he said to me were, 'If I don't do it myself, it'll never get done.'" Later that day, he was hospitalized for a stress-induced health crisis. The day after that, he passed away. He was 33 years old.
That experience not only shocked and saddened Hot Rod and Ellen, it also threw their future into question. "Hot Rod said to me, 'Well, you know, I don't really like the business of business. I like turning wrenches,'" Ellen recalls. "And so I said, 'Well, listen, I'll quit my real job, I'll come work with you. And this will be great. I've got a lot of business experience. You turn wrenches, I'll count the money, we'll get rich."
That plan didn't exactly pan out. Ellen and Hot Rod soon found themselves in over their heads and hemorrhaging money. With the closing of their business in sight, Ellen knew it was time to reach out for help.
Enter: Frank Blau
Ellen explains that she benefited from several mentors while trying to save her husband's plumbing company, but it was Frank Blau who really brought her to some hard truths.
"[Frank] wrote an article for Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine about how much a contractor should charge, back in 1989," she remembers. "I wrote him a letter and I said, 'Dear Mr. Blau, help me.' Then I went on to describe why everything he suggested in this article I couldn't do. 'I can't raise my prices. You don't know my cheap customers, my guys are a wreck,' blah, blah, blah, whine, whine, whine for two pages."
Frank Blau didn't write back, he called—and told Ellen to shut her business down. "'He said, “You're never gonna make any money doing this.”. And I ended up hanging up on him," she recalls, adding, "I cry every time I tell this story."
When cooler heads prevailed, Ellen called Frank back and their real conversation began. According to Ellen, Frank explained that her and Hot Rod's problem was a systemic one: tradespeople who were too afraid to charge what it took to support a livable wage.
"He's the one who took off the blinders and said, 'The way to make money in this business, is you've gotta charge more than it costs.'"
Having already resigned herself to failure and the imminent shutting down of the business anyway, Ellen took Frank's advice and raised the prices on Hot Rod's services. And that's when something unexpected happened.
People started paying them.
So much so that the company suddenly had new legs. Hot Rod's company was just a four-truck operation with plenty of debt, but after Ellen and Hot Rod implemented Frank's advice, the company was headed back toward profitability... and longevity.
"I started to wonder if I had the chops to run a bigger company. At the time, we had four trucks, and we went into debt, we got out of debt, we started to play the game at a higher level," she recalls. "And I got really turned on to it."
The “Plumber’s Wife Perspective”
After Hot Rod's plumbing business was pulled from the brink and found stable footing, he and Ellen came to a tough decision: it would be better for their marriage if Ellen and Hot Rod no longer worked together.
Ellen walked away from the company, but she did so with an enthusiasm for what she had learned—and an appetite to find out more.
Assuming the persona of "The Plumber's Wife," Ellen began to pitch and write articles for trade magazines - she is a regular columnist for PHC News. She also attended industry events, first as a guest, but then as a speaker. She even wrote books about everything she had learned while turning around their family plumbing company and what others in their position might do to survive in the marketplace. And people started to notice her.
After years of writing articles and attending events and forging relationships with industry professionals, Ellen found herself at yet another unexpected crossroads.
At a seminar one day, Ellen was approached by Jim Abrams, one of the initial investors of Clockwork Home Services—a parent company of various regional home service brands. "Jim Abrams approached me and he said, 'We want you to be the president of this franchise we're growing.'" That franchise was the Benjamin Franklin Plumbing.
"And I just said yes," laughs Ellen. "I had no reason to say yes. But it aligned with what I wanted. I'll figured I would figure it out."
Ellen may have been the right person for the job, but that didn't stop imposter syndrome from creeping in. "Every day I'm going to be found out, right?" she says. "I would just put it aside long enough, but I was candid enough that I would ask people questions."
Asking questions was just part of Ellen's approach—she also wanted to see what the tradespeople at Benjamin Franklin were dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
"I've been on a 134 ride alongs where you ride shotgun with the service techs and you ask them good questions like, 'What do we do here that helps you do your job? What do we do that is totally stupid and we should stop doing right now? And if you were me, if you were gonna be the president of this organization, what should I know from you that would really help me help you do a better job?'" she says.
This first-hand experiences with plumbers out in the field reminded Ellen of something she had learned early in her experience with the trades: they can be dangerous.
"I ride along with these guys and I see what they go through," she says. "Like the other day, I heard they [the drain techs] went to this drain and it was full of hypodermic needles, there were just drug users putting their needles down the drain, and every time I hear a story like that, I think what we do is so risky. They deserve to make a great living."
Forging a Space for Women
For three years, Ellen defined and thrived in her role at Benjamin Franklin, but when the company revealed that it would move its headquarters, Ellen decided it was time for a change and she resigned from the company.
But Ellen had found her franchising experience rewarding and was looking for an opportunity to do it again. That's when Zoom Drain stepped in. "I left Benjamin Franklin and I thought, 'You know what, I want to do franchising again at some point,'" she says. “I partnered with my best friends and mentors, Al Levi, Jim Criniti and Jason Criniti. These guys have drain and sewer systems dialed in. I am working with the best minds and operating systems in the industry.”
"Now my primary responsibilities are to identify and magnetize right stuff people to join us as Zoom Drain franchisees and support, and help those contractors and business owners to get up to speed fast. So a lot of my job is mentoring and implementing the great systems that we have on hand, so I do training for them."
Part of Ellen's role is also to educate potential franchisees (via webinars and other media) on how to manage financials and become a company that may be a viable option for Zoom Drain. She hopes that in doing so, she's showing women in or interested in the industry that there is a place for them.
"I have had such an awesome career in the trades. And I'm not saying my whole life wasn't without really rough challenges being a woman in a man’s world... You know, I've had a lot of jobs, I had a lot of experiences before I settled in on this career," she says.
That being said, she knows that the trades are male-dominated industries and that it can be hard to attract women to them. "If that's what's keeping women away from our industries, 'Ew, it's gross,' Don't let that dissuade you. That's just the 'what.' The 'how' and the 'why' are so much more exciting than that."
Ellen also recognizes that there is a long way to go to open up the trades as an equal opportunity industry where women can feel confident and secure about their position alongside their male counterparts.
"One of the things I bring up with our guys, if we brought a woman in here, is she gonna be safe?" she says. "Are you gonna treat her with respect? Are we creating a respectful environment for a diverse group of technicians? And while we are increasing in diversity, we don't have women yet and that's, like, why is that? And are we a safe place?"
These are concerns that Ellen is currently addressing at Zoom Drain, as well. "At Zoom right now we don't have a single woman as a service technician," she explains. "Now, we do have women in some key places, a general manager of our Florida shop is a woman. I'm really excited about some of the women on our team flexing their muscles and finding some leadership roles, and I'm excited to learn from them and mentor them."
A Champion for Tradespeople
While she's not turning any wrenches herself, Ellen has come to see the enormous value someone in her role can have—both for the franchisor she works for and for smaller plumbing businesses who are looking to take their company to the next level.
"I would say that my skill is identifying and working with people who are who want to grow their businesses and have a positive impact," she says. In particular, she’s looking for those like herself, individuals who are passionate about the trades and are ready to learn how they fit into the industry in a meaningful way.
“This applies to our vendors, too. Service Titan is leading the way for contractors. We feel like we are valued partners, not just a customer. We are working with our Service Titan team to learn, customize and implement the program to help us grow our business, and onboard franchisees quickly and successfully. I’m loving the relationship.”
To us, it sounded like Ellen was a champion for all of the tradespeople she's mentored and established throughout the years—not to mention all the professionals she will continue to reach and work with as Zoom Drains expands into further markets.
"Champion is my favorite word to describe how I feel about them," she says. “At Zoom Drain, we're looking for people who are going to settle in with us. We take full responsibility for training our team members and partners. We hold people accountable, we help them be successful, and we back 'em up.”