Ellen Rohr, President and Franchise Operations Manager at Zoom Drain, loves to help contractors make sense of their finances. We talked about the pros and cons of going into business with your spouse, the importance of open-book management, getting clear on what *you* want in your career, and how to build a successful turnkey service company.
Getting started in the trades
Ellen Rohr made a dramatic entrance into the trades following the death of her husband’s business partner. She was armed with a college education and an outgoing personality, but at the time knew little about the technical side of plumbing.
She partnered with her husband, Bob “Hot Rod” Rohr, and ran his business before moving on to become president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing. (Yes, she and Hot Rod are still married—36 years and going strong.)
Today, Rohr is chief operating officer at Zoom Drain, which has 18 locations around the United States. A venture capitalist and a consultant, Rohr also writes extensively about business and the trades. Her “Plumber’s Wife” articles have appeared in more than three dozen outlets.
“I married into the trades,” Rohr says. “Growing up, my dad wasn't handy. When I was a kid, I thought when you flushed the toilet, it was a miracle. And that the heating system was the thermostat on the wall. I am like that knuckle-headed customer.”
When Rohr married Hot Rod, she got into the habit of bringing him lunch and hanging out at job sites. She’d watch all the tradespeople—plumbers, electricians, HVAC specialists—with curiosity and respect.
“It was never lost on me how amazing what they did was,” she says. “They thought it was normal. I did not. I was just absolutely flabbergasted by what they knew, how they could put stuff together, how they could put up a house from bare land to a building.”
Then, the tragedy. Hot Rod’s best friend and business partner overworked himself into a health crisis. That partner died suddenly at age 33.
“That had an impact on me,” Rohr says. “You know, it’s not worth that. It's not worth sacrificing your health and your relationships for business. There's got to be a way to manage all of that no matter what.”
At the time, Rohr had graduated college and moved up the ranks in a restaurant chain. She was a supervisor, and she had experience on the numbers side of a business.
“I told my husband, I was going to quit my job,” she says. “I’m going to come work for you after your partner has died. You turn wrenches, I’ll count the money. It’s going to be easy. We’re going to get rich.”
As is often the case, the road to riches was bumpier than expected. “It was absolute sheer awfulness for the next few years,” Rohr says. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
She says the reason she finally decided to make a big change at the company was an obvious one.
“When the pain of the current condition becomes greater than the fear of change, you’ll change,” Rohr says. “Whatever you’re afraid of, could it be worse than what you’re currently living with? And that’s where our business had gotten.”
Rohr credits her mentor, Frank Blau, with teaching her a mindset of keeping score with financials.
“Just keeping track of the money is really the foundation of everything that I’ve done since,” she says. “It’s not very complicated. I am not the world’s greatest financial mind. I am vanilla ice cream across the board.”
She labels herself an Occam’s Razor fan.
“What is the activity that we could take right now that’s going to have the least amount of effort and the biggest impact?” Rohr says. “When it comes to your business, good things come from knowing the financials. That's what Frank taught me—though it took me awhile.”
Rohr had discovered Blau after reading an article he’d written in a trade magazine. She contacted him and Blau was kind enough to call her back. He offered tough love.
“Some people need a feather, some people need a brick,” she says. “I apparently needed a brick and that's what I got. He told me, ‘you think you’re so smart, but sister, you are blowing it and it’s your responsibility to fix it.’”
That hadn’t been what she wanted to hear.
“I wanted to blame everybody else,” Rohr recalls. “Starting with my husband and the team and the customers and the economy. Frank was the one who made me take extreme ownership and take responsibility for the situation.”
A major part of the new game plan called for adjusting prices.
A profit on each job
Blau convinced Rohn that the company had to charge more and actually see a profit on each job.
Everyone in the company was skeptical, but they gave it a go. Day 1 of the new price book did not go well at all.
“One customer threatened to call the attorney general of the state of Utah,” Rohr says. “Another did call the Better Business Bureau. A third one called my house, got my babysitter and sobbed about how I was ripping them off.”
Rohr thought about aborting the plan, but didn’t. She did open up the financials to her team, and instituted an open-book policy.
The techs bought in. Trust developed. And within a few weeks the company started to become profitable.
“We’d finally got the prices where they were supposed to be,” she says. “We bought into it and the team bought into it. We were off to the races. I credit Frank Blau, George Brazil, Mike Diamond and some other guys who showed us how to create honorable and profitable businesses.”
Ellen Rohr’s Home Services Trade Tips
Ellen Rohr, consultant, author and COO at Zoom Drain Franchising Company, offered tips for success in the trades on a recent episode of “Toolbox for the Trades” podcast, hosted by ServiceTitan. Among her top tips:
1. Listen directly to service techs.
When Rohr first got into the trades, she had to go through a major learning curve.
“I didn't know how to run a plumbing company,” she says. “So, I rode along with the techs and I sat side by side with the frontline people. I would say things like, “I’m in charge. Can you believe that? And I don't know how to do this. So, if you were me, what do you think I should do?”
Rohr told techs the truth—that she was in a position of power but needed to know what policies to put in place.
She asked questions like:
“What are you being asked to do right now that doesn't make any sense?”
“What do you hate about your job?”
“What do you love about your job?”
“What is just the dumbest idea?
Rohr says she got great advice that way.
“It was the smartest thing I did—and I did it for survival,” she says. “Anytime I’m lost, I try to go back to the truck and go back to the side-by-sides and just sit with people and get clear information about what is happening.”
2. Get friendly with financials.
Financial management might be math—but in many ways it’s simpler than what techs do, Rohr says.
“The amount of math and physics and science that is involved with what most contractors do is staggering to me,” she says. “The financials—and I’m being sarcastic here—seem to be so far over most contractors’ heads.”
Rohr says financial success is a simple formula: More sales than expenses equals profit.
She notes that she was not naturally good at numbers or columns—however, her company was drowning and she couldn’t find help in managing the financials.
“I finally just said, ‘OK, I'll do it,” Rohr says. “I realized it’s actually kind of fun, it’s kind of like a puzzle. And, of course, it’s better to know than not know.”
Yes, it’s daunting.
“It’s scary and all those emotional things will get in your way,” she says. “But just have somebody sit next to you, explain what a balance sheet and a profit-loss is.”
Success will follow, Rohr says.
3. Recognize Talent.
Working through the Covid-10, Rohr says she’s had an epiphany.
“I love that I have this career, and so much of it has been a result of associating with the most amazing people and being smart enough to realize it,” she says. “My talent is that I recognize talent. I love energy. I try and align myself with people who are doing things that I want to do.”
Based on her own experience in the industry, Rohr says she’s also aware that people with high aptitudes –and high potential—learn lessons in different ways.
“I believe that sometimes smart people can be slow learners,” she says. “It’s because they’re so used to being told they’re smart. When they get information to the contrary, in a certain situation, their immediate reaction is to reject it.”
Rohr says she has been that person.
“I have some compassion for someone who’s going to take a more circuitous route,” she says. “I have learned over the years that if you keep planning, executing, debriefing, implementing, making some progress, you’ll get there.”
More tips, tricks and bits of trade wisdom
Ellen Rohr, consultant, author and COO at Zoom Drain Franchising Company, offered tips for success in the trades on a recent episode of “Toolbox for the Trades” podcast, hosted by ServiceTitan. Among her tips:
Stockpile supplies: Be wary of the needs for coronavirus-related PPEs. “Stockpile—but don’t hoard,” Rohr says. “Coordinate in local communities what needs to be done for another disaster someday. Even now, if you have what you need, know that the triage of supplies is a very complex conversation right now. You need it, so do other people. So, who's going to get it? It’s tricky.”
Insist on constant communication: “Those franchisees who are staying in good communication with their guys are allowing me to get the best of what they’re gathering and then disseminating it,” she says. “There are really good, credible voices out there. They have tactics that we’re employing to hold ourselves accountable for making it through tough times, and bringing the whole team together.”
Profits and principles do mix…: Rohr says the most insidious myth out there is that you have to charge the going rate. “That’s not true,” she says. “The market bears all kinds of things. Know profits and principles can mix. Profits allow you to maintain your principles. If you have the money, you will make your payroll tax deposit. If you don’t have the money, you're going to do something weird.”
…because integrity is challenged by an empty till: “Rip-offs can come from a really good person with their back against the wall,” she says. “They start to justify it. It’s an addiction. Good people doing bad things—not because they’re bad; because they have no money. When options are limited you can drop your integrity. Having enough money makes it easier for you to maintain your principles.”
Take pride in working in the trades: Rohr says there sometimes is a self-esteem problem in the trades. “There is this stigma, this feeling of being lesser-than because it’s blue collar,” she says. “In actuality, the trades are the foundation that our world is built on. The amount of math and science and physics that trade work requires is staggering. The kind of stuff that tradesmen and women build is incredible.”
Do something because it’s hard: Ultra-marathoning is a difficult task and a personal accomplishment that Rohr has conquered. “Why do them?” she asks. “Whether it’s life or business, someday out there in the future you can look back at those moments as some of the best moments, because they were hard, and you succeeded.”
Recommended reading: Books that Rohr has written or read for inspiration include…
The Great Game of Business: “Jack Stack’s book about open-book management and sharing relevant financial information with your team,” she says.
Where Did the Money Go?: Rohr’s first book teaches the basis about keeping track of your business.
How Much Should I Charge?: Her second book focuses on pricing your services so you’ll make money.
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