Management • Operations • Marketing • Productivity • 46 minutes

How to Grow a One-Truck Shop into $50 Million Plumbing Enterprise

April 22, 2020

Episode Overview

As a 17-year-old whose father died suddenly, John Akhoian had to make some really hard life choices at a very young age.

His father worked as a truck driver, Akhoian says, and his parents had just bought a house about a year before his dad’s death. With his older brother in college and his mom a housewife, the family didn’t know how they were going to pay the mortgage or any other bills.

“We sold my dad’s truck, so we had enough money to pay the mortgage for about a year or two, but I wanted to go out and get a job,” Akhoian says. “Initially, I told my mom, I’ll go drive the truck and replace my dad’s income.”

Instead, Akhoian dropped out of high school in the early 1990s and started working with a family friend as a plumber.

“I really wanted to make sure my mom didn’t sacrifice her lifestyle, her house, and everything else,” Akhoian explains. “My main motivation was just to survive and make sure our family didn’t suffer by the loss of our dad.”

While his parents always planned for Akhoian to go to college and become a doctor or lawyer, he says his 17-year-old self “was kind of lost.” He wasn’t doing all that great in school, and he really didn’t know what he wanted to do.

“The trades actually allowed me to (replace my dad’s lost income) working in plumbing, and surpass it as well. I’ve been able to create a really good living for myself and my family,” Akhoian says. “Plumbing to me … I feel like it’s almost been my calling. I really enjoy doing it and I love the trades."

Growing from plumbing apprentice to plumbing business owner

On his first day as a plumbing apprentice, the family friend plumber told him, “John, this isn’t for everybody. We’re going to do some service calls and by the end of the day, you tell me if you really like this or not.”

After spending the day fetching plumbing tools off the truck, maneuvering his body into tight crawl spaces to fix drain pipes, and getting muddy from head-to-toe, Akhoian knew what he wanted to do.

“At the end of day … I told him, ‘I really like this. I don’t mind getting dirty, I don’t mind being in tiny areas, I’m not claustrophobic. This is good, I like it. I want to do this.’ He said, ‘OK, great. I’ll see you tomorrow at 7 a.m.’ And that was it,” Akhoian says.

As someone who was always mechanically inclined and often helped his dad work on his truck, Akhoian says he liked the challenge of fixing stuff.

“Back then, I just really enjoyed figuring out what the problem was and then figuring out what you had to do to fix it,” he says.

He also discovered a love for learning, in an environment unlike any he had ever experienced in school. After mastering his plumbing skills over a couple of years, Akhoian approached his friend with the idea of expansion and making more money.

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“I had a talk with him. I said, ‘Look, I love the trade, I love what we're doing, but I need to make more money. So, what can we do? Can we grow the company? Maybe let's add a second truck. I'll help you grow it.’ And he said, ‘No, I'm happy being a one-truck operator. I don't want the headache.’”

Akhoian’s choices, his friend told him, came down to working for a bigger plumbing company, joining the union, or starting his own plumbing company. He offered Akhoian his support, no matter which path the young man chose.

At that point, after working as a plumbing apprentice for a couple of years, Akhoian says self-discovery taught him something about himself: “I didn’t really like school, but I loved to learn. … I really did want to advance. I was ambitious, I wanted to do more.” That drive led to some pretty impressive results.

Today, Akhoian owns and operates 10 Rooter Hero Plumbing locations in California and Phoenix, Ariz., with more than 250 trucks and plumbers handling residential service calls. He estimates the company’s earnings will exceed $50 million this year.

John Akhoian’s rules for success in the skilled trades

Work hard, build relationships, and the jobs soon follow. Motivated by a strong work ethic ingrained in him by his hardworking father, Akhoian resisted the urge to go out partying with his buddies and chose to continue living at home, so he could help his mom pay the bills.

With laser focus, he also set out to build his own plumbing business.

“I decided at a very young age I was going to work really hard at two things,” he says. “Back then, it was either I’m going to fix somebody’s plumbing, or I’m going to look for somebody who needs to get their plumbing fixed.

“I wasn't afraid of putting the time in.”

To accomplish his second area of focus, Akhoian spent six or seven days a week knocking on doors, leaving his business cards with property management companies, and introducing himself to local store owners.

And he took an innovative, entrepreneurial approach to convincing those commercial plumbing customers to give him a shot.

“I told them, ‘Hey, I’m a plumber, I’m just starting out. I’ll do the first job for free. Give me a chance to earn your business,’” he says.

The phone started ringing, he says, giving Akhoian the opportunity to refocus on the first priority—fixing somebody’s plumbing.

“I did that from morning to evening every single day, and after three or four months I got really busy. I had more work than I could handle,” he says.

Giving his cousin the same opportunity he’d received to learn the trade as a plumbing apprentice, Rooter Hero Plumbing hired its first employee and quickly grew to two trucks, then three.

In the meantime, Akhoian got married and his wife joined the Rooter Hero team, answering phones and handling the administrative side of the business. Be creative and sell yourself to gain loyal customers. Even though digital marketing strategies take center stage for most companies today, Akhoian still believes marketing through relationship-building remains the most effective way to win over customers. He got creative with Rooter Hero’s marketing efforts. On the personal side, Akhoian sent birthday cards to local property managers as a special recognition and friendly reminder on who to hire for their professional plumbing needs.

On the really personal side, he instructed his entire Rooter Hero team to leave a business card (with a coupon on the back) each time they visited a public restroom in restaurants, bars, etc.

“You just turn it around and leave it on the urinal. There’s a flush valve on the urinal … you stick the card between the flush valve and the urinal, and it’s always there,” he explains.

Those unconventional marketing efforts not only attracted new customers, he says, but also enticed other service workers to consider plumbing as a viable career option.

Focusing on service workers who really went out of their way to do a good job, he simply handed them a card with a Rooter Hero plumbing truck on one side with a blank face that read, “What’s missing?” The answer on the other side said, “You!”

“There were chefs and busboys, they were just hard workers … somebody who wasn’t afraid of getting dirty or putting long hours in,” Akhoian says.

When Rooter Hero later switched over to residential plumbing, he employed similar marketing techniques by leaving promotional door hangers on homes, canvassing busy malls, and approaching homeowners working outside with the offer to do a simple plumbing fix for free.

“We would do whatever we could to earn people's business,” he says. Be laser-focused on your goals.

Focusing on a certain goal just allows you to become better, Akhoian says.

“It’s about being great at a few things,” he says, “instead of trying to be a master of many.”

Today, he is targeting four new Rooter Hero Plumbing locations.

“Every day, I wake up thinking about it,” he explains. “Am I moving the needle toward accomplishing that goal? Are we sending out enough letters for acquisitions? Are we doing the startup meetings? Is everybody on track to do the stuff we need to do?

“Our goal is to become a nationwide company.”

In a recent acquisition, Rooter Hero bought a smaller, $3 million company whose owner was good at doing installs but hated the administrative side of the business.

“When we acquired it, we gave him the role of just doing installs, and we hired some people to take care of all of the other parts of the business,” Akhoian says. “We believe we’re going to be able to grow it by four or five times, at least.”

And forget about resting on his laurels when it comes to the $50 million in earnings.

“Our goal is to double that in the next three to five years, so we have a lot of work to do,” he says.

Other bits of wisdom for your home services company

John Akhoian, CEO of Rooter Hero Plumbing, shared tips on a number of topics during his appearance on the ServiceTitan “Toolbox for the Trades” podcast. Among them:

On adapting your marketing strategy for today’s digital audience…

Focus on a few effective tools, and be a storyteller: Akhoian serves as the voice for Rooter Hero on radio commercials, his team creates consistent storytelling-type marketing on various social media channels, and the plumber CEO has written three books designed to help others working in the skilled trades: “The Secret to Wealth” “Creating 99 Millionaires” “Values First”

“Marketing is always something I'll be very close to, from the beginning days, all the way until today,” he says. “It's just changed quite a bit. I'm not knocking on doors anymore. But, we are sending out quite a few letters. That's how we knock on doors now, I guess.”

On using the “Values First” mentality in the field…

Rooter Hero Plumbing operates with a mission centered around five core values: Faith Integrity Respect Service Teamwork

Akhoian says a diverse group of company employees landed on those five shared beliefs after completing a values exercise several years ago. Even today, Rooter Hero employees recite the values at every team meeting and they share stories related to the values at group events.

On acquiring other businesses as a way to grow the company …

Understand a company’s culture may not fit with your own: Expect people to leave. Many people are resistant to change, and might not like what you have to offer. As the company’s new owner, be prepared for a mass exodus and make yourself available to follow through with the folks you leave in charge, especially in the first few months.

Research the market before you acquire: Understand your competition and the services they provide, including the size of their market share. What are the ages of homes in the area you want to service? How big is the market, and which strategy seems to make the most impact?

Ask about the company’s customer base: Does the company you want to acquire keep a list of loyal, repeat customers? Look at ways you can grow that customer base. The more loyal the following, the more valuable it becomes.

Explore the owner’s reasons for selling: Does the owner simply want to sell the business, or stay involved in some capacity? A small company that’s been in business for a while might give your company a head start on growth.

On staying laser-focused on personal and business goals …

Get plenty of sleep and set daily goals: “Besides exercising in the morning, I take time to read my goals,” Akhoian says. “I look at my quarterly goals, my one-year goals, my three-year goals, and my lifetime goals.

“Then, I look at my agenda for the day, and I try to connect and see if I'm doing something every single day to move closer to what I want to do,” he says.

He breaks goals down into five categories: family, business, health, spiritual and personal.

“It gives me a good perspective of how the day is going to go. I know that I am purposeful, and I'm not just showing up.”

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Toolbox for the Trades is a podcast where top service professionals share the tips, tricks, and tactics they use to succeed in their industry. Hosted by Jackie Aubel, this podcast is brought to you by ServiceTitan—the leading home and commercial field service software.

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