2015 Master Plumber of the Year. The importance of seeing yourself as a businessperson rather than a trades person.

Interview with
Sam Tyson
 2015 Master Plumber of the Year.  The importance of seeing yourself as a businessperson rather than a trades person.

Today, Craig Oliver of the Project Guys, interviews Sam Tyson of Climate. Climate are plumbers, gas fitters and HVAC specialists. In 2015, Climate was awarded New Zealand Master Plumber of the Year. Sam and her husband, Lee, a former police officer, took over the business six years ago. Both had no previous experience in the plumbing or HVAC industries but were able to perform well.

Sam had a business development role and was working with the previous business owner of Climate.  It came to a point in his business where he wanted to sell off a part of his business and over a cup of coffee, convinced her that this would be a good opportunity for her to purchase.  Six weeks later, they were in the throes of it.  Sam and Lee felt they were quite a good team and that they would work together quite well.  This has proven to be true.

What appealed to Sam was the concept that everybody needs to be warm in their homes.  She also saw that there were areas where they could grow and expand their business.  They started with 7 employees and over the years, their business has grown and now has 27 employees.  There have been some highs and lows and realizing that they needed a more balanced income through the years, they bought a plumbing company and made a planned integration into their business.  This has worked really well for them.  In 2014, another plumbing company approached them.  They did the negotiation dance with the owner and within a month, they purchased the company and integrated it into their systems.

Dealing with domestic plumbing issues became their battle cry because it threw them and everyone became very active.  When Sam and Lee first purchased the business, their main focus was to get their under the table, get into it, and learn it from the ground up.  She also had to learn the sales side of it.  Their first year was about survival.  Sam equated it to having a new born baby and having no idea what she was getting into.  She then got through it as best as she can, putting one foot in front of another.

Being a woman and being new to the business has been helpful because she came into the business without her ego and was able to ask the guys what they should be doing.  It was a change for them because they were used to having somebody in charge, telling them what to do rather than somebody asking them what they should be doing.  They had to change their thinking and put more ownership into their work.

Sam has been successful integrating her softer side into the business as well.  She has been able to get her guys on board.  She describes her team as being engaged, communicative, open, and honest.

The key to being awarded Master Plumber of New Zealand is her team.  They all work together.  Everyone in the business wants to take care of their customer and doing the right thing.  Taking advantage of their synergy has helped her business a lot.  Their marketing strategy is also about being different.  Sam ascribes to Seth Goden’s book, The Purple Cow. 

Embracing technology has also been another move that Sam and her team has had to make.  To get over the challenges, Sam buddies her people up.  The younger guys teach the older guys and vice versa.  They help each other and teach each other what’s going on and the new way to do things.  Sam doesn’t force this on her employees in one shot.  She does it slowly and in small increments.  Once again, she uses her soft approach to achieve this.

Sam strongly suggests that as a tradesman, you need to think about what you want at the end of the day.  You work long and hard on the business to build it up but if you are not able to sell your business, you may be forced to shut the doors down.  One of the ways you can do this is by seeing yourself as a businessperson rather than a tradesman.

Some of the challenges in the plumbing industry is working with apprentices who don’t work with your for a long time.  Another challenge is dealing with clients who need your services but who balk when they get the bill.  Third, Sam mentions that there is going to be a shortage in trade staff in the net five to ten years.  There are many opportunities for young people coming out of school to do everything else besides doing a trade.  She sees the cost of plumbing to be increasing.  A solution for this problem is for the government to get involved and putting the trades back in high school as career opportunities.  Finally, health and safety issues have come into the picture as well. 

Sam sees technological advances affecting the heavac industry rather than the plumbing industry.  But Sam has found her business’ purpose.  She mentions that if it wasn’t for sanitary plumbing and safe gas work, we would be full of disease and living unhealthy lives.  Being energy wise, putting healthy and safe places has been her mission and her goal. 

Contact Climate at (06) 769-6410 or www.climate.net.nz for more information.




Craig:  How did you end up being in business and where you’re at today?

Sam:  Well, over the years, I ended up being in a business development role and I was working with the previous owner of Climate.  It came to a point in his business where he wanted to sell off part of his business and suggested that the Heating side of the business would be a good opportunity for me to purchase.  That was over a cup of coffee.  I gave Lee, my husband, a call.  I said, “Guess what, honey?  I think I’ve bought a business.” Six weeks later, we were actually in the throes of it.

Craig:  It happened real fast?

Sam:  It did happen real fast.  To be fair, we had been looking for something that we could work [on] together because we feel we’re quite a good team and that has proven to be true.

Craig:  You were doing business development with the previous owner of the business.  What did you mean by that?

Sam:  I was working with him and coaching his staff.  I also helped him with strategic planning for his business. 

Craig:  So you sort of knew the business as well and you made the business of being in business.  What was it about this business that you saw potential in before considering buying it apart from the fact that you helped him in the previous run his business, what was it that appealed to you?

Sam:  So we had been looking at various businesses and we saw that there was an opportunity in the heating business.  Everybody needs to be warm in their home and [filler] it’s kind of a staple ingredient for a home and we…we just saw that there were areas that we can grow and turn it into a bigger business which we have done.

Craig: So when you started, what was the size of the business? 

Sam: So when we first took over there were seven [filler] seven in the team and now we’re up to twenty seven.

Craig: So that’s ten years.

Sam: No. Six years.  We were having some highs, some lows, seasonality, of course, everybody wants heating in winter but nobody really thinks about it in the summertime.  They’re too busy enjoying that.  So, realising that we needed to get a more balanced income throughout the year, we looked at other ways that we could increase our revenue in the summer periods.  So we bought another plumbing company and we made a planned approached and we made a planned integration of that business into our business and it worked really well. That brought us into the light commercial and commercial plumbing and gasfitting.  It was more about servicing breakdowns and replacement.

Craig:  Was that a planned strategic move?  Or did this happen by accident as sometimes these things do?

Sam:  Yeah. That was one was but that was in 2014.  At the end of 2014, we were approached by another plumbing company. which was more domestic-focused.  The owner came to us and said, “You know, I wanna sell my business.  Would you be interested?”  And we said, “Yes,” and we kind of did the negotiation dance and within a month, we had bought that business and it was integrated into our business.  Our business went ballistic and chaotic because we had lots of phone calls.  Phones were ringing and clients would say, “I’ve got a blocked toilet.”  All these issues.  We went completely crazy and it threw us and everybody became very active so it was quite a different process.

Craig:  Your last purchase was less that 12 months ago.  Before you did that, how was the planning process and your strategic plan to go ahead and buy that?

Sam:  It was probably a good five months of planning.  It wasn’t that long.  It was months, rather than weeks.

Craig: Was that your vision when you first bought the business is you grow like that and after you get your feet under the table, so to speak, you realize well, we can expand and grow.  Or did you know from your business experience working with Steve that that could possibly happen?

Sam: I didn’t initially think that, it was kind of get into the business and learn the ropes first.  My biggest thing, I guess, was I didn’t know the industry so I had to get into it and learn about it from the ground up.  So I jumped into the sales side and which in itself puts a lot of meat for the business because I was busy learning the ropes.  So I was doing what I told people not to do.  So, the first year for me was about survival and it was very different being outsider and being in the actual person trying to do it.  The first year, I equate it to having a new born baby where you had no idea what you’re doing getting into it.  Like your first born baby and you can’t sleep at night and you get through each day as best as you can.

Craig:  Before this, have you ever had a bricks and mortar business before?

Sam:  We had.  We had owned a retail business which was quite a different kettle of fish.  I used to be amazed when I would open the shop doors in the morning and people would come and have their transaction and off they would go and life was…It was easy-ish.

Craig: Your first year was quite challenging.  You’re learning a new business.  Of course you don’t have a trade background.  Does Lee have a trade background before the police?

Sam:  No and he is like quite the opposite to the home handyman.  I’m actually the tradesperson in that house so I’m the one who will hammer and nails and turn towards things like that.

Craig:  So do you think that was it a help or a hindrance?

Sam:  I think it’s been a help for me and I also think that being a woman has been helpful because I came into the business without my ego and I was able to ask the guys what I should be doing or what they should be doing.  So instead of coming out and saying, “Come on guys, actually, go and do this and this is how I want it done,” I would come on and say, “Right.  What should we be doing today?”  “How are we going to do it?” and “Teach me.”  So, it was quite cheery for them because they’re used to more having somebody in-charge telling them what to do rather than them somebody asking them what they should be doing.  So, they had to change their way of thinking and it actually put more ownership on to the end and they had to stick up a little to support me, really.  I wasn’t telling them.  I was asking them.

Craig:  You say there was a bit of a transition from the guys’ mind shift?

Sam:  It was just communication. So we sat around with everyone and we talked a lot and saying what we didn’t get out there at the end of the week. You know…I’ve always been touchy feeling in the business so for blokes that’s new. You just don’t hug a plumber. But they’ve gotten on board really well and we’ve got a really engaged team now, really communicative, pretty open, and honest.

Craig:  Last year, you won Master Plumber of New Zealand.  So in your opinion, what gave you the win?  What was the key?

Sam:  I think it’s our team, you know.  We all work together.  We’re all about the same thing.  We’re not sitting there thinking, you know, “Who can we piss of today?”  “Who can we go out and overcharge today?” or anything like that.  Everyone in the business wants to overcharge customer and we talk here about doing the right thing and because we’re coming from that mindset, we work so well as a team and that’s about it. 

Also, our marketing is also a bit out there so we try to just be a little bit different Seth Goden’s Purple Cow. We try to be a little bit like that and I’d like to say that we’re well systemised but we’re not but we’re getting there.  I think that’s part of it as well.  You know, we’ve introduced mobile devices and it’s been a huge time for business as well.  We’ve got some guys that are loving it and we’ve got some guys that are liking it. 

Craig:  So, tell me a little bit about that cause we all know technology’s coming whether we like it or not. 

Sam:  Well, in our business, we’ve got five generations of people working with us.  We’ve got young guys coming in as apprenticeship…you know apprentices as 17 year olds and we’ve got those in the other spectrum.  We’ve got guys that are in their sixties working with us.  So we have to try and cater for those but we found that buddying them up helps a lot.  So the younger guys are teaching the older guys and the older guys are teaching the younger guys.  In technology, everybody in the company works together. They help each other and teaching them what’s going on and teaching them the new way to go through it.  It’s been the biggest way that we’ve overcome it.

Craig:  How do you keep the older ones accountable for embracing the new technology?  So have to introduce new systems and there’s often a pushback.  “I’m not doing that.  I’ve done this for 40 years this way.”  How do you keep them accountable to make sure that programs are implemented?”

Sam:  Slowly and in small increments.  It’s an over time thing and it’s a little bit at a time so it doesn’t overwhelm them and just slowly ticking away and just helping them and guiding them and not forcing the issue. It’s about working with them.

Craig:  So from your business background and now that you’re being immersed in this industry, plumbing been your trade for the last six or seven years.  What are the mistakes you can see trade based business owners making?

Sam:  The plumbing industry is a classic one.  Workers are still humanly involved in the operations side of the business and come retirement, there’s nothing to sell.  They have all the stress, worry, and hardship of owning a business and then come to the end of the day, they can’t cash out on all the hard work they put into their business.

Craig:  What do you think is the right way for tradesmen to set themselves up?

Sam:  I guess it really depends about what you want at the end of the day. If you look at our purchase of Anchor and Ellis, for instance, their business had been on the market and and the owner has been working hard and long on the business to build it up.  If we hadn’t come along, one of the pitch is that he was on the point of you know, deciding whether he was going to shut the doors.  So, he did make some money over time but it took a good 10 years before he started making money.  He’s become a huge mentor for me in the industry.  He has a good set of people. so he’s become my mentor in the business.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  So for him, he was gonna have to close the doors and walk away but in the end, everything worked and the planets aligned and we got the business and it was all good.  There are so many businesses that don’t get into that position and they just have to close the doors and walk away.

Craig:  Perhaps as they don’t see it as a business?  They don’t see themselves as a businessperson.  They see themselves as a plumber, often say to people, “So what do you do for a job?”  And they will say “I’m a plumber,” and I tell them, “No, you’re a businessperson who owns a plumbing business.” How do we solve that problem?

Sam:  Well, actually, any apprenticeship scheme they arrange.  They give them information they don’t how to go out into business on their own but that probably does need more follow-up.  It is also one of the trait of that trade is that they you put the guys through an apprenticeship and they spend four years with you and then after those four years, they’ve had enough and they just wanna go out and make change and often they will go into business on their own and then [filler] a couple of your clients go their way as well, which is part and parcel of it.  So it is an industry issue as well. 

Craig:  So what do you enjoy about most about being in business?  In this industry?  What is it that drives you?

Sam:  In the plumbing industry, we’ve kind of become more plumbing than heating type business but what I enjoy is that we’re serving the world.  If it wasn’t for sanitary plumbing and safe gas work, we would all be full of disease and living unhealthy lives and then if you add the heating into the edge, people have got to be warm to be healthy and so…and then we also do solar energy as well.  So we’re energy wise and we’re grabbing the whole thing and we’re putting healthy homes and healthy places through providing people with clean water to drink and sanitation.  And that’s worked, you know, it’s almost like kind of a putting your overalls and looking the outside each morning and thinking you’re going out and you’re gonna save the world of disease.

Craig:  That’s the great way of…Have you written that on your vision board out?

Sam:  I say that to the guys sometimes and they roll their eyes but they are kind of behind me.

Craig:  So what frustrates you most about this industry?

Sam: I wouldn’t know, it’s hard work.  It’s fairly reactive the type of business…the plumbing industry…it’s very reactive so people want you, “We need…toilet’s blocked.” They’ve got water coming up to their armpits and they want you to show them a way but when they get this bill, they don’t want to pay the bill.  So there’s always kind of battles going on and then. Now that we’ve got a bigger staff, we’ve got lots of individual people that need teaching.  I’ve become now more of a teacher/public relations type person in my role.  So I’m not sure whether it frustrates me because I really like it but sometimes, I think, “Oh, really?”

Craig:  So you obviously gone six years and won the Master Plumber of the Year, good local reputation as well.  So in benefit of the hindsight, what would you do differently?  Is there anything you’d do differently in the last six years?

Sam:  It’s paid off but yeah, I’d certainly had done it and I could have taken a planned approach rather than just jumping into it, which has kind of been my ethos over the years.  I kinda do jump into things and choose to do things without thinking and.

Craig:  Yeah, but that’s what entrepreneurs do.  Entrepreneurs see opportunities and grab them.  Otherwise, they get left behind, don’t they.

Sam:  So, a little bit more planning on that there would’ve gone down a lot better.  I just didn’t realize how much impact it was going to make and maybe even if I planned it out, it might not have really gone as well.

Craig:  Where do you see the plumbing HeaVac industry going in the next five to ten years?

Sam:  Well, there’s going to be a shortage in trade staff.  All the people that predict the future have done the numbers and we’re gonna have around a five hundred shortage in tradesmen in New Zealand.  So that’s gonna be an issue.  We have so many opportunities now for young people coming out of school to do everything else besides doing a trade that there are not as many people wanting to go in and be a tradesperson these days, so there’s going to be less tradesmen which means they’re going to be more sought after.  We’re gonna have to pay them a whole hour wage which in turn is going to have to be billed to our customers.  So the cost of plumbing is going to get more and more.

Craig:   Speaking of that, do you think there needs to be more education, putting back in the high schools that trades plumbing would be plumbing, building, electrical is actually a viable career option so people can make a career out of it?

Sam:  I think that’s gonna happen and the government has realised, that they have to put money towards apprenticeship schemes and the schools have got a gateway program where you can have work experience.  The other issue that’s coming through is the whole health and safety thing.  To get a guy to get up on your roof to look at your flue, it may be that we have to skip doing that because of the safety rules and that’s all sort of good because we all want our guys to come home to their wives and their families.  I don’t want that person knocking on the door and say, guess what? Your husband’s cracked his head open cause he fell off the roof. So prices are going to increase.

Craig:  Do you think it’s gonna make a big impact on your industry?

Sam:  Technology will play a part in it and things such as electronically controlling your heating systems and your solar systems and your ventilation systems will proliferate.  So with your appliances, you’ll be able to kinda walk down the hallway and push a button on your watch…and your toilet’s going to test your urine as you pee in it and those types of things.  So technology will move and as far the clients is concerned but as far as the plumbing work is concerned, it’s parts and drains and making sure you have the right folds.  Things are not going to change that dramatically.  They are looking at different products for when earthquakes happen, that type of thing.  Making sure that the pipes don’t move and joints and things like that. But there won’t be as much movement there as opposed the appliances.

Craig:  So they’re still gonna need manpower which we can be short of.

Sam:  There’s holes to be dug and there’s pots to be run and yeah.  With all the guys on the electronic side, the tradesmen are having to be more technologically savvy and they have to learn programming and those types of things.

Craig:  So what’s some advice would you have for those who are in this industry and for startups?

Sam:  Start up guys, from day one, think of how you’re going to sell your business.  Ask yourself, “Is my action today going to contribute to the sale of my business at the end of the day?”  For people who are already in business, turning their business into a turn key business so somebody like me with no industry knowledge and no background in the plumbing industry can buy your business off you and make it work as well.  Creating turnkey businesses.  You can sell me your business on Friday and I can work on…walk in on Monday and still operate it.


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