Re-imagining the business of plumbing - without being a plumber!

Imagine running a plumbing business, but not having to actually get your hands dirty.

This is the groundbreaking concept that James Riddle came up with two years ago — and it’s opening plenty of eyes to what’s possible across the country...

Plumbing Bros. was born in 2017, when three mates worked out that if they combined their skills and talents they could become the biggest and best domestic plumbing maintenance outfit in Perth. Within 18 months, they were well on the way, having built up an operation with 15 team members, all subscribing to the proven mantra: communication, preparation, testing and thoroughness.

One of those founders was James Riddle, now CEO and franchisor of Plumbing Bros. With an impressive business background at a relatively young age, James already had a successful side consulting business, which offered coaching and business development advice to tradies such as plumbers and electricians. James came up with the idea of franchising the Plumbing Bros. business.

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How should we grow?

“About 18 months in, we were doing really well, but it was always in the back of my head that there’s only so far you can take it a domestic plumbing business,” he says. “One day as I was taking my morning shower, it suddenly dawned on me, that lightbulb moment. I could combine my passion of coaching and growth and franchise Plumbing Bros.

I was introduced to John Brown, one of the leading franchise consultants in Australia, about 14 or 15 months ago. It took over 12 months to build the model and at the end of August [2019] we were ready to go.”

Although very early in the franchise journey, James is really confident in the business model and the Australia-wide direction. “It’s early days, but we’ve got over 250 active enquiries on the dashboard right now, plus several applications pending and 2 other franchise partners going 'live' any day now”.  

"The beautiful thing is, we were able to create the franchise model in a 14-month stretch, but we were also recording record revenue and growing the Perth business base at the same time. I didn’t sleep much!”

Originally a plumber by trade, and licensed across Australia, James says he hasn’t touched a tool in over three years. “I just fell into plumbing really, but my passion was always growing business and growing people” he says. “I read a lot of books and did a lot of research.”

James began his first business in Melbourne, at just 22 years old. He built up a plumbing and electrical company into a multimillion-dollar concern and was “living a bit of a high life” until, four years in, it all fell in a heap. 

“I lost everything,” James recalls. “I was just a young bloke and had no idea what I was doing, no training. That’s where my passion for teaching others comes from. 

As James tells it, there’s no lesson like failure. “That’s made me what I am now,” he says. “I don’t hide from it — I openly say that to see success, you’ve got to fail first.”

The lesson obviously stuck. Moving to Perth, James was soon managing another company — and this time the growth was consistent. “I was given a whole division and grew them from two plumbers and an apprentice to 14 plumbers in less than two years,” he recalls.

Five stars of business opportunity

Core to the Plumbing Bros. franchise model is what it calls its “five stars of business opportunity” — and one of those five stars is mentor support. “The business training and coaching area is where the tradie often falls down,” James says. 

“And some franchisors have reportedly been more interested in their own income, rather than the success of their franchisees — it doesn’t make sense to me. If the franchise partner is not successful, then what’s the franchisor doing? Are they doing everything they can to help?”

Another of the Plumbing Bros. “five stars” is a full training program comprising three key elements, including an online e-learning portal, and a “franchise manual on heat”, which James reckons pretty much tells you everything you need to know. “The third element is having us in the business for the startup operation, until I’m confident we can hand over complete control — but knowing that I’m still available as required,” James says.

Avoiding the marketing ‘pain points’

Each franchise will also have its own business development manager and a work guarantee. “Obviously, you can’t usually guarantee anything in franchising — but we think we can,” James says. “We do this by putting in three layers of business marketing. You’ve got local area marketing, for which we provide a written marketing plan, with marketing zones mapped by special analysis. The second layer is the group marketing fund where the business development manager comes in.” 

One business development manager is allocated to every three franchises. Then there’s the national sales manager, who liaises with the business development manager, and the website, and much more.

“One of the pain points you hear about in franchising is people not spending the marketing fund appropriately and in its entirety,” James says. “We’re actually propping up the marketing fund, adding money to it rather than underspending it, because we know it works.”

The third layer of marketing comprises the national contacts and contracts Plumbing Bros. already has ready to roll. “There are a number of national providers just waiting for us to press go in different regions and territories” James says. “If you combine those three layers, that’s how we’re able to offer the work guarantee.”

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Managing the business

The company’s plumbing portal is a tailor-made app that all Plumbing Bros. franchise partners will have access to. This is a one-stop business system that pretty much covers all the bases. It features, an on-site manual, a quoting manual, a management software manual, an office manual, an employment manual, a health and safety manual and, finally, a franchise manual.

The business model requires the franchise partner to employ a master plumber and build a team of plumbers around them. And it’s obviously important to get the right person for the job. 

“Appointing the master plumber for a team is pivotal, so we’re assisting in that process by tested recruiting methods,” James says. “That’s where our pathways program is paramount because the right person for that role is going to want career progression and opportunity. We also allow a lucrative wage for the role — we tick all the boxes.” 

And if you lose your master plumber, the business doesn’t fall in a heap. You build the team underneath the master plumber, they develop and go through the pathways program and can potentially replace the master plumber if required. 

“You build a team as you would in any business,” James says. “From our detailed mapping of each zone, we say the model allows the team to build up to 10 plumbers — and that’s with only a moderate market share projection. So if you’re a go-getter, there’s plenty of opportunity ahead.”


Looking outside the plumbing industry

In what might seem a counterintuitive move to many, Plumbing Bros is seeking people who aren’t actual plumbers to be its franchise partners. James says it’s because the company’s purpose is to change the public perception of plumbing as a messy, dirty game.  

“There was a recent survey that sums it up perfectly,” James says. “It found that four of the top five most common traits of plumbing were pretty negative — messy, smelly, overcharging, the ‘plumber’s crack’, that sort of thing. We don’t want people thinking of plumbing negatively. We want to foster positivity and in order to do that we have to look outside the plumbing industry because they are stuck in their ways. So we’re searching for entrepreneurial talent with vision, strategy and skills.”

James is adamant the Plumbing Bros. business model will work, firstly because he’s tested it himself and secondly because the company is being super-selective in its franchise partners. “We’re only going to partner with great people, and they’ve got to buy into our purpose and our vision.” 

Ensuring Plumbing Bros tradesmen are happy in the job is also integral to the plan’s success. “What we identified after working with plumbers for a long time is that there is that negativity there — and 99 out of a 100 companies would say that staff is an issue,” James says. 

“So how do we counteract that?  We try to create a pathways program, a career-progression opportunity for people within our organisation as much as there would be in a corporate entity.”

Again, James knows this to be true because he’s trialled it himself. “The candidates who came through after we added this component to our recruitment process have become our top team,” he says. “That’s no coincidence. It’s all the hard work we’ve done. We’ve tested it and now it’s a near-perfect model — and that’s how everyone is going to succeed around us.”

At the beginning of the second phase of his great adventure with Plumbing Bros, James admits to feeling just a bit excited. “We were at the National Franchise Convention late last year, and there was a little bit of intrigue about us, and I was saying to everyone who wanted to listen that I have no doubt we’re going to be a household name everywhere across Australia!”

Find out more about James and Plumbing Bros HERE

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