Employment pathways are unlocked in this innovative partnership between Melbourne and Kiribati. Kathryn Kernohan reports.
Third generation plumber, Andrew Heath, is proof that agile business methodology, listening to customers and good planning are the pipeline for success.
Andrew Heath is in the business of evolution. The third generation plumber refuses to stand still. Since he started his own business 16 years ago, he has gone from a one-man plumbing outfit to a small business that specialises in the end-to-end delivery of gas log fireplaces.
Does that mean he has turned his back on what was his bread and butter business? No, but his agility has meant he now has a solid, high-margin business for nine months of the year, while keeping his quality trade running to enable him to thrive for the remaining three months.
But let’s go back to the beginning. How did Andrew start in plumbing?
“My dad and grandfather did it so I was always around it,” Andrew explains.
From the age of 10, Andrew would go onsite with his dad and give him a hand. While plumbing was a natural pathway for Andrew, he did not just “go with it”.
“I did well at school and had a lot of options open, so it wasn’t the only occupation I considered,” he said.
“In Year 10, I came to the realisation that if I had a focused mind-set, the plumbing trade would lead me into running my own small business, so I jumped out of school and into an apprenticeship.”
The opportunity of three generations working together in a business that was established in 1952 also appealed to Andrew. His grandfather and father both had children young, so Andrew worked in this set-up for 11 years.
Andrew then decided to cut his own path in the plumbing industry. So, after some overseas travel, opportunity he decided to “have a crack” at running his own business.
Andrew admits he and his new wife, Louise went in naively. They brainstormed a business name, Freshwater Plumbing and registered it for $70.
The next day 2000 flyers were designed and printed and together with Louise, he walked the streets putting leaflets in the letterboxes of potential clients. The next day, they got their first call.
“We got that first customer and the business went from there,” Andrew remembers. “Personally in those early days, I had confidence knowing what I was doing and knowing how to do a good job. But your confidence does get rocked when the phones are not ringing.”
“It was that typical story, you are either caught with not enough work or fighting to get enough people to do that big building job.”
That is why Andrew knew he needed to find a niche. Not just one niche but niches or opportunities that he would move into as they appeared.
There have been numerous niches over the years including a focus on rain water tanks and then a shift to solar hot water, which proved popular. These moves forced the plumbing business to be renamed Fresh Living Group. The idea: “to incorporate all the various trades”.
The latest and longest niche for the Fresh Living Group is gas log fires. Andrew found there was no one doing end-to-end design, distribution and installation of these popular home additions.
“During our time in business we have moved from 100% plumbing and maintenance to 80-85% gas log fireplaces, facilitating the need for The Gas Log Fire Company.
You have to keep moving and evolving. You can never stop learning and listening, and you have to be open to trying new ideas and systems. You can’t be expected to know everything as a small business operator - surround yourself with professionals to guide you.”
Andrew’s tips for people starting out
1. Introduce strong accounting protocols from the start
“In the early days we were not tracking our money well, we didn’t really know what was coming and going. Now we have separate business accounts and strong protocols around deposits, invoicing, budgeting and forecasting.”
2. When you become a boss, learn about leadership
“I’m a big believer in self-development. I left school at 16 but I’m constantly learning not only through physical learning but learning about our trade and business, which never stops changing. Every year there are new regulations, new tools, products and techniques.”
3. Have a vision and a mission
“Set up what you want to achieve from the start. It makes it easier to recruit if you know your purpose and your values. It also makes it easier to set systems, methodologies, expectations and training, rather than shooting in the dark.”
4. Work out what marketing works and keep evolving it
“In the start it was all about pamphlets and local media, now it is about building your story, being authentic, communicating who you are and what problems you can solve. Louise now gets most of our new clients through social media marketing and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).”
5. Hire slowly, fire quickly
“It is best for everyone to move on if the relationship is not working out. The employee gets to seek new opportunities before they get committed and you don’t invest in them if it is not the right fit.”
6. Listen to the clients; really listen
“The way we find new opportunities is by listening to the clients. When we got into rainwater tanks we heard our clients say they wanted the right colour, the right material, trees pulled out, rainwater hooked up to toilets. We found them the solutions to all of their needs and we communicated well. Now our business is 50% repeat clients.”