A water pipe bursts, spewing water all over your kitchen floor. A garbage disposal clogs, backing up into your sink. Your toilet is overflowing and you don’t know what’s causing the problem.
All of these incidents are homeowner nightmares. But Bill O’Leary and Jeremy Yates thrive on these scenarios as owners of Sure-Flow Plumbing, a business they started in 2010.
Q: What is the range of Sure-Flow Plumbing’s services?
The five-year-old company the duo started in Lenexa offers an array of residential service and repair.
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“We also do sump pumps and water heaters, drain cleaning and use camera locating to find blockages and for inspections,” Yates said.
Both owners do a little bit of everything, with each driving a truck; Yates’ wife, Gail, handles the books.
“It’s a team effort,” Yates said. “I take care of the phones and the sales and bidding. Bill does all the construction and installation work, but we both do calls.”
Q: What is your prior business background?
Yates has been around the plumbing business since he was 12.
“We had a friend of the family I would follow around on weekends and in the summers,” said Yates, who lived in Texas at the time. “He owned a plumbing company and I was a go-fer. I would tug at his pants leg as a little kid telling I wanted to work for him. When I was 12 years old I gave him a call...he taught me everything.”
Yates worked for the family friend, learning the trade through hands-on experience.
When Yates moved to the Kansas City area with his wife, he worked for Roger the Plumber. That’s where he met O’Leary, and the two became fast friends.
O’Leary had prior plumbing experience from working in maintenance for JC Penney.
After working together at Roger the Plumber, the two men joined Bob Hamilton Plumbing, Heating, AC and Rooter Co..
“We learned our trade from working in the trade,” Yates said. “You really have to learn hands-on to pick it up.”
Q: Why did you decide to go out on your own? How did you put the business together?
“It’s been a lifetime dream to have my own company,” Yates said. “But it was Bill convincing me. We thought we could offer they same service for less money by controlling the overhead and doing the things ourselves.”
Yates said it was the right time in his life to assume the risk of running his own company.
The two men had set money aside and cashed in savings accounts to start Sure-Flow Plumbing. They purchased some equipment, got business cards and “went into business,” Yates said.
The partners did not create a formal business plan.
“We were not that far advanced,” Yates said. “We had a dream and a desire. I tell people we’re very good plumbers who went into business. I am still learning about the business part.”
They did hire an attorney to handle articles of incorporation before doing their first job under the Sure-Flow name. Both men are licensed, insured and have Johnson County contractor’s licenses that they renew annually.
Q: Who are your customers & how do you market?
In the beginning, Sure-Flow’s customers came from people the partners knew.
“My wife is involved with Girl Scouts and active in the PTA at school and those became reliable sources of business,” Yates said.
About 80 percent of Sure-Flow’s customers are in Johnson and Wyandotte counties, and Yates said 70 percent is repeat business from referrals.
As for new business, “our biggest lead generator is a group we belong to called Business Networking International,” Yates said. “It is a weekly lunch meeting and there are 52 other business professionals with generally one representative for each field in the group. We trade leads.”
Sure-Flow also relies on some Internet marketing through its web site. The company also has a listing on YellowPages.com.
As for other advertising methods, “We have limited success with direct mail and didn’t think the investment was worth the return,” Yates said.
Through a friend’s connection Sure-Flow is on a preferred vendor list for the cities of Lawrence and Belton for residential inspections. The company is also on Johnson County Waste Water’s approved vendor list for its Inflow and Infiltration program to prevent rainwater from entering the sanitary sewer system.
Q: How do you handle parts and inventory?
Sure-Flow has no physical storefront and carries most of its inventory on the two service vehicles.
“We keep an active inventory on our trucks and everything that is most commonly used like a water heater, two different garbage disposals, a sump pump, a variety of faucets for bathrooms and kitchens,” Yates said. They even carry toilets on the trucks so they are ready to answer just about any emergency.
Yates does store some inventory in a shop at his home. The duo has quite an investment in equipment.
“I was taught to purchase good quality equipment and take care of it,” Yates said. “We have $15,000 to $20,000 of equipment purchases annually to keep up with technology especially in drain cleaning.”
Q: Is there much competition in the plumbing industry?
“There is a lot of good competition in the area,” Yates said. “Fortunately, there is a tremendous amount of work to go around.”
Yates said Sure-Flow does a number of things to differentiate itself in the marketplace.
“We give upfront pricing...with a written estimate,” Yates said. “There is no obligation and we give you a price before we start. We guarantee 100 percent satisfaction and we do whatever it takes until it is resolved,” he said.
“We are proud that it is always the owner who does the work.”
With only Yates and O’Leary doing the work, the men share after-hours calls.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge in running Sure-Flow?
The answer to that question is simple: “Hiring someone to join us,” Yates said. “Finding someone I can trust with my clients and building on the reputation we have.”
Yates admitted struggling with some of the business aspects, too.
“The whole financial part was tough for me, like the best credit card processing companies. It was a constant struggle. Once I got to know people who I found were loyal, it was a much better gauge than saving a few dollars on the latest fancy idea.”
Q: What’s next for Sure-Flow?
Yates and O’Leary hope to add another technician this year to help with their growing business.
“We seem to be missing a lot of work and it’s heartbreaking for me to send them in another direction, so it would help us keep up with the volume of calls,” Yates said.
“That’s as large as I hope to ever be,” Yates said. “If you get much larger than that your overhead kicks in and it gets more stressful. I like my customers and I want to stay in touch with them.”
In a nutshell
COMPANY: Sure-Flow Plumbing
WEB SITE: www.callsureflow.com