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When plumbing business evaporated overnight, a pivot kept firm in the game  

"We shifted our focus to our service department,

"We shifted our focus to our service department, which was about 10% of our business," says Kenny Schwamb, owner of Order a Plumber in Islip Terrace. Credit: Barry Sloan

What do you do when you lose 90% of your revenue stream in the bat of an eye? Kenny Schwamb, owner and CEO of Order a Plumber in Islip Terrace didn’t blink. Instead, he steadied himself and focused on finding a solution.

While his plumbing business, which he opened in 2007, was considered an essential business, the April 2020 mandatory shutdown of all nonessential construction projects put roughly 90% of his projects on hold in one shot. Prior to the pandemic, the bulk of his business was new construction, single family and multifamily projects.

"With most of our company shut down, we shifted our focus to our service department, which was about 10% of our business," says Schwamb.

Without the switch, "We would have closed like many other plumbers."

Schwamb shared how he ramped up his service division. The interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you let people know your services had changed?

We immediately began to use our staff who no longer had construction projects to do whatever we could to get the word out and drum up more service and repair business — anything from parking our unused trucks at high visibility locations with advertising on them to let people know we were still in business, to putting out lawn signs. We increased our marketing, doing affiliate marketing with other plumbers. We did calls for other plumbers who didn’t have staff to handle them. In some cases, we acquired business from plumbers who were going out of business.

How did you respond to COVID?

While we were getting the word out that we were still open for business, we quickly brought in all the necessary PPE to make sure our technicians and our clients were protected. We also moved swiftly to put an emergency COVID safety plan in place, which detailed our in-house procedures, covering everything from in-home safety to tools and vehicle sanitizing.

What was necessary to restructure your business?

We needed additional service equipment, so we repurposed a couple of our construction trucks. We needed to beef up our customer service department. It’s different when you’re doing repairs and service — communication with customers is key. You want to be sure customers are happy with their service. A happy customer is likely to be a repeat customer.

Were you able to preserve jobs?

Initially, we cut some of our 50 staff members. It was challenging to keep the service techs motivated. They were nervous about COVID, and they needed to work enough hours to be worthwhile. We didn’t know how much volume we would have from day to day. There was pressure to convert calls to an opportunity — the goal was a 100% conversion rate.

What other problems did you face?

Material shortages. We learned to order ahead of time. When business slowed, we cleaned out old stuff so we could make room for parts and inventory. This way we could order and have room for them, even if we didn’t need them immediately. We wanted them on hand.

How are things now?

We are back up to about 25 staff members. Construction work is slowly coming back. We managed to double our service and repair revenue in 2020 from the previous year. We are projecting to almost double our service revenue again as we get into the fourth quarter of 2021.

What are the pandemic’s biggest lessons?

We were planning to push more into service and repairs anyway. The pandemic forced our hand to move more quickly. We will continue to grow our service division. I learned to take one day at a time, to make lemonade out of lemons. We came out on the upside of this disaster.

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