By Terry McIver
Ellen Rohr, president and founder of “Business Un-complicated” is The Business Makeover Expert who specializes in communicating those things that make all the difference to your business success: easy financial clean up, profitable pricing and powerful business planning.
Ellen Rohr has appeared on numerous TV programs, and has written for dozens of publications, including the PHC News, Inc., The New York Times, the Huffington Post, and numerous business journals and trade magazines. She provides “in the trenches” insight that business owners can relate to.
She is also a co-founder of ZOOM DRAIN, a sewer and drain cleaning franchise for the residential and commercial markets.
A motivational dynamo, Rohr — who will be one of the featured presenters at the upcoming Contractor Leadership LIVE event — is also a devoted runner. And despite the energy she expended while running during our chat (she was training for a 50K event!), she had ample energy reserves to share a bit about her career, her passion for tradespeople, and issues related to the present and not-to-distant-future of the HVAC industry.
1. When and why did you decide to enter the consulting field?
Well, like a lot family members, I fell into it because my husband, Bob "Hot Rod" Rohr, was — and still is —a plumber. I had no interest in the industry, but my husband's partner and best friend died suddenly and tragically at 33 years old. The last words he said to me were, ‘If I don't do it myself, it'll never get done.’ He died after working a 100-hour week.
That was a life-changing moment for me, because I realized that it’s not worth it. Things will get done, if not by you, then by somebody else. You don’t have to do everything.
That’s when I turned to my husband and said, ‘I'll quit my job’ — I was a restaurant manager — ‘and I'll go to work for you. I'll do the books and the administrative stuff, and you turn wrenches, and we'll get rich.’ And none of that happened.
So, I noticed an article by the consultant Frank Blau in the pages of PM magazine, and I wrote him a letter asking for help.
I gave him all the reasons why I couldn't raise my prices and couldn't make any of the changes he was suggesting in the article. So I have a lot of empathy for the people who reach out to me, who are not ready to change yet.
I took far too long to make necessary changes. I had to hurt really bad before I was willing to do the risk-changing things. And so, I do what I can for business owners, but it is with no judgment, and only love, because I was a hard-headed, slow learner once upon a time.
You really need the commitment to success. Some go through their entire life in the trades barely getting by, and that's sad. So it’s great when people can implement new ideas and make a change.
2. How did you develop the passion you have for the mechanical contracting industry?
Well, after I finally ‘took the medicine’ and raised my prices, I was sure we would go out of business, but all we did was make money. And as fast as we got into debt and trouble financially, we got back out of it. So I always say this, ‘If you charge more than it costs, you manufacture your own money.’
And of all the ways to exchange goods and services on the planet, the only one that's truly liberating is free trade. When we can exchange goods and services with each other, then you're free. And without an economy — in a home or a business, or a community, or a country — there is no freedom. If you can make your own money, if you are in a position where you can hang up your shingle and charge more than it costs, you are so much better off than someone who is not.
It was like being ‘born again’ to business. I couldn't wait to share it. And if I can learn the business basics, if we can turn our little company around, anybody can. That's where the passion was born and I feel as strongly about it today as I did 30 years ago.
3. Your presentation at Contractor Leadership LIVE will be about ‘tough conversations.’ What’s an example of a tough conversation?
The tough conversations include the conversation the owners might need to have to get everybody on the same page. I was working with a man this morning in a group coaching setting on the Internet. And he wasn't one of the owners, he was the general manager/ops manager. He said, ‘I need to get the owners on the same page.’ And my heart broke for him, because, that is one tough conversation.
Other tough conversations include: What if you have to fire your mother? What if you don't want to work for the family business anymore?
Or, suppose you've got a really great guy who just can't play by the rules. How many chances do you give him, and how do you do it?
I'm going to lay out situations and we're going to role play, and practice the words and approaches. We're going to avoid the ‘poop sandwich,’ which is an expression I heard from another business guru once upon a time: How do we have conversations that we're avoiding in our companies with family, with owners, with team members, and maybe even with clients and vendors?
4. What’s the most exciting part of your job right now?
I love it when someone on my watch gets better, and I love young people. I don't use the word ‘millennial.’ I don't even like it, because it's just an excuse for a lot of people to paint with a really broad brush, and it has become a derogatory term. People are people; some are young, some are old.
There’s a quote I like by Robert Jarvik, who invented the artificial heart. He said, ‘Leaders are visionaries with no concept of the odds against them.’ And that's why I like young people. They don't know it's supposed to be hard. Quit telling them it's so hard. What does hard mean? This is one of the reasons why I run long races. Hard pain. These are just fleeting moments.
And when a 25-year-old with a 4-year-old child graduates from apprentice to technician, or technician to senior tech, or becomes a field supervisor, it makes my heart swell. I love that.
5. What is the biggest issue we need to face in the plumbing and HVACR contracting space?
First, let’s consider the nature of how we generate business in the service industry. We send these fine people out to knock on doors, and then they go through a process in which they have to do the superman or superwoman task of making a friend, finding out what's needed and wanted, performing a technical diagnosis, offering prices and options, and shutting up to let the customer think and decide.
And then, going ahead with the work if they say yes, or the challenges if they say no. And it’s all being done out of a mobile unit. I mean it's very similar, no matter what portion of the service trades that you deal with, HVAC or plumbing or electrical. And there's some slight differences between commercial and residential, too.
There is a lot going on. Are we going to do video conferencing? Are we going to seal the deal over the phone? What do we do to compete with Amazon and Home Adviser? These things are game-changing, and we have to respond.
However, the relationship that ultimately develops face to face is never going to be outsourced, it's always going to be accomplished by one buckaroo at a time, growing your business.
There are many similarities throughout all of these industries. My partner at ZOOM DRAIN, and my best friend forever, Al Levi, says, ‘Once you get the operation dialed in, get really good at the small things.’
Marketing will be forever challenging. What I'm very proud of at Zoom, and what I encourage all of my clients, customers, readers, and listeners to do, is train your own team. Don't talk about how hard it is, or complain to the union. Just do what you need to do to get your employees trained. It will be through manuals and a training center. It's like planting an oak tree. It takes a bit of time.
About Contractor Leadership Live
Contractor Leadership LIVE is a new, multi-day event that brings together the resources you need to transform your business. You will see the latest technologies and learn about proven strategies from a powerful line up of today's HVAC industry experts. There's no better opportunity to level up your business while building a solid foundation for the future.
Slated for September 12-14 at the Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland, this national event will feature conference sessions by top educators to inspire you to transform your business while delivering insight on the latest industry trends that are impacting contracting business owners and service professionals. The expo hall will give you an opportunity to learn more about the latest products that help drive business and boost profitability while connecting you with the manufacturers that are responsible for developing those tools and solutions that are critical to your success in this ever changing business environment. This event will feature the best speakers in the contracting world.