Jan Mitman didn't think she was cut out for plumbing and drainage. But, 21 years after joining Drain Doctor, she has been recognised for her contribution to franchising as the company closes in on sales of £30m
Shortly before wrapping up my chat with Drain Doctor’s Jan Mitman, her phone rings. “That was a new franchisee,” she says after hanging up. “He’s all excited and raring to go.” It’s evident that the emergency plumbing and drainage company’s franchisees are by far its biggest asset. And, as the person responsible for bringing them in and helping them on their way, Mitman’s relationship with them verges on the maternal. “They are like my children,” she says. “I see them come in as little infants, they get a bit rebellious in the teenage years and then, when they get to maturity, they realise you did know what you were talking about after all. I’ve seen franchisees come into this business from nothing and then a few years later they’re turning over a million a year. It’s just so rewarding to see people grow.”
Yet despite being “absolutely passionate about franchising”, things could have ended up a lot differently for Mitman were it not for the perseverance of her husband, and Drain Doctor chairman, Freddie.
First, a bit of history. The couple met while working for a multinational firm headed up by Freddie. “He took a group of us to America and we met on the plane going out there,” says Mitman. “I had been working for the company in South Africa for a while. He invited me to watch the film [on the plane], which I think was Rocky, and he asked ‘Can you see the film?’. I said I couldn’t so he said, ‘Let’s move back a bit so we can see together’ but what he really wanted to do was grill me on what I’d found out in South Africa. We started a relationship and 37 years later, here we are.”
Freddie may have won Mitman’s affections but he would encounter some resistance when trying to convince his wife to join him at Drain Doctor. Seeking a new business opportunity in the service industry, Freddie was introduced to Don Dwyer, founder of the Dwyer Group, the American service franchise giant that has the likes of Molly Maid in its stable. Realising they’d met previously on the speaker circuit in the USA, the pair immediately hit it off and Freddie signed on the dotted line for the UK master franchise of Mr Rooter, as it’s called in the States. But, as Jan explains, the name wouldn’t have worked on these shores. “In Australasia, a rooter means several things, including a male prostitute. We wondered what our technicians would be called out for, what jobs they’d be asked to perform and what form the management service fee would take. We felt it wasn’t applicable to the UK market,” she chuckles.
While it’s safe to say Freddie was rather excited about his new acquisition, his wife didn’t share in his enthusiasm. “You could knock me down with a feather,” says Mitman. “I said, ‘What the devil do you know about plumbing and drainage?’ He said, ‘Jan, I know nothing but I know how to run businesses and we’ll headhunt the people we need. It’s the most exciting business I’ve ever seen. It’s totally and utterly recession-proof.’”
Mitman was adamant she wouldn’t be joining her husband on his new business adventure but, six months later, she finally caved. “Freddie said to me, ‘I could really use you to talk to prospective franchisees because the guy who’s meant to be doing it just isn’t doing it’,” says Mitman. “I said, ‘No, definitely not. The plumbing and drainage industry is not for me.’ He pleaded and said I could have anything I wanted so I said I wanted a round-the-world cruise. He said, ‘Done. Just come and help me for a while and I’ll take you on a round-the-world cruise.’”
“I’m still waiting for my round-the-world cruise 21 years later,” Mitman smiles.
She doesn’t seem all that fussed about it though. “I actually think I’d be bored because I love what we do,” she adds.
And what they do is provide a 24/7 emergency plumbing and drainage service for domestic and commercial customers. “We like to think of ourselves as the fourth emergency service,” says Mitman. “Water can create massive problems and emergencies happen all the time. One of my friends came home from Spain last week and rang me at 10 ‘o’ clock at night saying, ‘Jan there’s water pouring through the ceiling. Can you get one of your guys round here?’ While they’d been in Spain, they’d had a leak in the tank up in their roof. Can you imagine?”
Aside from it being “recession-proof”, something else compelled the Mitmans to bring Drain Doctor to the UK back in 1993. “At the time Freddie bought it, the plumbing and drainage industry in this country was miles away from what they were doing in the States in terms of customer service,” says Mitman. “We asked 1,000 people to describe a plumber to us. They’d say you can never get hold of them and, if you do get hold of them, they’ll turn up in a beaten-up old van, their jeans will be filthy and they’ll probably not have all tools to do the job so will have to go away and come back again, all on your time.”
Pricing was also something of a sticking point for British customers, according to Mitman. “In this country, a plumber would come along, he’d look at the house, he’d look at you and he’d work out on the back of a fag packet what he was going to charge you,” she says. “If he thought you could pay more, you’d probably get charged more. You didn’t know at the beginning how much the job was going to cost you.”
Suffice to say, Drain Doctor does things differently. “We show the customer the price before we start the work,” says Mitman. “We believe the customer has the right to know up front how much the job is going to cost. Sometimes we can’t be completely specific when it’s an underground job but our technicians will say, ‘This is the price it will be – if it’s any more than that I’ll stop what I’m doing and come back to you. I’ll keep you informed.’”
Professionalism is hardwired into the DNA of every single Drain Doctor franchisee and technician. Their commitment to putting the customer first even extends to laying down a small red mat – branded with Drain Doctor’s iconic logo – to avoid making a mess when visiting a customer’s home or business. “We are giving the customer the red carpet treatment,” says Mitman. “We’re different from the ordinary plumber out there.”
However, like any franchise worth its salt, Drain Doctor tested the water before opening up its doors to prospective franchisees. “When we brought this over in 1993, we set up three company-owned operations – one in Peterborough, one in Lincoln and one in Nottingham – to make sure that what the Americans told us was true and would work in this country,” says Mitman. It only took them a year to discover that the business was perfectly geared to the UK market so, in 1994, they set about franchising Drain Doctor. As Mitman explains, the business opportunity is just as attractive now as it was 21 years ago. “A lot of one-man band plumbers don’t really know how to turn their business into something that’s turning over anything between £100,000 and £2m every year,” she says. “We can help show somebody how to grow their business, get greater market share in their territory and put some serious equity into their business.”
But it isn’t just plumbers that Drain Doctor targets as potential franchisees. After all, the Mitmans had no prior knowledge of the industry so this needn’t be a hindrance for anybody looking to invest in a Drain Doctor franchise. “If you already have plumbing or drainage experience that’s great but sometimes it’s not as good as somebody who doesn’t know anything,” says Mitman. “If they’ve been a plumber before, they come in to it with preset ideas and sometimes it’s hard to change them. One of our very first franchisees, a guy called John Rushworth, was an old-time Yorkshire plumber who didn’t know the first thing about sales. We had a different way of working and he thought we were absolutely mad. But he’s still with us 20 years later so I guess we must be doing something right.”
When I ask Mitman about the qualities she looks for in each and every one of her franchisees, she shows me a poster on her wall. It shows a climber at the summit of a mountain and reads, ‘The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.’
“We want somebody who is not afraid of hard work, who will lead others and who has plenty of empathy and understanding,” says Mitman. “This is not a get rich quick scheme. They have got to want to look after the customer.”
In return, Drain Doctor supports its franchisees every step of the way, from advising them on the best equipment to buy to providing helplines for any legal or employment issues. “We probably lose money in their first year because of the amount of work, the amount of training and the amount of support we put in,” admits Mitman. However, while head office is always on-hand, Mitman ensures the relationship remains more akin to a mentorship than a dictatorship. “That’s important in franchising because franchisees are not employees,” says Mitman. “I can’t tell them what to do. I can lead them to the water but I can’t dunk their head in it.”
Drain Doctor currently has 80 franchised areas across the UK and while domestic plumbing was the biggest source of business for franchisees in the early days, commercial drainage is where the real money is being made nowadays. Among Drain Doctor’s biggest customers are the likes of JD Wetherspoon and McDonald’s. “In 1994, when we brought in our first franchisees, 80% of our work was domestic and 80% of our work was plumbing. Now it’s completely the opposite: 80% of our work is commercial and 80% of our work is drainage,” says Mitman. “In a way it’s better for the franchisees as they are working with companies that are constantly getting call-outs because of the sheer volume of people they are serving. In the domestic market, you might only get a plumbing callout once every seven or eight months and a drainage callout once every three years.”
On top of the 80 franchises in the UK, Drain Doctor also has a few in Ireland – and it recently launched in Portugal. “We have a villa in Portugal and one day my management agent rang up and said it had a blocked drain,” says Mitman. A local plumber came to fix the problem but the drain was soon blocked again. “My general manager said, ‘There’s something’s wrong there. That’s not right. He’s missing something’,” says Mitman. Using a handheld CCTV set, which all Drain Doctor technicians are equipped with, the general manager discovered the drain had a second chamber that was full of palm tree roots. “They hadn’t found out – forgive the pun – the root of the problem,” says Mitman. Drain Doctor is now looking to sell a master licence for Portugal so that it can expand beyond its current locality. “The guy over there has had his best week ever but we need somebody up in Porto and somebody in Lisbon. And the Algarve, where we have the villa, is incredibly busy in the summer.”
While Mitman is busy trying to help Drain Doctor reach £30m turnover – “we’re not far off that now” – she has also been enjoying the recognition of her peers. She was recently handed the Outstanding Contribution to Franchising Award at the 2015 NatWest EWIF (Encouraging Women Into Franchising) Awards. “I was speechless and I am very rarely speechless,” she says. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it.”
Many would argue that Mitman’s achievements in a male-dominated industry are well worthy of recognition. “Somebody once said I was the most powerful women in the plumbing and drainage industry. That’s probably because there aren’t many,” she says. But that’s not to say she isn’t working on changing this. “We have a lot of females who are in partnership with their husbands,” she says. “I wish I could find a female who wanted to franchise on their own but this industry is such that it’s deemed to be a male industry.”
Mitman certainly sees franchising as an incredibly attractive option for women. “There are so many franchises that are well-equipped for the female touch,” she says. “I saw some statistics recently that said something like 40% of new franchises in the last four years have been opened by females. I don’t think people realise just how strong the female workforce can be.”
Another woman who’s flourishing in franchising is Mitman’s daughter Vicki. A franchise lawyer at Leathes Prior, which itself represents Drain Doctor, she picked up the Young Woman in Franchising Award at the EWIF Awards, capping a brilliant night for the family. “She has learnt about franchising from her mother’s knee,” Mitman smiles. “She knows every one of our franchisees and understands franchising inside-out.”
But while they may be the first family of franchising, Mitman still believes in a clear division between her personal and professional life. “Freddie and I drive in separately; we hardly see each other during the week,” she says. “I leave my wife head at home and put my business head on in my car coming to the office. It works well.”