PROFILE: Roby's Plumbing and Heating Co. Inc.: Plumber survived by staying flexible Firm entered new market, shifted business priorities

December 4, 2006

Roby's Plumbing and Heating Co. Inc. Plumber survived by staying flexible

Firm entered new market, shifted business priorities

Those "big box" home-supply stores make the world a scary place for independent companies such as Roby's Plumbing and Heating Co. Inc.

No way can businesses like Roby compete with the big boxes' prices on pipes and other plumbing materials, owner Brad Roby said, but they can offer something the others don't-service.

"Home centers provide cheap products but poor service," Roby said. "We want to compete on expertise and customer service, not just price."

The company's success in that regard is obvious given its repeat business, which Roby said represents 60 percent of jobs each year.

"Here's a loyal customer base," he said.

That figure might not be so surprising since Roby's Plumbing has a half-century of practice at keeping the customer happy. The firm was started by Roby's grandfather, Virgil, in 1955 in Anderson. Roby's father, Richard, took over eventually, and Brad, now 45, had always planned to take his place in the family business.

But Roby's Plumbing was at something of a crossroads when Brad graduated from Purdue University in 1983 and joined the business. Anderson had been good to the company, but when the city started losing manufacturing firms in the early 1980s, the Robys realized their opportunities for growth there would be limited.

So Brad Roby and his father began eyeing other markets and opened an Indianapolis-based plumbing company in 1986. Still, it took time to build up business-about four years to get established. "It was just a tough market to crack," he said.

Fortunately, the family had revenue from the Anderson company-which is still operating-to keep their heads above water. And by the early 1990s, the Indianapolis firm was standing on its own.

Despite the name, Roby's rarely works on heating systems. About 70 percent of its business is residential plumbing service, fixing problems for homeowners. It also works as a plumbing contractor for rehab and repair companies who are called in after a fire, storm or other emergency.

It also works on residential construction projects-something that once represented half its business. Roby said he's content with the 70/30 split because the new-home business has become "cutthroat" as builders looks to hold down expenses.

"If they find someone else [cheaper], they'll drop you in a heartbeat," Roby said.

Renovation and repair firms, on the other hand, appreciate Roby's fast and dependable service. Indianapolis-based Holt Construction Group has been using the firm more than seven years. Account Manager Christian Carmin said Holt has been lucky to find a plumbing contractor willing to respond so quickly.

"A lot of people don't want to mess with remodeling work," Carmin said.

Another local client, Hays & Sons Complete Restoration, hooked up with Roby's Plumbing several years ago when Hays had lost out on a big renovation project. Roby's had handled the plumbing work for the winning bidder, "so, we thought, 'Shoot, why not?'" recalled Jay Strum, the company's senior estimator. Strum said his firm has been pleased with Roby's work ever since.

Owners of older homes also are frequent customers.

"The Broad Ripple neighborhood is one of our big operating areas," Roby said, since older homes have owners who want to keep them in shape.

Brad Roby is continuing a family tradition with his Indianapolis-based plumbing firm.
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