We spoke with Monica Ryan, owner of Village Plumbing & Air in Houston, a 2021 Tops in Trucks Fleet Design Contest winner. Ryan discussed working for her father, becoming a master plumber and marketing a woman-owned business.
1. How did you get started in the industry?
My parents owned Village Plumbing … they started it in 1946. When I graduated from college, I couldn't find a job, so I called my dad and he had a lady that was going out on maternity leave. He said I could work there while I tried to find a job in town.
2. What did you go to school for?
I started out in accounting and ended up in finance. And then I went back to night school after I came to Village and got my Master's in accounting.
3. Is that what you did when you started at Village?
No, I was answering phones.
4. When did you decide to stay full-time?
My dad had an elective surgery about a year into me being there and had a stroke on the table, so I was pretty much stuck at that point. The economy wasn't very good, so I was having a tough time finding a job. At some point, it just became I wasn't going to be able to leave. And then I thought, "When he's better, I'll find something else," but that never really happened … he got better, but he didn't want me to leave.
5. Why did you become a master plumber?
I didn't think I could run the business without knowing the trade, so I went out in the field to learn how to do everything. I wasn't originally going to get the license, but another owner talked me into it, said that it would be a mistake if I didn't go sit for the exam, so I did. And in Texas, there's a series of exams you must take. I got the journeyman, and I think it was two years you had to wait before you could sit for your master.
6. So, were you a part of the company’s management team?
I was the management team. It was me, myself.
7. When did you add HVAC?
We had been talking about it for a while. I had a manager and he wanted to do it. We started up the HVAC department around 2013 and it wasn’t really going well. I finally hired an operations manager about 10 years ago. He had an HVAC license and really helped that part of the business grow.
8. How has the company grown?
This year, our company budget is for $18 million. The HVAC department, once we got a decent manager, took off quick, but we had a lot of difficulty. I had a couple of guys that weren't really that good. It's difficult to grow a department if you don't have someone who knows how to do that. We finally landed on somebody who knew how to do that.
9. What was the learning curve to being an owner?
I was lucky because I had a lot of owners in town that really liked my dad and had known him for a long time, and there were also several owners that my dad had helped kind of put them in business. I had a lot of people come and help me out. I don't know that I would have made it without that.
10. What’s a good lesson you learned?
I think you just must make the mistakes and learn from them. I think I'm pretty good at making mistakes and pretty good at learning from them.
11. What’s your management style?
Most people say that I expect a lot, but I'm not an in-your-face kind of person. I have very high expectations for myself, and so I think that's kind of hard on people sometimes.
12. How big is the management team now?
We have seven managers right now. We have the general manager, the ops manager, HVAC manager, plumbing manager, logistics manager, call center manager, dispatch manager.
13. What’s the most important aspect of your job?
It’s important to make sure people understand that we're going to be okay. I think a lot of people are really concerned, especially in this environment. It's kind of scary out there.
14. How has the pandemic affected business?
Our guys go in and out of lots of homes and I worry about them. I try to get through to them that they need to be careful. There is a lot of misinformation about things, and I would love for everybody to not feel like that, but I know everyone's scared. They don't know which way to turn sometimes. Because we were an essential business and we got a PPP loan, we didn't have a lot of issues other than trying to mask and get the hand sanitizer at first, but that's all kind of gone by the wayside now. We're pretty good on supplies.
15. What safety measures are still in place?
We still require employees to wear a mask. My thinking is, if there's any possibility it's helpful, then why not? Houston has a big medical center, so we had a lot of people following all the guidelines. We have for a long time, so it's not as bizarre here for people to follow the guidelines.
16. How did you become the face of the company?
I didn't really do a lot of marketing at first, but then the more marketing we did, the more we learned that customers really respond well to a woman-owned business. That's just a perception on some people, so we decided to put me on the truck. At first, it was just a picture, but then I got a new marketing manager, and she knew an artist that took the picture and sort of caricatured it a little. And that seems to have been well-received.
17. Had you been doing commercials?
Yes, I've been doing commercials for the company for years.
18. What made you hire a marketing manager?
One of our competitors had a good marketing person, and she left the organization, and she was looking for a job and somebody let me know about it. I was doing all the marketing. Not very well, I might add, but I was doing it. And so, I called her and we had a meeting, and I knew immediately when I sat down with her that she was the one that we needed.
19. What have you learned from her?
I didn't know anything about how to track all the online stuff and everything. That's really complicated now. It's not like in the past, where you just buy a Yellow Page ad or get spots on the TV and the radio. There's so much more now, and I didn't know any of that.
20. Is that humbling?
There's a lot of things I don't know. I see a lot of owners that they think they're experts in everything, and more power to them. I'm not. I think the most empowering we can be as a leader is to get people around you, all the experts in each department. Things are just so complicated nowadays; I don't know how you could conceivably expect to run all that like I did in the old times. It's not going to happen.