Image-conscious cost control

Tom McLaughlin, founder and president of Metro-Rooter, a plumbing and sewage contracting and servicing company based in Jacksonville, Florida, is a back-to-basics kind of business owner. He believes in superior customer service, disciplined cost control, conservative cash flow management and projecting a positive image in all his company's interactions with the public. He says that his Freightliner Sprinter helps him on all those fronts.

McLaughlin started Metro-Rooter's parent company, Certified Environmental Services, in 1978, primarily as a water and wastewater treatment plant operations company. He added additional services over time until the company now offers what he describes as the most comprehensive package of plumbing and sewage services in the state of Florida. The company passed through several stages during the past three decades, including a stint as a franchise of a national firm, but it reverted to independent status in 1992. It currently generates about $6 million in annual revenue, down from a peak of $7.75 million in the fast-growth years of 2004-2007. Thanks to smart management on McLaughlin's part, however, it's in better financial shape than it's ever been.

"I saw what was happening both economically and politically back then, and I anticipated what was coming," he says. McLaughlin set about "deliberately and systematically" paying down Metro-Rooter's debt in the years just before the bottom dropped out of the construction business, a trend that struck Florida especially hard. Like most firms in its industry, Metro-Rooter's business took a hit. But because of McLaughlin's prescient financial planning and a solid core of public-sector clients, such as municipal and county water and wastewater treatment plants, his company fared better than most. When the hammer dropped, Metro-Rooter owned its property, facilities, and equipment outright, eliminating all debt-service costs from its balance sheet.

Spending strategically

Retrenchment has its limits, though, and McLaughlin knew that maintaining Metro-Rooter's hard-earned reputation for superior service and its image as a clean and reliable supplier—in an industry not particularly known for those traits—was crucial. That's a big part of the reason he decided to buy a new Freightliner Sprinter Model 3500 High Roof Cargo Van with a 170-inch wheelbase in 2010. He'd owned an earlier version of the Sprinter since 2002 and was impressed by the vehicle's performance and cargo capacity. The van was so popular with Metro-Roofer's employees that they competed to drive it, and McLaughlin awarded the privilege on an annual basis to the previous year's "top gun" performer.

"As great as our original Sprinter was, our new Freightliner Sprinter is even better," he says. "A key to success in this business is being able to show up on a job knowing you have all the tools and parts you'll need to complete it. That not only saves fuel and time, it's very impressive to the customer when you have everything—even specialized equipment, like the fiber optics cameras we snake down clogged sewer lines—right on the van. It's unbelievable how much the Sprinter holds." With the impressive low-end torque provided by Sprinter's BlueTEC diesel engine, pulling a trailer loaded with additional equipment for big jobs is no problem either, he adds.

With its clean lines and bedecked with Metro-Rooter's graphics, the Sprinter projects just the image McLaughlin wants for his company. "It has such a remarkable profile," he says. "It's a traveling billboard that commands notice and generates great exposure for Metro-Rooter just by the look of it." What's more, Sprinter's fuel efficiency and reliability contribute to a low cost of operation that is right in line with McLaughlin's strategy of fiscal discipline. In fact, he's so impressed by the Freightliner Sprinter that he plans to replace all 10 of the cargo vans currently in his fleet of 40 vehicles with new Sprinters during the next few years.