Taking the plunge saw business grow

HARD-WORKING TEAM: Shaun Breen of Breen Plumbing with some of his team: Raewyn Milligan, from left, Steven Hanley, Kirsty Ayres, James Struthers and Ian Baird.
HARD-WORKING TEAM: Shaun Breen of Breen Plumbing with some of his team: Raewyn Milligan, from left, Steven Hanley, Kirsty Ayres, James Struthers and Ian Baird.

How did Breen Plumbing come about?

About 15 years ago, I was approached by South Island Dairy as it was known then - now it's Clandeboye Fonterra - to see if  I would take the contract to do their maintenance. I was offered a contract of 16 hours a week. We [with wife Kerri] decided to take the risk and have not looked back since.

You had to perform out there, they didn't muck around. If they wanted something done you had to do it straight away.

Commercial plumbing is huge; in a dairy factory you have lots of pipes, the pipes and valves are bigger and obviously there is a lot more risk.

I'm not sure if we would take the risk again now; back then the kids were young and we had a mortgage but I thought if it didn't work I could go back to working for another plumber. We had to go to three accountants before one suggested it was a good idea.

We worked for three years without a holiday; we would be working Saturdays and I would think why is everyone driving flash cars and I am always working. Then we got our first employee and over the winter maintenance season started employing other staff.

They were good staff and we wanted to keep them on so that's when we started getting house building work to keep them busy and that is why we have a commercial and residential division. It is 60 per cent commercial and 40 per cent residential work. Now we have 30 guys working for us.

When were the biggest years of growth?

Ten years ago. We would be working all weekend and not getting further ahead. We were that busy we had up to 52 employees, and were owed a lot of money.

I got Richie Smith and Associates, as they were then, to have a look at our business as we didn't seem to be getting ahead.

Lots of businesses grow and think being busy is making money, but no one is making sure the money is coming in and if you don't have cash flow you are going around in circles.

Richie's team came in here and put systems in place. It was amazing, we had accounting and banking systems that weren't manual and it gave us time to look at the business and where it was going.  We even gave people job descriptions so we weren't doubling up.

In 2006 we made the decision to take the business back to about 23 employees. We didn't fire anyone, just didn't replace people or would find qualified apprentices jobs with other firms.

Where did you do your apprenticeship?

I did my apprenticeship with Armit Plumbing after I left school at 17. I worked for them for four years and then there was a bit of a downturn so I was building for about a year. That was good because it gave me a great understanding of the industry. I enjoyed it; with building you can see what you have done, but with plumbing all our work is behind the walls.

Then I went back to plumbing for a couple of local firms until I was offered the contract with South Island Dairy.

Could you work for another person again?

No. I enjoy the challenge of trying to keep ahead; we have 30 staff so I have to be out there getting the work.  Christchurch is definitely going to be a challenge but Timaru residential is our main market.

How much work are you doing in Christchurch following the earthquakes?

We have four guys up there today [Thursday]. We are working on a retirement village which will take five years. We have also picked up the maintenance for the new Darfield dairy factory.

What are the toughest aspects of owning your own business?

Balancing work and family life. It is very easy to sit down and think about your business goals but you don't plan goals for your family life.

The recession was a big challenge, just before the earthquake was the toughest time. It did make us a better business though; we learned to respect the customer more and not take anything for granted. We actually grew 5 per cent during the recession because we kept a close eye on everything. We worked closely with financial planners who were looking at the accounts every month and keeping an eye on us.

How many hours do you work a week?

Fifty to 60. But that said I am just back from the Bledisloe Cup and heading off to Australia again this week for Marist rugby.

What's the biggest misconception about being a plumber?

That it is a dirty job and you are always dealing with crap and blocked pipes, when really the work covers such a broad range.

Where to from here?

Just to make sure we don't go around in circles and keep planning ahead. We planned to move into our new workshop and did that two years ago and already we are bulging at the seams. 

The Timaru Herald