I’m John Miller, president, and founder of Aqua Services and Aqua Plumbing & Air. I started Aqua on a wish and a prayer, and now after 42 years I am ready to retire and sell to two of my key managers, Chuck Jacobson and Skip Stanton. Chuck has been with me over 30 years and Skip for 18 years.
I grew up as a shy, quiet kid, in a family that did not have much, I always wanted something better. I always loved to read and at a young age I read two books that had a great impact on my life. The books were “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie and the other book was “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Vincent Peale. Later I read “Think and Grow Rich” by Napolean Hill. After reading those books I realized that my thoughts could control who I wanted to be in life. Positive thoughts could guide me toward positive circumstances, so I always painted a picture of success in my mind.
As an apprentice plumber, my first job was installing the plumbing in the tallest building in Sarasota and Manatee County – PLYMOUTH HARBOR. Many of the buildings I helped install plumbing in as an apprentice are now customers of Aqua Plumbing & Air today. I worked for Patrick Plumbing for several years. Patrick was primarily a commercial plumbing contractor. We installed plumbing systems in schools and high rise buildings. I was promoted to estimator and supervisor after a couple of years which really strengthened my knowledge of plumbing.
In the early seventies, Sunstate Builders from Tampa, was developing Carrollwood Village, bought out Patrick Plumbing and it became Sunstate Plumbing. I moved to Tampa and all was well for a couple of years, but I dreamed of moving back to Sarasota to start my own company. By the end of 1973, I got my opportunity. The country was going into a huge recession. Construction was at a standstill. There were long lines at gas stations, and there were half finished condominiums abandoned.
It may not have been the best time to start a business, but I felt it was then or never. Ron Foxworthy, who owned Rusty Plumbing and was my former brother-in-law, encouraged me to get into the plumbing repair business in Sarasota. I will forever be thankful and grateful for the help and encouragement he provided. Rusty Plumbing was the most successful plumbing company in Sarasota at that time. Ron introduced me to the professional people I would need to run a small business: Insurance agents, bankers, attorneys, and my accountant and consultant Merry Willis who is still with me criticizing and questioning my every move. She has been and still is instrumental in Aqua’s success.
So, there I was like a deer in the headlights, not sure which way to run. I certainly wasn’t over educated; I had learned my lessons from the school of hard knocks. I was also introverted and had social anxieties. So how in the world did I ever become so successful? I guess now that I’m retiring, it’s okay to share my secrets to success.>
1. I didn’t do it alone. I knew I had to surround myself with quality people both inside and outside the company. I stayed very loyal to those people around me. I was fair to employees and showed them respect. I was loyal to vendors that I was doing business with. I didn’t change a vendor just because someone else promised to charge a little less.
#2. I was too dumb and naïve to know better. I listened to self-improvement tapes and went to seminars. If it sounded good I believed it. I did not think I could fail. For example I read an article in a magazine that questioned why plumbers didn’t offer a lifetime warranty on water heaters. They had no moving parts, they sat in a corner and made hot water and according to statistics 70% of most home owners moved every 5–7 years. The lifetime warranty would be good to the original owner. The manufacturer gave a 5 or 6 year warranty. I thought this was an incredible idea. I not only implemented it but I also advertised it by taking out a FULL page ad and ran radio commercials. The state eventually made me stop. I guess my competition complained and said I had an unfair advantage. I was okay with that. It worked for 2 years. Today I still have a couple of customers who get a free water heater every 6 or 7 years.
#3. I had to make people like me. Being an introvert I knew I could never BS my way to success. It would have to be done the old fashioned way, with hard work and with quality work that became Aqua’s motto for many years. “Quality Plumbing for a Cleaner Environment.”
#4. I became a good listener. I would never become a public speaker but I could make myself look intelligent with intense skills and nodding my head in agreement when the speaker said something important. My plan was working. Within 3 to 4 years Aqua was beginning to enjoy some success. We were not only doing repair work but also some new construction. All of a sudden things seemed easier. Work was booming, customers were happy. I was soon able to build our own shop which was located at 1760 East Avenue.
As Aqua continued to grow I realized I couldn’t do everything myself. I wanted to promote from within, so I trained and promoted employees to key positions, such as a plumbing estimator, new construction supervisor and a service manager.
Then I may have gotten a bit too ambitious. I wanted Aqua to have one of the area’s first plumbing showrooms. It made perfect sense to have a place where customers could come and actually see, touch and feel the plumbing fixtures and trim for their new home or remodeling project. We named it Total Kitchen and Bath Designs. We were now in the remodeling business.
Then trouble came calling. Our competition was giving work away. We couldn’t land a job with profit in it no matter how hard we tried. If we wanted to be the successful bidder on a job we either had to take it with no profit or make a bidding mistake. There was a time in the late 80’s early 90’s when I thought builders were our worst enemy. They wouldn’t pay us for the work we did do at cost, plus we couldn’t find good help. A lot of our plumbers had left and gone in business for themselves. We seemed to be left with plumbers who couldn’t do the job right.
Things were terrible. My day started with negative expectations. If someone asked me how I was, I gave them an earful of how bad things were. I literally didn’t know if I would survive another 30 days. I didn’t realize I no longer had a positive personality. I had become a negative person with negative expectations. It seemed almost impossible to turn things around. I was desperate for answers. I got the thought that maybe I could find them in church. I needed my faith back! One Sunday morning I decided I would go to this church I had heard a lot about. Laying on the back seat of my car was a tape series by Neal Dwyer that I had been listening to. The tapes were titled, “You will see it when you believe it.”
Well that Sunday, the pastor, who was quite a charismatic individual, grabbed the mic and yelled, “You will see it when you believe it”. I got goose bumps and knew I was where I needed to be. One of the first things his message taught me was the power of the tongue. My negative comments and expectations were guiding my ship into stormy waters and if I wanted to change I would have to change the words and thoughts that were coming out of my mouth. I had an epiphany. I didn’t just believe it, I knew deep inside that things would change if I changed.
Monday morning I came to work with a smile on my face. Someone asked how I was doing and my answer was, “I am fantastic, business is great, we have the best customers in the world. It couldn’t be better!” And things did instantly change. Plumbing material suppliers were our largest expense. I went to a couple of our largest ones and asked if they could work with me paying them a little late, which they were happy to do. And I can say I’ve never been in a financial bind since.
Aqua continued to grow and expand. In the mid-nineties Chuck Jacobson was promoted to VP and General Manager of Aqua’s New Construction which he took to a new level. In 1997, my trusted consultant Merry Willis urged me to buy a small A/C company, which then became Aqua Plumbing & Air.
In 2002 we promoted Skip Stanton to VP and General Manager of APAS. Together with Merry’s help the A/C division became a huge success! In 2001, we built the facility we are currently in now, 8283 Vico Court. Continuing to grow, we then purchased a small electric company in 2009 which is managed by Andrew Kicklighter, and has become very successful. While the economy was booming during the early and mid-2000, I had learned from experience that the economy would continue it’s up and down cycles. I also learned that things are never as good as they seem and never as bad as they seem.
Because Aqua was financially diligent and responsible with its finances when things were good prior to the great recession, we survived while many businesses did not. As the economy improved and turned around a few years ago, Aqua was in a great position for continued growth. In 2013, we had the good fortune of hiring Ken Jackson as the General Manager of the Plumbing Service Division. He has been a great addition to our team and has helped our service division become even more successful. Because Aqua is so diversified and not only dependent on new construction, we are able to survive most downturns.
It’s never easy, but with the right people, the right culture, and the right attitude I believe Chuck and Skip will continue to guide Aqua in the right direction for continued success in delivering the best plumbing, HVAC and electric services. I’d also like to extend my thanks to all of our valued customers, who helped build Aqua, and have allowed us to become more like family in our community.
Aqua Plumbing Thanks Gateway Bank of Southwest Florida
John used a trusted, local bank, Gateway Bank of Southwest Florida to help them through the sale of Aqua Plumbing & Air. Gateway Bank of SWFL financed the acquisition of the business as well as the commercial real estate through the use of the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) 7(a) program which promotes the preservation and growth of small businesses.
“We were delighted to help two long time employees acquire the business that they have been instrumental in growing,” said Jordan Hallam, Director of Business Bank – Group VP at Gateway. “As a community bank we recognize the importance of locally owned companies. Therefore, keeping Skip and Chuck with Aqua and maintaining the rest of the jobs in Sarasota rather than selling to an out of town corporation was an important factor in our decision to lend to the Borrowers and fits right in with the mission of the SBA.”