From Legacy to Expansion
By Doug PicklykHPAC General Human Resources Management family business Marketing succession
Three brothers step up to lead Norm’s Plumbing and Heating business into the future.
In 2021, Norm’s Plumbing and Heating in Nanaimo, B.C. celebrated its 50th year under Orville Wagar’s ownership. It was a time for celebration and transition, as Wagar, now in his 80s, was also passing control of the company over to his grandsons, and business is booming.
The company was originally founded by Norm LaBurge as Norm’s Mobile Service, offering in-home sewing machine repair and oil burner maintenance. Wagar, an experienced tradesman, worked with LaBurge and ultimately took over the business, placing the focus on plumbing and heating. In the early 80s his son-in-law, Dave Rush, learned the trade and began working for the company, and now three of Dave’s sons have taken over.
Carson (31), Travis (29) and Malcolm (26) Rush all grew up around the business, starting to apprentice as early as 15. “We’ve done everything in the company from being the runner and passing tools to technicians, to eventually doing installations, quoting jobs and now running the business,” says Malcolm.
All three are journeyman plumbers and gas fitters, Carson and Travis completing their apprenticeships right after high school, while Malcolm took a different route, getting a bachelor’s degree in marketing before completing his apprenticeship.
As Malcolm recalls, it was over dinner one night about seven years ago when the brothers were asked if they’d be interested in taking over the company. “We all agreed, and the next step was going to the lawyers and working through the process.”
It’s been a multi-year transition. A business transfer that started in 2017 and was completed earlier this year. The three brothers are all equal partners.
“Like lot of family-owned companies out there I would say, get professional help. Hire a company that specializes in the succession of family-owned businesses,” recommends Malcolm.
As the brothers’ responsibilities for the business have evolved, their roles in the company have also changed. Carson manages all aspects of the HVAC department. Travis is on the tools and maintains the shop area and company vehicles, while he also acts as a mentor for the younger techs in the field. And Malcom takes care of business operations and leads the company’s marketing efforts.
“We all have a really good niche, and I definitely could not do it without them. And I know they couldn’t do it without all of us together,” says Carson.
As a team they meet every day, in person or on Facebook group messenger. “It’s essential we keep the communication lines open all the time. When running a company, there are hundreds of things happening day to day, so it’s nice that we’re all on the same page,” notes Carson.
If they have questions, Orville is still around. “It’s not like he went to Mexico and just left it in our hands. He is still here almost every day,” says Malcolm.
Reflecting on the transition, the brothers realized the strong emotional attachment their grandfather has to the business, and gaining his trust was a challenge.
Despite growing around 30% year over year, Orville still questions some of their decisions. “He definitely knows we’re doing a good job, but it’s really hard for him to change,” says Carson. “There’s a huge generational difference. In the old school way, you had lots of time and little money. Nowadays, it’s easy to get money, and you have no time.”
Streamlining the operation has been a priority. “We were 100% paper when we took over,” says Malcolm. “We still paid employees by cheque every second Friday.”
They’ve set up direct deposit and installed business management software designed for field service companies. Scheduling, invoicing, dispatching and more is now digitized and they’re seeing the difference.
“Our invoicing now is done on cell phones or iPads in the field,” says Travis, added that going digital has improved efficiency in the office and on the road.
Incorporating new procedures has been a learning process for everyone in the company. “I did a course on change management in university and that helped a lot in understanding why people have certain fears or reservations,” says Malcolm. He’s put those lessons into practice.
Another major shift has been in how the company promotes itself. They’ve stopped using the Yellow Pages and rebuilt their website and are investing in search engine optimization (SEO), Google ads and social media promotions. And over just a couple years they’ve seen the business grow using about half the advertising budget. “We really evaluate where we are spending our money and are doing it wisely,” says Malcolm.
Through active engagement they have accumulated over 1,500 Google reviews, and this year they are investing in a bus ad.
And in addition to more traditional marketing, the company also launched two unique ‘Norm’s Cares’ community outreach programs.
In 2020 they partnered with the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Schools Foundation with their Tanks for Lunch program, donating a percentage of every water heater installed. And in 2021 they launched the HVAC For Hospice program, where any HVAC install includes a donation to the Nanaimo Community Hospice Society.
Awards and Profile
For the past three years Norm’s has been recognized in the local newspaper’s ‘Best of the City’ awards, winning in both plumbing and heating categories.
And after signing on as a Bryant dealer about 10 years ago, this last year Norm’s was awarded the Bryant Medal of Excellence in its region, one of only 15 dealers across North America to win the honour. The award is based on a scorecard system rating business quality, satisfaction, and performance. According to Carson, Norm’s is the first Canadian company to receive this distinction.
What’s important for the brothers is maintaining the reputation Orville created for Norm’s, and that includes a focus on customer service and having integrity.
Industry-wide, finding and keeping workers is a struggle, but they have found success by honouring the traditional company culture. “We’re lucky to have and to keep good employees, but I think we really operate like a family here,” says Carson. “For example, if somebody’s kid is sick, we’ll move the world so they can have the day off.”
Around 10 years ago the company had about eight employees and now they’re at 23, and maintaining camaraderie among the team is key.
The office is located on their grandfather’s property, and each morning the workers come in, stock up, and catch up. “I think that’s a large part of our family-like culture that other companies don’t have. And that’s something I want to keep when we get our new building,” says Carson.
Home to over 100,000 people, Nanaimo (also known as the Harbour City) is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, growing over 10% between 2016 and 2021.
The brothers see more opportunities ahead and they want to keep growing the business.
As part of the expansion plan, the company has purchased a property in an industrial area where a new 7,000 sq. ft. headquarters will be located. And they anticipate growing their service area beyond the city limits.
Together the brothers will continue to build Norm’s on the foundation their grandfather created. <>