Gavin Heaney, Nuflow Newcastle, is another business owner/operator who had the foresight to partner with Nuflow and add pipe relining to the suite of services he could offer customers. Nearly a decade on, his (now) four successful, plumbing-related businesses are an important source of local employment, and whilst Heaney’s kept busy managing them he still finds time to enjoy the good life with his family.
Business name: Nuflow Newcastle
Owner: Gavin Heaney
Location: Newcastle, NSW Australia
Joined Nuflow: 2010
Size of business: owner operator, manager, casuals as required
The story behind Nuflow Newcastle
Fresh out of school in the mid-1990s, Gavin Heaney just wanted a decent job. He didn’t have set ideas about what that job would look like, but when opportunity knocked and plumbing came calling, he was happy to open the door.
“I applied for about 30 jobs in a whole lot of different areas of building and trade at the time, and ended up with a plumbing apprenticeship at one of the major plumbing companies in Newcastle, HL Mullane & Son,” he said.
“I can’t say I’d always wanted to be a plumber or anything like that – I guess it was more of an evolution – but plumbing was a good trade to have and I felt pretty lucky to get a job doing it.”
He served his apprenticeship and stayed on for another two years before landing a job with a local plumber who ran his own highly successful business.
“I guess that was where it switched on for me that there was good money to be made from plumbing if you did it right.”
He learned all he could over the next 18 months and in 2001 started his own business, Enviromate, specialising in drain inspections, cleaning and repairs.
Over time, Heaney added other specialities to his offering, and Enviromate now acts as an umbrella company for Nuflow Newcastle (pipe relining), Newcastle Hot Water (HW system installation and maintenance) and Enviromate Construction Plumbing (dealing mainly in large construction and government contracts).
Why relining and why Nuflow?
Like many plumbers in the late 1990s, Heaney saw the issues beginning to occur in the sewer and drainage networks traversing the cities, towns and regional areas of Australia and New Zealand as they approached the end of their useful lives. Hundreds of kilometres of pipes which had been laid in unimproved areas of land between 1950 and 1970 were now buried beneath major roads, apartment blocks and commercial centres, making excavation difficult and costly. Heaney realised how important drain repairs and maintenance that didn’t necessarily required excavation and digging would be in the future and put his focus into that area of plumbing.
“With Enviromate we were just doing so many jobs with blocked and broken drains,” he said.
“We had the CCTV camera equipment and could see what was going on; the pipes were just failing because of their age. Excavation was often very disruptive and distressing for customers and some pipes just couldn’t realistically be dug up – so I wanted to offer an alternative method of repair without digging.
“I did some internet research and found there were only two companies selling relining products in Australia at the time, one of which was in Sydney, so off I went to have a look. It was an inversion product, but when the owner of the company gave me a demonstration, it didn’t work – so I walked away and made an appointment to fly up and see what Nuflow could offer.
“Mike (then sales representative) showed me the products and how Nuflow operated and I was so impressed I signed up the next day.
“That was in 2010 and with only one other company offering relining in Newcastle at the time I could see the opportunity was definitely there.”
Heaney says whilst some blocked or broken drains can be fixed without relining, there are also times that it’s the preferred and/or cheaper option for homeowners.
“With some jobs we can just get CCTV cameras in there and jet blast the blockage away or if the drain is easily accessible we can dig it up but if it’s under their bathroom or their slab that’s when relining becomes a more attractive option.
“Of course the decision can still come down to the age of the bathroom and whether they were planning to renovate in the near future or not, but it’s important that we can offer the choice.”
The challenges for Nuflow Newcastle
As is the case in many areas outside major state capitals, information about advances in composite resin CIPP relining technology over the past decade is only now gaining traction in Newcastle and the industry is still in its infancy. As popularity and customer demand grows, however, so too will competition, and Heaney sees that as Nuflow Newcastle’s main challenge.
“We employ about 30 plumbers in the four businesses and our annual turnover is huge so I’m kept pretty busy,” he said.
“Nuflow and relining is only a relatively small proportion of what we do, but it’s still quite valuable because of the margins that can be made.
“Government jobs pay well but in some areas it can be hard to break ground into that market because the local authority is looking for a turn-key solution with one major contractor that can do massive lengths of pipe in the one run.
“Some will disagree, but I feel we’re more of a niche contractor with the best products and processes for certain aspects of relining – but it’s getting those jobs that can be hard.
“Those big contractors aren’t cost-effective when it comes to complicated or smaller jobs because of the amount of mobilisation and manpower they need to deploy, and whilst there’s nothing they can do that we can’t, when it comes to, say, a 200 metre pipe it would just take us a bit longer.
“That makes us much more cost-effective for the smaller jobs (and there are plenty of them) but if the authority has engaged a large contractor for a full network reline, that contractor will then subcontract those smaller elements of the job out, and often the price they’re willing to pay is so low it’s just not worth doing the job.”
Heaney says ensuring consumers know how to identify genuine Nuflow suppliers is another issue.
“There are people out there trying to knock off Nuflow’s products because everyone knows they’re so good.
“These other suppliers and their products aren’t as good as Nuflow’s, but they can do things a lot cheaper because they don’t invest in the research and development themselves and they don’t have the training programs etc the Nuflow has.
“But often there are problems using these cheaper contractors because they just import the products from overseas and they can’t offer the same quality of warranty that Nuflow can.
“People don’t realise the trouble they can get into doing things that way so getting those messages out to the market is a really important challenge too.”
A job to be proud of
One of the most memorable jobs Nuflow Newcastle has tackled was the protection of an important water course.
“It was quite a delicate situation because chemicals had been found in an aquatic environment and it seemed fairly evident where they were coming from,” Heaney said.
“The Environmental Protection Authority was investigating and urgent action was clearly needed, so we were called in to see what we could provide.
“There was about 400metres of 400mm drain pipe in the vicinity with joins every 1.8 metres of pipe – so every one of those joins was a possible leak source.
“Basically we just couldn’t risk the continuation of any leaks at all, so the only way we could guarantee that was to reline the whole pipeline.
“The client agreed that was the best course of action and we went ahead.
“We had to do the whole job at night because we needed the temperature to be low to slow down the cure times.
“We used Nuflow’s acid-resistant resin because there was hydrochloric acid going into the pipes down the line, and it worked really well.
“The job was done really quickly, it paid well, we helped protect the local environment and water course and they’ve never had another issue there, so it was a win all round.”
What’s the key to your business’s success?
Heaney says the main reason people keep coming back to Nuflow Newcastle is that they know they’re always going to get exceptional service at a reasonable price.
“Most of our work comes via word of mouth,” he said.
“I haven’t had time to put together a formal mission or vision statement or anything like that, but I think most people just know we put a lot of effort into making sure customers feel like they’ve got good value for money and that their problems have been solved.
“It’s all about quality of service I guess – we just aim to give the best quality service at the best price possible.
“I mean, I’m never going to be the cheapest, but we’ve been established here for nearly 20 years and we get plenty of work just through referrals because people know we do a good job.”
Apart from the great reputation for service Heaney’s companies enjoy, they are also an important local employer.
“We employ a lot of local people in plumbing and pipe relining in Newcastle and we give a lot of people the chance to learn the trade,” he said.
“I’m heavily involved in rugby league in this area and I coach some of the local teams so I get to know the young people coming through really well.
“If they train hard they usually work hard and you get to know which ones have drive and focus, so if they show potential I’m happy to take them on as apprentices and teach them the trade and often they stay on after they’re qualified.
“Sam, for example, is one who’s been with me for about 10 years and he’s now managing the relining side of the business.
“This year I took Sam and another long-time employee, Scott, to the Nuflow national conference in New Zealand, and we did some fishing together.
“Things like that are a great way to build a solid team you can trust and rely on to do good work, but also if they’ve been able to put up with me for that long they deserve a bit of a reward.”
The challenges of running a small business
Heaney says the main difficulty he faces in light of today’s changing marketing landscape is knowing how best to advertise and promote one’s business.
“We’re lucky we’re established and have a good reputation with plenty of repeat and referral business, but for a new business starting out or when you’re trying to attract new customers it can be really hard to know where best to put your marketing dollars,” he said.
“It used to be so easy when the yellow pages were around because you’d just pay the $25,000 a year and get a full page add and you’d get more work than you could handle from it.
“But now you’ve got Google adds, Instagram, Facebook, twitter etc. and it’s all over the place and you’ve got to spend a lot of money to even test out what might work.
“To try to do it properly you’ve got to pay a marketing company $3,000 a month to run a campaign for you and it’s going to take them three months just to get it on track – so you’ve spent $9000 in three months and if it’s not a great campaign then you’re no better off and you’ve wasted $9000.”
The man behind the business
When first asked, Heaney jokes that like most small business owners his favourite jobs are the ones that pay well, but he quickly becomes more serious.
“No, that’s not true at all really,” he admits.
“We do jobs for people for nothing when we have to; just to help them when they really need it.
“I actually get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people in a tight spot; providing a bit of relief for someone in trouble.”
And as his wife and son unpack the car to set up for a weekend at their beachside caravan at glorious Elizabeth Beach on the NSW mid-north coast, Heaney casually says he probably needs to go and shoo away the giant goanna poking around the annex.
“A saying I live by….?” he chuckles in response to this one last question, “well that’s an easy one,” he admits as the shark alarm sounds in the background.
“Work hard, play hard.”