Fixing blocked and broken drains was what John Farrugia liked to do, but he didn’t like destroying people’s homes to do it. When he discovered relining, he knew he’d found the answer, but finding an all-Australian relining company to team with proved challenging until he got a call from Nuflow and from there, Nuflow North Brisbane evolved.
Business name: Nuflow North Brisbane and Clearflow Specialised Services
Owner: John Farrugia
Location: Brisbane’s northern suburbs
Joined Nuflow: 2005
Size of business: owner/operator plus eight full-time staff
Tell us a bit about your background
Like many of the very passionate Nuflow franchisees, John Farrugia knew he wanted to be a plumber before he hit his teens.
Growing up on farms firstly in Mallala near Gawler, South Australia and then at Burpengary in Brisbane’s north, he says he was always mucking around with irrigation and often did work experience in school holidays with relatives who were plumbers.
“I just really enjoyed pretty much everything about it,” he said.
“I’d always known I wanted to do a trade, and doing the work experience in my spare time convinced me plumbing was it.”
He started Clearflow Specialised Services about twenty years ago, focussing on drain camera inspections, pipe repairs and drain cleaning in Brisbane. Concerned at the destruction traditional dig and replace methods of repair caused, however, he began looking into alternatives and in late 2005 signed a license to use Nulfow’s relining systems. With Nuflow moving to a franchise model in 2018, Farrugia was keen to continue the partnership and now operates Nuflow North Brisbane alongside Clearflow.
“I’ve just built these businesses from scratch with my wife, Ainsley, and we now have eight full time staff working for us,” he said.
“We do have a fair bit of competition in Brisbane, and as more and more people find out about relining more operators try to get into the market but it’s not as easy as it might look.
“There are probably more relining companies in Sydney, but then again they’ve got greater population density and a lot more aging infrastructure, so I guess the level of competition for available jobs is about the same.”
With his football-playing son and two daughters now nearing the end of their school years, Farrugia is finding more time to indulge in his love of travel, good food and a quiet beer, but says he’s not looking at slowing down on pipe relining any time soon.
What was it that prompted you to move into relining?
Clearflow was built around diagnosing and resolving issues with blocked or broken drain pipes. Many could be cleared out to get a few more years of use, but for those that were broken or leaking and in need of repair, excavation was often the only way. With the same sorts of problems appearing time and again under people’s driveways, gardens, paving and floors, Farrugia decided to look for alternatives.
“I was regularly unblocking drains, doing a lot of CCTV camera inspections and high pressure drain cleaning and we were sort of seeing the same faults in drains all the time,” he said.
“A lot of the drains in Brisbane we were working on were the old terracotta pipes so the rubber rings had perished and the tree roots had entered and cracked the pipes.
“There were also lots of breaks in PVC lines with any number of things going wrong with them, and I really hated seeing the heartache and disruption caused when we’d have to dig up people’s kitchen floors, or tear apart commercial kitchens people relied on, or put amenities blocks out of service.
“We were doing a fair bit of excavation and digging up and I got to the point where I felt like there just had to be an easier and better way.
“I started researching alternatives and I saw there was a pretty big market overseas in something called relining.
“It looked to me to be just what I wanted to do, but the only problem was no-one was really doing it in Australia.
“And frankly, I just couldn’t understand why.
“Eventually I found a couple of small operations, including one lot in Victoria that I visited and was considering signing with, but then out of the blue a guy from Nuflow rang me and things went from there.”
Why did you choose to team with Nuflow?
Farrugia’s early internet research threw up plenty of American and European sites offering relining but relying so heavily on an off-shore manufacturer didn’t fit with what he was trying to achieve. He told the Nuflow representative who contacted him he was familiar with the product and that he’d read about its popularity overseas but that he wanted to deal with a company based in Australia.
“Just before I was about to join the Victorian company I got the call from Nuflow and I really liked everything he told me about what they were trying to achieve,” he said.
“They were located just down at the Gold Coast, so the day after I spoke to them I was there having a look at what they were doing and I was sold on it.
“I signed as a licensee a few weeks later and have been growing with them ever since.
“The other company’s not even around anymore, to be honest, so it was a really lucky coincidence because Nuflow’s just getting bigger and bigger and the product and the network are getting stronger, so to me it’s ticking a lot of boxes.”
Nuflow has only recently transitioned to a franchise model, with the Nuflow North Brisbane being established in April 2019.
What’s it been like being with Nuflow since then?
With reliable products, good support resources and opportunities for ongoing training and education, Farrugia says the relationship with Nuflow has worked well, particularly because of the Australasian ownership and operation.
“I think the thing I’m proudest of, in terms of being with Nuflow, is the fact that it’s fully Australian,” he said.
“Nuflow does all its own research and development in the labs on the Gold Coast and we’ve got a brand new manufacturing facility at Molendinar.
“That means everything’s readily available – whereas with most of the other relining companies, they say they’re Australian but they actually get all their products in from overseas.
“A lot of them buy stuff from Germany and have to order it in advance and wait up to 12 weeks for it to arrive, particularly if they’re buying resins that aren’t allowed to come by air.
“Whereas I can just drive down to the Gold Coast in an hour and have whatever I need, which is particularly important for urgent or tricky jobs.
“Not only do I get exactly what products and guidance or advice I need, this also means my clients never have to wait or have jobs delayed because something didn’t arrive when it was supposed to.
“I don’t have to worry about freight or tariffs, and there’s just a whole cluster of problems we don’t have to worry about by being fully Australian, particular when it comes to warranties etc.
“Apart from that, I think it’s good to invest in your own back yard.”
Farrugia also feels customers benefit from a higher quality of product that’s been designed to the specifications of their particular job.
“Nuflow clearly has a superior product, but I also think having everything developed, made and guaranteed locally translates into benefits for customers.
“Apart from anything else, the quality control is better when it’s all local.
“I would say Nuflow has the best training methodology in the marketplace at the moment by far, and that, along with all the other good practices they’ve put in place means the buyer in the end is at an advantage over using some of the other products on the market.
“We’ve got TAFE accreditation with our training and the products meet watermark and Australian standards – and believe me, there are products out there that unfortunately don’t.
“For the purchaser of the product, they don’t know this.
Farrugia admits there were some difficulties early on, but having endured, he is now reaping the benefits.
“There were definitely teething issues in the early days,” he said.
“Anything new into the Australian market is always going to have problems at first.
“It was a Canadian/American product being adapted for the Australian market so there were differences in the resins and some didn’t work as well in the different temperatures and humidity we have to deal with here.
“But since we’ve had our own research and manufacturing we’ve modified and improved the original products and just gone from strength from strength.
“The research team are pretty clever, led by an expert in advanced composite resins, and they’ve invested heavily in technology, research and development over the last few years, so the Nuflow products are now far superior.”
Is doing pipe relining difficult?
“When you’re doing something like pipe relining, having the experience and know-how is definitely a big advantage,” Farrugia says.
“I know a lot of guys that have started relining and done it for a year and had tremendous failures – and they’ve said ‘relining sucks’, pretty much, and ‘I don’t know how you do it’.
“That’s because there is just so much learning involved, and that learning only comes with doing.
“The Nuflow training makes it easier because everyone shares their experiences and when you’re out on a job you can always ring and talk to someone if you run into trouble, so it’s strength in numbers really.
“We do a lot of troubleshooting and brainstorming together and I don’t think there have been too many problems we couldn’t overcome throughout the network.
“To be quite honest, sometimes yes, there are failures – but they’re few and far between now and the point is that if something fails, we go straight back and fix it.
“That’s another thing that’s special about Nuflow.
“All the guys who install it really do stand behind what they do, and I know for sure that’s not the case with some of the other products on the market.
“I’ve seen plenty of relining jobs where there have been mistakes and the installer has washed their hands of it and walked away, saying it was the product, not their work that was at fault.
“That can give relining a bit of a bad name, but I know with our jobs it’s never been the case.
“Even though it costs us money to rectify things, we just can’t walk away if the problem’s not fixed.
“It’s just not what we do and it’s not good for business as far as I’m concerned.”
What do you think about Nuflow’s training and education?
Such is Farrugia’s passion for getting it right, that he’s travelled the world learning new techniques for getting the best results from CIPP relining.
“I think I’ve been to every training day Nuflow has held since I joined,” he said, “and they are definitely a very important part of the picture.
“But I also make an effort to keep learning about what other systems are available.
“I’ve pretty much been all over the world looking at different systems and undertaking training on different technologies and installation methods so I can do things better, including sessions in Europe, the middle east and Asia.”
Tell us about a job where you saved a client a lot money
Interestingly, one of the jobs that sticks in Farrugia’s mind as a cost-saving bonanza for the client was one of his earliest, when he was called in to quote at the Executive Building in George Street, Brisbane. The building, which had hosted the Fitzgerald Enquiry, had been built in the late 1960s, which meant much of its plumbing infrastructure was approaching end of life. It was demolished to make way for the Queen’s Wharf development in 2017, but a decade earlier there were plumbing problems that looked set to cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It was a typical older-style building with three basements that could be turned into a radiation shelter if needed, and it was where all the state government ministers were housed,” he said.
“They had a broken pipe underneath their lift wells and they were looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars and the disruption of taking all their lifts out of service for weeks if they were going to fix them the old way.
“It would have mean cutting all the concrete, which would have impacted the structural side of things – let alone having ministers unable to access their offices for weeks, so it was looking like a big headache.
“But instead we came in and offered them a solution where we repaired the whole thing for less than $20,000 – saving them all that money and who knows what in down time and complaints from angry ministers while it was being done.
“It all worked out really well for everyone, so I guess that one really sticks in my mind.”
What jobs do you find the most satisfying?
Whilst most successful jobs bring a degree of satisfaction, it’s when the Nuflow North Brisbane team has saved people the heartache and expense of demolishing cared-for parts of their home that make them happiest.
“The biggest ones for us are when people shift into new homes and then find they’ve got all sorts of plumbing problems and they’re looking at having to rip everything up,” he said.
“We recently did one at Minyama, on the canals at Mooloolaba, which is quite an exclusive area with pretty expensive and luxurious homes.
“We were called up by a pretty distressed retired couple who’d just moved into the dream house they’d built for themselves, but within a week they’d had major issues.
“When the problems started they got an inspection done which revealed that when the screw piers and footings had gone in the drainage pipes had been damaged.
“It was looking like they were going to have to remove their pool and outdoor area to repair the connections and the heartache and anxiety they were going through was quite immense.
“But we went in and just relined the pipes and the whole thing was fixed in three days.
“We get a lot of satisfaction out of that; fixing things without having to rip something down, especially something that’s really nice like brand new kitchens or expensive tiling or polished concrete floors.
“When people get drainage problems underneath those things they think straight away it means they’re going to have to rip them all up and they get themselves into a frenzy – but then we turn up and if we can do it without digging they’re just so happy.
“My guys really like those jobs, because in our industry, working with sewer and all that stuff a lot of the time, well it’s not always enjoyable, but when you get the satisfaction of seeing people who want to give you hugs and cuddles and pats on the back it’s pretty good.
“And it’s even better when they want to give you a good bottle of wine or carton of beer on top, just to say thanks.”
What advice do you have for those with businesses like yours?
“I think just make sure you’re good at what you do,” Farrugia said.
“If you’re good at what you do and provide a good service, your business generally looks after itself.”
He says staying on top of the competition comes down to three important elements:
- using the best relining products
- having experienced, qualified staff and support resources you can call on
- diversifying your target markets.
“We used to target a particular market, but when that market failed or there was suddenly new competition for that market we’d have to go and find a new one – so we decided to diversify and now we have a bit of a rule of thumb that we chase different markets because we don’t want more than 30 per cent of our business to be depending on one single market.
“If we just chased residential, for example, and then interest rates went up, people’s expendable income would drop and things would get harder.
“Industrial, commercial, councils – they all chop and change constantly so we are less vulnerable if we’re not too heavily invested in one particular market.
“So I guess just making sure you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket is important.
He says the other hard things are cash flow and having good, qualified staff.
“Sometimes you drop everything to help people out of trouble, but then when it comes to paying the bill they drag the chain,” he said, “and that’s a bit upsetting.
“The other thing is probably finding good staff.
“My team has been with me for some time now and they’re a pretty good crew to be honest, so I think I’m one of the lucky ones.”