Steve Keil is the head of the Laser Group, a national franchise group of plumbing and electrical services businesses. Originally founded in New Zealand, Laser Group has expanded into Australia.
over the past several years and group turnover is now in excess of $150 million.
Keil spoke to SmartCompany about running a franchise group in Australia, the ups and downs of the electrical and plumbing trades and turning over his whole company to cloud computing technology.
I started in the electrical industry. I started as a contractor and then moved into the supply side. I was in another company for about 17 years, and that’s where I saw the opportunity for working in the Laser Group.
It sounded like a good opportunity. We required a lot of work to make it happen in Australia. I did a bit of a business plan and decided it would be a good opportunity.
I had pretty much total autonomy. The guys who started the business were very smart business people, but it was a very different model in New Zealand. I could see some holes in bringing it across, so I rewrote all the legals.
There are a few attractions to joining a network. The first for the joining company is the brand and marketing power, the second is the system and tools, and the third is leveraging being part of the larger network to access preferential buyers’ agreements.
Running a trade can bring ups and downs. There is a high cost to that revolving door situation with staff, whereas being in a network brings some more stability.
Our members aren’t sole traders. They are the guys who own businesses, they usually have around 10 or 12 people, and they are at the size where they are struggling to get around the growing size.
For a sole trader, they may find running businesses is too much of a burden.
The first few months involved me researching the franchising industry in Australia: revising manuals and contracts.
The first challenge was allocating resources. Knowing I had to allocate a certain amount of time and money to something, and that was being done in an isolated environment.
The biggest challenge is managing scarce resources. In the larger corporate, if you want to have a splash at a marketing initiative, the funds are there. It doesn’t work like that here.
The electrical market is very tight at the moment. The commercial side of the industry is down and a lot of government work has come to a close. Our members are feeling the impact.
But at the same time, there is work happening. We’ve seen electricity costs rise, so there has been a push for electrical work that will save people money, such as LED lighting.
In plumbing, we’ve seen a period of long drought where people have been putting in water tanks. That’s quietened down a bit, but the seasonal work is usually there.
But even when construction work is down, it’s not like everything is turned off. When new housing is down, people are still renovating. There is still work being down all the time.
We have a self-imposed challenge with rolling out new software. We’re investing in a lot of training and so on, and we’ve moved our entire technology platform to a new product.
It’s a huge change. It’s quite liberating being able to bulldoze hardware costs and have your data on the cloud is a big advantage. At this stage, we’ve embraced it. That cloud-based tech is really changing the face of how we do work.
It’s a different marketplace now. And customers expect a savvier level of customer service.