Lou McIntyre remembers well the milestone that marked his new plumbing operation’s graduation from start-up to a real small business.
He launched The Plumbing Company ACT in October 2021, right around the time COVID sent demand for construction and trades into overdrive. Not six months later, he hired his first employee.
“It was March 2022, I hired a second-year apprentice. He was like a representation of how the business had grown,” he says.
“It wasn’t just me anymore; the livelihood of someone else was my responsibility, and they had to be paid.
“But more than that, having the chance to teach another person a skill and how to complete their work to a high standard was a landmark for me.”
Lou’s father, well-respected local real estate stalwart Col McIntyre, advised him early on to get a trade under his belt first.
“He told me people always needed tradies, so I’d always have something to fall back on,” he says.
“He wasn’t wrong. But I also learned there’s a camaraderie in trades that’s very special. The people you work with become your mentors and your mates.”
Lou had been a plumber for eight years before pursuing the financial benefits and freedom of striking out on his own.
The first thing he did was get himself a good accountant, who guided him through securing all the necessities of starting a business.
He started mostly sub-contracting to other plumbing companies who were more than happy to have the extra help during a major industry boom.
He’s advertised a bit on social media but reckons there are no shortcuts to growing a trade business in the nation’s capital.
“You have to earn yourself a reputation for doing good work,” he says.
“It’s Canberra and word of mouth plays a large part in the success of your business – especially future business.
“I reckon 70 per cent of my business comes from word of mouth. That only grows over time the more work you do – so long as you ensure you do a good quality job.”
He’s not just whistling dixie. Plumbing Company ACT has enjoyed steady growth and Lou now has three employees – a tradesman, a third year and a first year. And he needs more.
A well-documented skills shortage, which includes the National Skills Commission’s annual skills priority list, has placed trades among the sectors showing the greatest persistent demand for qualified workers, with almost half of Australia’s technician and trades worker occupations facing shortages.
Decades-low unemployment rates and remarkably high job vacancy numbers show Australia’s small business environment has been hit particularly hard.
Lou says it’s a struggle to find the apprentices he needs right now – but adds that it’s not a deterrent.
“If you’re waiting for the perfect time to start a business, you’ll be waiting forever,” he says.
“Business is going gangbusters; we’re having to turn down jobs. That’s not ideal as we don’t want to leave anybody hanging.
“At the same time it means there’s a lot of opportunity right now for people willing to work hard to make a career in a fantastic sector.
“Learning a trade is a gift that serves you your whole life.”
But owning his own trade business has been a steep learning curve.
Lou says there are pitfalls to look out for, such as keeping a close eye on your cash flow.
“A lot of payment contracts have very long payment terms, so you must manage that carefully to ensure you’re not in a situation where your outputs far outweigh cashflow. Especially if you have people on your payroll,” he says.
“It can also be very tempting to give out discounts, waive fees and do favours, especially when you’re first starting out. Just remember you’re responsible for the financial future of your business, and a big part of that is valuing your skills and knowing what your hard work is worth.
“Some people struggle to shut off after work and achieve that work-life balance. I know I do. Fortunately for me, though, I do love what I do.”
If you’re interested in a rewarding career in plumbing, contact The Plumbing Company ACT.