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Karen LaPensee co-founded Holmes Beach-based LaPensee Plumbing & Pools with her husband, Michael, in 1985. Karen LaPensee now runs the firm, which had $3 million in 2012 revenues, with her son, Greg LaPensee, pictured here.
Photo by Lori Sax
Longboat Key Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 4 years ago

Plug the Holes

by: Mark Gordon Observer Staff

The method some plumbers used to survive the recession, a combination of retreat and reduce, didn’t register with Karen LaPensee.

The owner of Holmes Beach-based LaPensee Plumbing & Pools, with customers from Sun City to North Port, LaPensee instead sought to expand to survive. The contrarian approach was to diversify the business offerings based on one-part untapped market niches and one-part gut feeling.

The risk, was nonetheless, thick for LaPensee, who co-founded the firm in 1985 with her husband, Michael LaPensee. The expense ledger grew at a time when work orders were hard to come by. “A lot of businesses were falling by the wayside,” says LaPensee.

But so far the moves have worked out. They range from adding a pool repair and rehab division in 2007 to launching a new plumbing fixtures showroom that’s grown in size.

The pool unit, says LaPensee, “is growing so fast we can hardly keep up.” The firm has quickly grown its overall customer base outside the core of the area beaches, with an influx of new work in Sarasota and Parrish, in north Manatee County. Other units in the LaPensee diversification strategy include a gas division, where it provides contract service for TECO, and municipal government work in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Annual sales at LaPensee Plumbing & Pools, reflecting the shifts, are up 43%, from around $2.1 million in 2011 to $3 million in 2012. LaPensee, who took over the business with her son, Greg LaPensee, in 2009 when Michael LaPensee retired, projects at least $3.5 million in 2013 sales. The firm has 37 employees, including 10 hired during the past year.

Managing all that growth, from finding and training the best people to monitoring supply and inventory, has become the firm’s biggest challenge. On supply, Greg LaPensee is behind a project to revamp — essentially restart — the company’s stocking system. That begins with a two-story 1,614-square-foot warehouse currently under construction next to the company’s main 4,300-square-foot building. It’s a $60,000 project.

The issue, says LaPensee, is sheer volume, with the firm moving up to four pallets a day of fixtures, products and plumbing and pool repair equipment. “There’s a huge turnover on a daily basis,” Greg LaPensee says. “We had to expand. We couldn’t physically keep up with the products.”

Past volume, another goal with the project is to better organize everything. This way, employees in the field can get what they need, when they need it in the morning before heading out for calls. LaPensee says the firm might add a barcode system to connect parts to jobs.

The spend-to-grow method at LaPensee Plumbing & Pools has other elements. Marketing, for example, is a big expense, totaling at least $150,000 a year. That includes a host of TV, Internet and newspaper print ads. It also includes lunch-and-learn sessions, where the firm hosts 50 to 60 local businesses it targets for work and referrals, such as property managers and Realtors.

The diversification success at the firm has the mother-son leadership team planning even more growth. Greg LaPensee, for instance, would like to open a physical office in Sarasota, to grow even more there. He says that move will be deferred, however, until he and Karen LaPensee are confident they can staff it with top people.

Karen LaPensee, meanwhile, has a history of working well in pressure-filled, risk-reward environments. That goes back to her pre-plumbing business days, when she was an emergency room nurse and a U.S. Air Force Reserve nurse. Taking chances, says LaPensee, is the only way to succeed long-term. “I take a deep breath and go,” LaPensee says. “So far, it’s been rewarding.”

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