How Your Ability to Manage Growth Will Define Your Future

By Andrew Lahr, Nexstar Network Communications Specialist

Tucked away just to the east of Saint Paul, Minnesota lies one of the oldest plumbing companies in the Midwest. A Twin Cities mainstay, McQuillan Bros. has been fitting pipes and pumping steam through the buildings of Minneapolis and Saint Paul since the days when steam was still a cutting-edge source of heat.

An unusually late winter had robbed the state of its best weather of the year, but the trees had finally begun to pop as I made my way toward the front doors of McQuillan headquarters and was greeted with smiles and handshakes from the team. The “family feel” of the shop was evident as soon as I arrived, and I was soon introduced to a truly warm and charismatic man.

John McQuillan Jr., or John Jr., is a 5th generation McQuillan, General Manager, and the current heir apparent at the long-standing family business. He sports a marvelous beard and a contagious laugh that has the tendency to echo down the hallway from his office near the front of the building. After showing me around his shop, now packed to the seams with new team members and equipment, we sat down to talk about the history of McQuillan Bros.

“We were definitely pioneers when it came to plumbing companies in Saint Paul,” John says. “We started up back in the 1880s, and it wasn’t until a few decades later that a second plumbing company eventually moved into the area. The Smiths, who currently own MSP Plumbing Heating Air and are also Nexstar members.”

But even as competition steadily developed over the years, the McQuillans have always found ways to separate themselves from the pack, consistently striving to be the best possible place to work within their industry.

For as long as they’ve existed, McQuillan Bros. has been a progressive company that puts the well-being of the team first. They were the first contracting business in Minnesota to hire African Americans in an age where such an act was unheard of. Today, they practice service leadership daily, encouraging and enriching their employees, customers, and community at large.

I suspect that a large part of that “family feel” I experienced as I walked through their doors can be attributed to their commitment to making everyone comfortable being themselves while on the job.

As one might expect, there are a lot of stories – bordering on myths at this point – regarding McQuillan and its work within the community throughout the years. One particularly juicy nugget is the strange boom in business the McQuillans saw throughout the 30s, during a time when many businesses were shuttering their windows. For some inexplicable reason, the boiler businesses exploded during prohibition.

“We had people installing boilers from here to Chicago during the Capone era,” says John in between laughs. “I have no idea why.”

While McQuillan Bros. might not be benefiting from backdoor brewing and bootlegging today, they’ve experienced record-breaking growth over the past five years. Thriving isn’t a strong enough word to describe the company and their recent success, and they hope to hit 12 million in sales by the end of the year. As their profits continue to soar and new team members join monthly, it’s fair to say that the future is looking very bright indeed.

Things haven’t been all sunshine and roses for the McQuillan clan over the years though. As one would expect, a lot can happen over 135 years in a family-owned business, and it was only a few years back, before McQuillan Bros. joined Nexstar, that the local plumbing giant was on the verge of shutting its doors for good.

John Sr. is the father of John Jr. and Customer Experience Manager Matt McQuillan, and is the current owner of McQuillan Bros. High atop his office shelf sits the company’s first bill of sale, dated Dec. 11, 1883, charging $2.19 for just over a day’s labor and 60 cents for two pounds of solder. The aging parchment serves as a daily reminder of just how deep the roots of the McQuillan Bros. extend into the history of Minnesota’s capital city.

As John Sr. is all too aware, the McQuillan family are no strangers to the ups and downs that come with running a family-owned business. He spoke candidly about his own past at the business, and the difficult period during which he expected his father to hand over the company to him. That never happened, at least not as soon as he would have liked, so at age 35 he went his own way, starting up his own mechanical company, Foremost Mechanical, in protest during the early nineties.

During that time away from McQuillan Bros., John focused primarily on commercial work, which had been his bread and butter for years. In fact, the McQuillan family is well-known for the commercial service work they’ve performed on several landmark buildings in the area, including the nationally known Saint Paul Cathedral, the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, and Minnesota’s tallest skyscraper, the IDS Center.

John’s father passed away in 1998 while he was still working at Foremost Mechanical. He maintained a tight grip on the reigns of McQuillan Bros. until the very end, allegedly asking for business reports while on his deathbed. Following his father’s passing, John’s brother Tim took over the family business and would remain there through the 2000s.

It was during that time that John first reached out to Nexstar. As early as 2004, Foremost was struggling to make ends meet. Plagued by poor sales and a lack of growth, John finally made the call for help to Nexstar. Unfortunately, he didn’t end up pulling the trigger, and despite flirting with a Nexstar membership for a number of years, he wouldn’t do so for quite some time.

Meanwhile, over at McQuillan Bros., the economic downturn of 2008 was in full swing. Needless to say, it was a bad time to be a decision-maker at a contracting business. John’s brother Tim was encountering problems of his own, and after several dismal years McQuillan Bros. went belly up for the first time in over a century. It was the end of an era, or so it seemed…

In the end, the McQuillan brand was just too strong to stay dead. In 2014, John Sr. and his sons returned to revive the company name and right the ship, formally re-launching McQuillan Bros. in 2015 – and they weren’t alone this time. After nearly a decade of back and forth communication with Nexstar, John finally pulled the proverbial trigger on a membership. The results were nothing short of extraordinary.

“I have a vivid memory of waking up in the middle of the night and having an epiphany,” John says with a smile on his face. “It was at that moment that I decided to cash in my retirement to pay for a Nexstar membership. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

From that moment onward, John and his team went all in on Nexstar, managing to take the company from just under a million in sales to nearly 12 million in under five years’ time.

John Sr. was very open about his reluctance to enter the residential sector during that transitional period.

“I just didn’t want to get into residential service and replacement. Now that I look back on it though, I can’t imagine why I didn’t make the change sooner.”

When asked about what steps McQuillan Bros. is taking to put the business in a position of growth and sustainability, John Jr. responds immediately.

“It’s the people,” he says confidently. “Our brand name is still strong, and I like to think that I have a knack for attracting and hiring the best and the brightest.”

It’s no secret that the industry is in the midst of one of the greatest shortages of skilled tradesmen in history. I had the chance to ride along with one of McQuillan Bros. most experienced plumbers, Dan Simmer, and his apprentice, Joe Mancini. While fixing a faucet south of downtown Minneapolis, Dan was quick to bring up the massive lack of young talent flowing into the trades.

“It’s really bad out there right now. I’d say that for each quality candidate available there are ten jobs that need filling,” he says. “We were lucky to find Joe. He’s probably one of the best apprentices I’ve seen in years.”

Joe, like me, watches and learns from Dan during most of our time together. He was sent to McQuillan Bros. about eight months ago by the union. Quiet but thoughtful, Joe knows that this is the job for him.

“I’m one of those guys who needs a hands-on, service-oriented job. I was doing a lot of landscaping before coming here, and I’m glad I did.”

Dan had nothing but positive things to say about McQuillan Bros. One thing he really appreciates is that the company isn’t sales-driven, and that integrity always comes first in all they do. It’s immediately clear that Dan knows how to treat his customers, and with a 90 percent customer retention rate, it would appear that pretty much everyone at McQuillan Bros. does as well.

“People will only remember how they feel when you walk out the door,” says Dan as he fiddles with a running toilet. “I try to see each customer as a good friend, and make any recommendations I would to that friend if I noticed something that needed attention in their bathroom or kitchen.”

Dan loves having bosses who “walk the walk,” and says that he loves the company culture so much that he plans to retire at McQuillan someday.

As I sat with John Sr. in his shop in White Bear Lake, I attempted to pick his brain on everything he’s done right over the past five years. John has truly seen it all when it comes to running a business. He’s weathered both success and failure during his long career in the industry, and he started gushing when I asked him how Nexstar has helped him and his company revive the family brand.

“Training, training, training,” he says. “Nexstar training has been absolutely crucial. The training events and coaching staff that are available to members are the best way to make sure your staff are selling with honesty and integrity. The difference has been night and day.”

As John continued to rattle off the many ways that Nexstar was able to rescue his business, he made a special effort to point out just how important Nexstar’s Business Planning Workshop was in steering him in the right direction.

“I couldn’t wait to start implementing what I learned into my business. The moment I walked out of that workshop I knew I had the tools to make positive changes for both myself and my team.”

He also wanted to make it clear to prospective members that the benchmarking resources and yearly financial survey, both of which allow companies to assess their performance in comparison with other Nexstar members, were worth the price of admission alone.

In addition, John has implemented Nexstar’s three-day call board, he re-did their break-even, and has made huge improvements in tracking billable hours.

It appears as though there isn’t a single service, system, or team member at McQuillan Bros. that hasn’t been directly or indirectly affected by Nexstar training and best practices, and as John Sr. looks to the future, he knows the importance of making sure the next in command (John Jr.) keeps it that way.

Much like his father, John Jr. went through his own period of rebellion against the family business. At age 21, with thoughts of becoming a real estate mogul firmly in mind, he shipped off to Arizona for an extended stay. When that didn’t work out, he picked up his belongings and fled to the Californian wilderness, where he lived off the land for several months with his wife and three small children. But as often happens, reality soon came knocking.

Shortly after returning from his journey of self-discovery, his younger brother Matt was serving as second in command at McQuillan Bros. Unfortunately, in May of 2015, while working on a roof, Matt fell 17 feet through a skylight in an accident that would cause serious injury and require extensive physical therapy.

“After the accident, it was John Jr.’s time to step up,” says John Sr., recalling that incredibly difficult time.

“He had been working for us part-time following his time in California, and once the business needed him, he answered the call.”

There were road bumps, to be sure, and John Jr. was quick to note that he made his fair share of mistakes during the first few years he spent as a leader at McQuillan Bros. He lost some money along the way, as any new team member might, but his dad was always there to make sure he learned from those mistakes.

“John Jr. is most definitely a better ‘people person’ than I am,” says John Sr., when talking about his own succession planning.

“I have no doubt that the company will be in good hands after I’ve left, and we’re actually planning on making that transition sooner rather than later – hopefully within the next year or so.”

In his darkest hour, backed into a corner by debt and indecision, John Sr. took Nexstar by the hand. Together, he and his coaching team pulled a company that has existed through well over a century of American history above the surface. With new life in its veins, McQuillan Bros. is now one of the fastest growing plumbing and HVAC businesses in the state.

After handing the reins to his son, John Sr. plans on spending some much needed time dedicated to rest and relaxation with his wife.

John Jr. put it best when speaking about the often-tumultuous nature of working in a family business.

“You get the best of the best and the worst of the worst along the way, but in the end, the best far outweighs the worst. I’m blessed to have the relationship I have with my family, and especially my dad. He’s been through a lot.”

When I asked John Jr. how he pictured the McQuillan Bros. of the future, he responded with optimistic uncertainty.

“I don’t know where this will all end. I do know that we have great people joining the team every year, and if that keeps happening…let it ride. Though I will say that I hope to be the first company in the Twin Cities to hit $100 million in sales.”

When looking at the tremendous strides taken by McQuillan Bros. in the past few years, that lofty goal seems to be anything but unrealistic.