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Home Services M&A: A Conversation with John Wilson

When Ralph and Theresa Wilson founded Wilson Plumbing & Heating in 1958, little did they know that one of their grandchildren, John, would turn the company into a home service powerhouse in the State of Ohio. 

Since taking the reins in 2016, the young John Wilson has led his family-run business in acquiring several additional companies, including three other plumbing entities and one carpet and home cleaning business. He has also founded several new businesses under the company’s new umbrella, The Wilson Companies, including a restoration arm, a home repair entity, a capital management firm, and Wilson Capital Properties, a business that manages the company’s real estate holdings. 

His long-term goal is to continue to grow The Wilson Companies into a an even larger regional empire, all the while taking good care of the people who work for his various business entities. He has no plans to leave Ohio and for Wilson, family is all-important. 

In a recent interview with Axial founder and CEO Peter Lehrman, Wilson talked at length about his decision to take over the family-run business, and how he grew it at such a rapid clip. 

Thank you to John Wilson, president of The Wilson Companies, for participating in this conversation. 

Video

Audio

Show Notes

Introductions – 00.00-00:26

Born and raised in Akron, Ohio – 00:49

  • John Wilson never left Ohio.
  • He’s one of seven kids.
  • His grandfather started a plumbing company, Wilson Plumbing.
  • His father years later bought the company.
  • John did not like school very much, ended up pursuing an education in graphic design. 

He has always loved the hustle – 2:25 

  • He started working with his dad at the age of nine.
  • During the summers of his childhood, John worked 40 to 50 hours a week.
  • At a young age, John was sweeping floors, putting parts away, and doing inventory, making $5 a day.

Rough start in college – 4:24

  • After he turned 18, he had some health issues, which forced him to drop out of college.
  • Once feeling better, he began working again for his dad, because he needed the flexibility and knew the trade.

No plans to enter the family business, until he did – 6:06

  • John fought the idea of entering the family business, though his family was not pressuring him.
  • His father was attempting to sell the business to other parties. John attended lunch meetings with a handful of potential suitors over a couple-year span. 
  • He said his father was attempting to secure his own retirement, and make sure he, John, had a position in the new company.
  • Ended up going back to school at night for accounting, for about two years, and developed a passion for personal finance, accounting, and money. 
  • During his schooling, he still did not think he would ever buy the family plumbing business, but at age 25, after taking over operations at the age of 23, he approached the topic with his family, and acquired Wilson Plumbing & Heating in 2016.
  • Wilson had become enamored with the idea of making the business better and larger and started learning about tax law doing the deal, which he said was complicated.
  • The family business has grown immensely since he acquired it and is now the second largest home service provider in its quadrant of the state of Ohio, with 120 employees. 

Making things better – 21:32

  • John’s made changes toward integrating best practices, delving into pricing strategy, branding, and building a better website, before he acquired the company.
  • The company raised its prices, and standardized its pricing to make for a better customer experience. John would continually ask, “How can we be a better, more profitable business?”

Becoming acquisitive – 25:34

  • In 2017, Wilson Plumbing & Heating began collecting assets. John enjoyed the acquisition process, and being able to buy entities that produce cash. 
  • In an effort to generate diversified income from multiple streams to help him survive an apocalypse, or handle a possible upcoming recession, John realized acquisitions and new entities were key. The company also started buying real estate, such as duplexes, single-family homes, and commercial property. After about a year, John started looking at other companies to buy. 
  • In January 2018, his company acquired a failing plumbing business, and doubled his company’s size. Before the acquisition, John Googled “plumbers” in the general vicinity he was interested in, and sent 35 letters and talked to four or five business owners. 
  • One deal closed after nine months. 

Changing things up – 31:28

  • John is open to experimentation and trying new things, including launching startups and doing acquisitions.
  • Quickly, his company’s sales rose from $1.5 million in sales to $2.5 million in sales.
  • He brought together four or five people to create a leadership team, so he could step out of operations. 
  • John also launched a handyman company, a ground-up business, but ended up closing it one year later. Many lessons were learned from the experience. 
  • In 2020, his company launched a restoration business. 

Being deal-savvy in the trade – 34:34

  • Most of John’s deals require similar due diligence, such as reviewing customer concentration, gross profit, a potential for raising of gross profit, the number of customers, the path to market, the method to gaining new customers, and whether or not customers are price sensitive. 
  • Knowing which niches in home services to avoid is perhaps equally as important, Wilson said.

Good home services companies – 36:43

  • Home service companies that have a good reputation will have recurring customers. Over 80% of his customers are repeat customers, who don’t sign service contracts.
  • Consumers face risks, and look for companies they like to use and trust. 
  • Companies that offer multiple trades are now the reality, and can beat out single-trade businesses.

Branding and re-branding – 41:52

  • John rebranded the first two companies he acquired, because they were small and their brand power was not good. For the three companies he last acquired, he kept the individual brands, and over the next few years will continue rolling out The Wilson Companies as the umbrella organization.
  • John’s plan is to advertise his many businesses as a “family of brands”, even though some entities will retain their original names that have strong consumer trust. 

Reputation matters – 44:01

  • During the sourcing phase, John’s company deep dives into a target’s reputation. His team doesn’t meet the target’s technicians until the last month of the process. 
  • They tour a target’s facilities, read customer reviews, and survey customers. They determine the hiring practices of a target, if the customers are sticky, and if the target business has the right team. “But most of it is, can I get this phone to ring?” Wilson said.

What Wilson brings to the table – 45:04

  • John understands home service well, and how to make a company better. 
  • He knows how to boost sales with better sales procedures, reduce labor, reduce “cogs in materials and equipment” because his company buys better, and how to affect expenses and overhead. 
  • Most of the companies John buys need fixing, which he knows how to do.

Looking ahead – 47:47

  • John wants to stay in Ohio and near his family, does not want to be on the road all day. 
  • He is eyeing some target geographies still in Ohio, and plans to do more deals over the next two years.

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