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Ep64 Transcript: Interview with Susan Frew
Andrea Vahl: What would you do if you found yourself a million dollars in debt after starting your own heating and plumbing company in your forties? I would be on the floor in a little ball, and maybe that happened a little bit to Susan Frew, but she got through it. Listen in to today’s inspiring interview from my friend Susan Frew.
Hello Dreamers. Welcome to the Late Starters Club, giving you the inspiration mindset and tools you need to start something midlife and beyond. Remember, it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
Hello Dreamers. It’s your host, Andrea Vahl here on the Late Starters Club podcast. I am joined by my friend Susan Frew, who, my gosh, talk about a Renaissance woman.
She has started her own heating and plumbing company, one of the biggest in the Denver area. She’s an entrepreneur, she’s a speaker, she’s a thrifter. She’s had multiple different careers, telecom executive, but what I like… forever Jersey girl! So welcome Susan.
Susan Frew: Hey, thank you, Andrea. I’m, so excited to be here with you today.
Andrea Vahl: So, I want to dive first a little bit into starting a heating and plumbing company. As a woman in your forties, a number of years ago, I know you have had a such a journey with that whole business, but tell us why you started it.
What prompted that?
Susan Frew: How I got into the plumbing business? I was with AT&T in New York City and they transferred me to Denver. And then from Denver I got transferred to the country of Grenada and St. Vincent of the Grenadines for two years. And I was General Manager for the two countries there.
And when I came back, I went to Breckenridge and I bought a business coaching franchise. So I had a nice package. I had money in the bank, I bought a house, I bought a car, I bought this business, this franchise, and things were going pretty well. But it was 2007, so around the corner, some ugly things were about to happen.
And during that time, the franchise asked me to sit down with this guy and tell him about my franchise experience, which is kind of commonplace. So, I’m speaking and I’m on the radio and it’s fabulous and all things are great and I have all these customers. And at the end of our conversation, I said, “So where do you want to put your franchise?”
And he says, “Oh, here in Breckenridge.” So I instantly hated this guy, like hated him. So wherever I would go for the next five years, there he was and in 2012 he became my husband!
He never did buy the franchise. But he had a background in plumbing, heating, and air conditioning. Round that time though, the recession was really in full swing and he was doing new construction. I think there’s still people who owe him money from back then. And so we just moved down to Denver and I still was coaching for a while.
He was starting up the plumbing company, we decided to only do service: we fix and we replace. That’s it. We don’t do any new construction, no remodels, nothing like that. You know this, you’ve been a customer of ours and we did that because it’s really recession proof. And we also know that now because the private equity guys are circling the wagons.
Those businesses are very, very strong in any economy. So that’s how we started. In the beginning I was coaching the business from the side, but you know, really when you’re married, that’s called nagging! So in 2013, I dove in and became CEO and 51% owner of Sunshine.
I’ve been in and out over the years, full-time. And then I go and step away, and now I’m in for the long haul.
Andrea Vahl: I think it’s so exciting and amazing that you just dove in. Obviously your husband had that background, but you didn’t.
Bringing in some of your past experience from the corporate world probably helped as well as the coaching I would imagine?
Susan Frew: It did. And weirdly now, if I tally them up every once in a while, I’ve coached 19 different trades and when I was doing work for the SBA from 2012 to 14, I was teaching their Emerging Leaders program and almost all of my students were in different varieties of construction. So I learned so much that I was able to bring to the table of Sunshine of what to do and what not to do.
Andrea Vahl: And I think the other thing that helps your business probably is just being a woman owner of a heating and plumbing company. I just gravitate towards that and I think there’s probably a lot of people, a lot of women especially, who might be on their own and feel more comfortable just doing business with a woman owned company like that.
Susan Frew: Absolutely. And at one point I think I was tallying up that 80% of our calls were coming from women. And I did this talk a few years ago called What Women Want In Their Service Provider, and in the women’s chamber I interviewed all of these women and I put this video together and then I turned that into a keynote.
And I started delivering that keynote. And I’d jokingly say to old white guys, “This is what women want. Are you delivering this level of service? Are you going this extra mile? And are you mansplaining because they don’t want that!” so it’s been an educational experience too.
Andrea Vahl: And I know you’ve had some ups and downs with this whole business, and we’ll get into that. But what I love too is that you’re marketing it in a non-traditional way. You’re on TikTok, you’re doing short videos about heating and plumbing. You’re doing fun little poems and songs for the business.
And it’s really great. And now you’ve grown this to an award-winning multi-million dollar business.
Susan Frew: Yeah, so we started out, year one at 177,000, which in the plumbing business, you end up walking away with 12 cents because our parts are super expensive. Our net margins, if we could squeak out 10%, it is a banner year. It’s very unusual, that you have that because parts are expensive and it costs a lot to run our kind of company. I think our insurance is $90,000. Then the marketing…
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. All the labor and all the staff that go into it as well as the trucks and everything.
You’ve got such a lot of overheads.
Susan Frew: People are like, “I found that part on Amazon! “Oh, okay, well you need this guy who’s like 8 million dollars an hour and then he’s going to drive that fancy truck because he won’t drive a piece of crap truck.” And then we have to buy parts that go up every single day.
So that’s why it’s not the same price as it is on Amazon.
Andrea Vahl: Totally. S o, as you were starting this business, what have been some takeaways to your biggest success with this? And you’ve had some great longevity and all that but what have been some takeaways for what has been part of your success?
Susan Frew: Well, there were 950 competitors at our market when we entered. So, we just made our delivery of our services different than everyone else. So, we were doing these Angie’s List toilet tune-ups. The customer would pay $25 and we would get $12 and 50 cents and it was called an Angie’s List Big Deal.
And William didn’t know the geography around here. He was originally from Detroit, and then he was in Breckenridge, so he didn’t know Denver. He didn’t know the difference between Castle Rock and Boulder. So he was running all over town doing these toilet tune-ups, and we’d get $12 and 50 cents mailed to us.
Then we would send the people out cards and brownies which cost $8. And the brownies, in case people know we’re from Colorado, they were not Colorado brownies, they were just regular brownies. But people remembered that we did that and they would post it on social media. And then we started sending gift baskets for larger purchases when we started doing HVAC.
And it’s very difficult to get people to work on call and on the weekends and to keep them sober for that whole time. So we started just putting people in hotels. So if your heater broke on a Saturday night I would use my miles and points from speaker business and I’d put people in a Hampton Inn for the night and never lost a customer that way. So we would just really try to go out of our way. I think when I step away, I think our service delivery slips. And so now I’m committed so that we’re on that three to five and out plan now.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome. And it’s great to have a plan and great to have a vision and make sure you hit the target you’re shooting for. S o now I want to talk about some of the obstacles and challenges, because you had a huge challenge that you actually then turned into a whole keynote?
Susan Frew: That’s the one thing about speakers, beat the snot out of us because it will be a talk someday and it’ll be all worth it.
Andrea Vahl: We’re going to monetize our low points here! Talk about some of the obstacles you ran into running this business.
Susan Frew: Well, I was always straddling the fence between coaching and running Sunshine.
And I drank the Kool-Aid myself of how our business coaching franchise was teaching people to be absentee owners. That is possible, but you need to have a vault of policies, procedures, accountability measures, visibility.
You’ll watch people on YouTube saying how you could just work four hours a week. You can’t run a service company in that many hours a week without some kind of shenanigans happening. Because I always feel like I am in the middle of everything n ow and I put my office in the middle of the shop, so I can see what’s going on out there. And I learned so much about sitting in the middle of the shop. But what happened was I stepped away, my speaking career was really picking up a lot of steam in 2017. And then I did a TED talk about women in the trades and our workforce shortage.
And so I was booked like crazy. I was gone! And then I, was tasked with writing this big coaching curriculum for the Plumbing Association. So that took up a bunch of my time. Meanwhile, I had a great office manager who, everything I would give her, she’d be taking more, more, more.
It was amazing. It was like Nirvana. But then there were some red flags that I was willing to ignore. Like, how is she affording to take her entire family to Mexico on all-inclusive vacations when she had her car repoed three months ago? How is this happening? And then, wow, how is she always getting mink eyelashes and nail extensions and hair?
So it turned out that I made a bad hiring decision and because I was living my life and being an absentee owner I had my head in the sand and I didn’t really want to know what was going on. At the end of the day, we parted ways with her and then I really started digging into everything.
And I just sat in her desk for about a month and it was like, oh my gosh. And I asked my friend Maria, who had an accounting background, to come help me for about eight months. And we found so much stuff. It turned out, Andrea, we were a million dollars in debt.
One Saturday morning, I’m around the house doing errands and the doorbell rings and it’s a certified letter.
Never a good thing on a Saturday. And it was from the IRS saying that we owed $486,000 in payroll taxes. And then I got a $199,000 fine on me personally for not supervising my employee. So what I had done was I had set her up on this plan where if she stayed on budget, she would get a bonus every single month.
And the bonus was big because I wanted her to stay on budget. She could never do that before. But she was cheating. She was gaming the system. So what she would do is she would pay all of our bills, but only a portion of them.
So she wouldn’t pay the whole bill. She was shorting. So if we owed 5,000 in taxes, she’d pay four. And she did that with all of our vendors. And then we owed our vendors 175,000. We always have truck payments and that’s about $200,000.
So a million dollars in debt.
Andrea Vahl: It must have been just terrifying.
Susan Frew: It was. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, my mental health suffered significantly. And it was a lot of humiliation and shame because we had to move out of our big shop on the highway and everyone knew, we had this lighted sign and we’d have parties there and everything.
And we had to move into our basement. And we did that for two years.
Andrea Vahl: And that I think is the most amazing part of this story, that you did not declare bankruptcy. Correct? You pushed through this and were able to work your way out of that million dollars in debt. That’s an incredible feat.
What a testament. How long did that take to get through that?
Susan Frew: It took a little bit over two years. We still carry some debt on our trucks. And I think we always will. Because if we buy used trucks, they break down all the time. So I think we’re always going to have that happening and I think that’s okay.
And we’ve had some little loans over the years for things, but what we did is we downsized into the basement for two years and then we got this little shop down in Commerce City and I actually love the location.
It’s by Northfield. It’s perfect. So after the two years was up, the space next to ours became available and it was like a double. So we moved over and then now we’re kind of back on track again, and we really just went down to ground zero we scraped it all down to the ground.
We got a new pricing system. We added prices on our website, which is unheard of in our industry. We are hated by our competitors for that. And that’s okay because I don’t want people to have anxiety.
I came back full-time and my message is two things. We are women owned and we really care about you.
And number two is we are going to offer you transparent pricing. And that’s it. And my team is going to love you like you’re their grandmother, because that’s what I say to them, “I want you to treat everyone’s home like you’re going to your grandmother’s house.”
Andrea Vahl: Or you know, a really hot grandma because they were here…
Your team is amazing and I love that you are flipping things on their head with some of this, because I think that’s sometimes what it takes to stand out in this crowded market and doing things really differently is a big way for sure.
And I think people appreciate that. That’s when you hear what people want and you give it to them. Congratulations to you for getting out of that debt and keeping your company afloat. I think some of these things happen for a reason and make you stronger… and give you a good keynote!
Susan Frew: Yes! And now I coach very few people. I do have three clients, two are in my industry and one is not, but I’m helping them power through this.
And that’s something I’m really proud of. But I won’t take any more than that though. Because I can’t be distracted. So my goal is two really good keynotes a month. Which is very doable. And that’s it. And run Sunshine the rest of the time and I’m there almost every day.
I was there this morning, we did a training and now I’m in my home studio, but I have a setup down there too. So if I’m down there, wherever I am I’m ready to go.
Andrea Vahl: That’s awesome. And I want to also talk about your third career, however many careers you have, it’s probably your 15th! Your thriftanista career, because I love that as well. Because I think that, it’s again, so different and just shows that you’re a multi-passionate person.
Talk about how that business came about and where you’re taking it.
Susan Frew: My side hustle? So a woman who was working with us a couple years ago called Melody Reagan, was doing our marketing for us. Crazy good marketing. And she knew about me and the thrifting and all these people would ask me to take them thrift store shopping because that became a passion of mine during the recession, because I knew how much things cost. When AT&T sent me to the Caribbean, I got a $10,000 clothing budget because I was working in this colonized Caribbean community and it was extremely formal and that was part of the international perks.
And I lived in New York City for a long time, so I know how much great clothes cost, I know all my labels. And during the recession things were tight and I just started thrifting and I would get Anne Taylor pants for $5 instead of $80. And I was like, this makes great sense.
So then people started asking me to take them shopping and I’m like, “I’m sorry, I do not have time.” I’m like, maybe I just need a bus. So this woman in my rotary club said, I have a bus and we’ll make it a fundraiser. And then Melody Reagan came up with this idea. She said, “Look, think about this. You should have all the ladies meet at your shop, and you’ll have 40 ladies who own homes come to your shop. We’re going to go on the fun bus tour, but they’ll learn about Sunshine Plumbing, Heating, Air. Perfect!”
So that’s how it started. It started as marketing but the first year we raised $10,000 for different charities.
We get the bus donated, people pay to come on the bus, and then I teach them how to thrift and we go from shop to shop. And I just put a website up a few weeks ago teaching people how to clean out their closet. So I have a system for that. And then, how do you go and buy new things and build a wardrobe?
I’m not a wardrobe consultant or anything like that. I just love to shop. I love to teach people how to do it my way. You saw the dress I had on the other day, right?
Andrea Vahl: Yeah. First of all, Susan’s in her Sunshine Plumbing and Heating t-shirt now but Susan always looks fabulous. And I’ve been on her thrifting meetups and I hate shopping but I have found the most amazing things there!
Susan Frew: That dress you saw the other night was a Tadashi Shoji, which for people who might be listening if they’re fashion people or they follow People Magazine, Tadashi Shoji is on the red carpet all the time, the couture version.
And that dress was actually Tadashi Shoji Couture, and it was a $400 dress, or there abouts, and I got it for $27. And I don’t sell things. I just buy them and then I’ll donate them.
I’m saying that’s going to be my retirement business.
Andrea Vahl: Yeah, because you really enjoy that. That’s really fun for you. You’re good at it and it’s just a fun little side hustle.
How do you keep all this rolling? Do you have any special time management tips with all of these different things you’re doing?
Susan Frew: What we did mention is that I took a full-time job for a year in the middle of all this, which was really insane. I was doing no one a favor by doing that.
I was not serving in the way that I could have or should have. I was so burnt out and it was just so much. I would get up at five o’clock in the morning and I would go down to Sunshine. I would work there for two hours and I’d come and work at the other job and then I would do speaking. It was insanity.
Looking back it’s interesting because we’re writing a book now about business owner trauma with Dr. Sally Spencer Thomas, and one of the things to preserve your mental health through all these tough times and through all this stress, is you really need to have a plan.
And for me, my plan is exercise. I have to exercise. There’s those t-shirts, ‘burn off the crazy’. It’s real in my world. I’ve got to go work out and get fit.
So I go big on those things. And eating well and taking really good care of yourself. And really being selective about who your circle of friends are. Unfortunately, I’ve had to drift apart from some folks because maybe they partied too much or maybe they were too negative.
When you’re trying to get through a lot or if you have a lot on your plate, your time is super valuable and you want to share it with people that are positive and motivating and supportive of you. You can’t give that energy away. That’s yours. That’s your mojo.
That’s what’s taking you through life and you can’t hand it off and let somebody rain on it.
Andrea Vahl: That is such a great tip, because I think especially as we’ve got older and and I’ve realized that I don’t have to be nice to everybody just because they’re demanding my time. You want to stay away from those energy vampires for sure.
Have you had some influencers or teachers that you have learned from that have been really influential?
Susan Frew: Well, I think the National Speakers Association has been a blessing for me, and I know you understand this. Once you find your people they are there, they understand you. They would understand, “Well, I can’t wear this color blue because it’s going to look really weird on film.” And your regular friends from down street will be like, “What’s wrong with you? What kinda maniac are you? Like, what do you care?”
Well, my speaker friends would understand that! So I think that’s a big part of it. I was very fortunate to get into a mastermind in National Speakers Association, that has helped me, from the beginning, there’s some amazing people in there. Headline, people, you’re so starstruck by them.
And Ruby and Dawn and you and Nora, all the ladies from NSA have just been so powerful and so strong and such great role models in showing that you can do this. You can get paid, you can have a career here and you can have a lot of fun. So I think that was really, really important.
And when I was going through all those rough times with the business, I think the Mastermind was a lifesaver for me because they’ve been through all those seasons with me. And keeping the elephant circle around you of people protecting you.
Andrea Vahl: I love that.
Yes, part of Susan’s keynote is really talking about the elephant circle of protection there, and I think that’s such a great metaphor for how to surround yourself with protective friends who are family. I love also making sure people share one of their favorite quotes or favorite things that inspire them.
So what are some of your favorite things that are inspirational to you?
Susan Frew: In those really dark days when we were a million dollars in debt and I didn’t think we would get out and I knew there was no way I was going to file for bankruptcy… your show is called Late Starters Club… Late Starters, when you file for bankruptcy when you’re older, you have just screwed your retirement up really bad. And I did not have that runway to do the bounce back, recalibrate and rebuild. I’m like, “We have to get through this.” I’ve always loved Les Brown, he’s one of my favorite motivational people.
I also love Joel Olsteen, he’s my Tony Robbins. I also learned a lot from him about speaking. Les Brown says, “If you can look up, you can get up.” And I know that’s really simple, but there were times where I was literally in the fetal position, and I could hear Les Brown in that powerful voice going, “You can look up, you can get up.”
I just started looking up and that was all. One foot in front of the other.
Andrea Vahl: I love that. That just gave me chills too, because it is really about setting your sights on the direction you want to go. And that is up and just that whole getting knocked down, and you were knocked down so hard with that million dollars in debt.
You’ve got up and you’ve thrived and are an inspiration to women in doing all the different things you’re doing. So thank you. Thank you so much for coming on this show and if anyone is in the Denver metro area, I highly recommend Sunshine Heating and Plumbing. They have been awesome. My house is nice and toasty warm. It was so freezing! Your guys took such great care of me.
Where can people find you and get connected to you?
Susan Frew: Well if you Google Sunshine Home Services, we’re in Commerce City. We’re located there by Dick’s Sporting this park.
So if you want to stop in and say, “Hey” just make sure you lock your car! And you can always find me @SusanFrewSpeaks somewhere on your platform.
Andrea Vahl: And your thriftanista business?
Susan Frew: Yes, is on Facebook. I also have a website now. It’s thriftanista.shop
Andrea Vahl: We’ll have those links in the show notes for people so definitely get connected to Susan. She’s got great tips So thank you.
Susan Frew: Thank you Andrea, I appreciate it.
Andrea Vahl: Hope that was helpful and make sure you grab the free guide, Top Tools for Late Starters on the website at latestartersclub.com and let’s turn dreaming into doing.
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