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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 21, 2014 8 years ago

Plumb for success

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A small plumbing-supply business in Cape Coral offers lessons in overcoming adversity to achieve success.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

About 550 business executives in Fort Myers recently got a big lesson in overcoming adversity from a small business.
The source: a plumbing-supply company in Cape Coral run by a mother-and-daughter team.
Lee County Plumbing Supply won the 2014 Southwest Florida Blue Chip Community Business Award, an annual honor that recognizes businesses that have overcome adversity to achieve success. An independent panel of judges that included the business school deans of three universities selected them as the winners.
Lee County Plumbing Supply survived the death of one of the owners, the arrival of big-box competitors such as Home Depot and Lowe's and a crippling recession that crushed the homebuilding industry in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area.
Owner Dionne Lopez shared some of the lessons learned since her parents, William and Dania Lopez, acquired the business in 1982.

Embrace the competition
When the big-box home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's opened in Cape Coral and nearby Fort Myers, Dionne Lopez didn't let that scare her. “Don't let the big guys intimidate you,” she says.

Instead of retreating, Lopez walked into the big-box stores and asked to meet the managers in person. She informed them about her small business and asked them to refer customers to her that they couldn't help. “If you don't ask, the answer is always no,” she says.

Of course, Lopez had scoped out the inventory in the big-box stores before she met with her competitors ,and she discovered that they didn't stock hard-to-find plumbing parts. “We carried the little intricate stuff,” she explains.

In addition, the big-box stores often sell plumbing kits that include many parts. If customers are looking for one part, they don't want to buy a whole kit. So the big-box stores will refer those customers to Lee County Plumbing Supply. “They want to help their customers,” Lopez reasons.

The lesson: “Carry what they don't have.”

Plan for the unexpected
In 1998, William Lopez died unexpectedly of a brain aneurism. “My dad was 62, he was young and had been healthy all his life,” Lopez explains.

At the time William died, Dania did all the sales and ordering but left the accounting and other financial matters to her husband. In retrospect, Dionne Lopez says her mom would have benefited from knowing all the operations of the business.

“My mom had to teach herself,” Dionne Lopez says. “I got it easy because I'm learning it from her.”

Save for a rainy day
“You always have to have a cushion,” says Lopez. During the boom, the Lopezes put money away and reinvested in the business. “We tried to keep things in perspective,” Dionne Lopez says. “Nothing lasts forever.”

One of the ways the family saved was buying the land and enlarging the building at their Cape Coral location. The rents from the seven other tenants helped keep the company afloat during the recession as sales dropped from $800 a day during the boom to as little as $15 a day during the bust. “My mom owns the plaza,” Dionne Lopez says.

Even now, as the economy rebounds, Dionne Lopez is super careful about expenses. On a recent warm day, she opened the doors to the warehouse to let the breeze through so she didn't have to turn on the air conditioning. “We rough it a little bit,” she says with a smile.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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