Flowing against the tide
Jo Lawrence seems to have enjoyed bucking convention. As a young mum, she decided to get her HGV licence. “My ex-husband had an HGV licence and I wanted to get one too,”she says. “I was not conventional. I think I was on a mission to break boundaries and change people's views. I wanted to do something different.”
It was only when the children were in school that she started thinking what she wanted to do after having earlier dropped out of an occupational therapy course. “I wanted to do something that would bring in the money,” she says. “I fixed a friend's toilet and they suggested I become a plumber. I had A levels in maths and physics and was very practical. As a mum, I did a lot of woodwork and made furniture like wooden cots and playpens.”
She was also having some building work done at the time and the plumbing was leaking. “It was taking a bit of time and I just got fed up and thought that I could do it myself.” So that's what she did. She did a year's training at a local college and got a technical certificate. At the same time she split up with her ex-husband and needed to earn some money.
So she decided to go self-employed. She had to take her children to school so she could only continue her NVQ in the evenings. She worked during the day as much as she could, but it was stressful as she had to finish in time for the end of the school day.
Then she did a bathroom for a school mum who suggested she get an au pair. She got an au pair the next term and quit college. Over the next eight years she gradually built up the business and did some training on the side, increasing her experience. For instance, she did an underfloor heating course and put it into practice in her own house, which boosted her confidence.
“Typically as a woman I found it hard to put a proper value on my work and to charge people for what I did,” she says. “It took me a while to realise that you are always learning when you do plumbing. Every job is new and everyone is in the same boat.”
The business had grown to such a degree by 2006 that Jo looked at ways forward. She didn't want to take on staff as she wanted people to have the flexibility she had had so she looked at franchising and bought the name Pink Plumbers. “I had been called Pink Plumbing before. I wanted something that was unique and suggested that there was something more than just plumbing,” she says, adding that she has only had a few problems with customers over her being a female plumber. “I ask lots of questions on the phone to filter out potential bad customers,” she says.
She realised franchising was not the right model as it was too fixed. She found out about licensing through an entrepreneurs' course and took a year to prepare. Licensing worked for her because she wanted to give women the flexibility she had in her business, but she wanted them not to feel they were on their own. She also wanted to keep the licence affordable.
The website went live earlier this year and within a few weeks had had seven emails from people wanting to be plumbers. The license costs three thousand pounds upfront and a 200 pounds a month subscription, which she says can be earned in a day. For 2012 she is offering a special deal of an upfront fee of 2,500 pounds and 130 pounds a month which only has to be paid after the first six months.
People who are interested in being Pink Plumbers need to be qualified to NVQ Level Two, but Jo recognises there are problems for older people wanting to retrain and for anyone trying to get placements. Only one per cent of plumbers are female, she says, and three per cent of trainees are women with several dropping out. Jo tries to help out with placements by writing to experienced plumbers she knows. She also gives talks at colleges to inspire other women to take up and stick with plumbing. She herself says she had a “fantastic” mentor, a local plumbing merchant.
Her children are now aged 18 and 15. She hopes that she is a good role model for them. “Because of me having to work a lot, they are quite self sufficient,” she says. “They say they are really proud of me.”