Jeff Morgan is blunt about his inspiration for starting Morgan Miller Plumbing.
“I started because of the way I was being treated, in combination with I felt like I was getting older and if I didn’t do something soon, I was never going to do anything and I just couldn’t live with myself. I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
So, he gave his resignation the second week of January 1997. “My first day in my new company was February 1, 1997. I got on the phone and stayed on the phone until I had enough work for the next day. That was my business plan,” Morgan said.
The son of a son of a plumber, Morgan started his own career in plumbing in May 1978 when he joined his brothers in the family firm. Still, he wasn’t happy with himself. “I’d been in and out of trouble as a teenager, and I was mad about not giving myself a better opportunity,” he said.
Even as his career progressed, he didn’t forget that. It’s what drove him.
When he finally did decide to strike out on his own, he was determined to build something that would outlast him—that would give someone else an opportunity.
“One of the very first things I thought about when I started this gig is that I wanted to build something that lasted longer than me—that when I closed those doors for the last time, the business still carried on,” Morgan said.
Morgan found that person in Stella Crewse, someone he didn’t have on his radar to be his successor when he hired her 14 years ago. Taking over the company wasn’t exactly on Crewse’s front burner either.
“I took the job because I was looking for a way out of corporate America, it was close to home and it gave me freedom from wearing pantyhose every day,” Crewse said.
Little did she know that she had joined the company in the midst of a transformation. Morgan had just let half the employees go, and a stack of bills piled high on her desk greeted her when she arrived for her first day. Morgan had taken on new projects that weren’t providing the margins needed.
“I put a high water mark up and asked, ‘Can we make this stack go down?’” Crewse said.
On Fridays, Morgan would go around and collect money from different contractors. When he returned, he and Crewse would dance around the office and say “‘Hey, we’re still in business.’ We had fun with it. We take our jobs seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously,” Morgan said.
Crewse’s role grew over the years as Morgan gave her more and more responsibility. “Eventually I had done everything but hop in a truck to do the plumbing,” she said.
Now, as the company celebrates 20 years, Crewse is part owner and CEO of Morgan Miller Plumbing. She and Morgan are exploring options for her to take 100 percent ownership eventually.
Morgan and Crewse have learned a lot about running a business over the years. Here are just a few:
1. Do what it takes to keep good employees.
Morgan said that Crewse nearly quit after 90 days because she couldn’t afford health insurance. Knowing he couldn’t afford to lose her, Morgan decided to pay the insurance himself. “You’ve got to be aware of these little signals that come in when these people are really trying to help you carry on your vision. You’ve got to acknowledge it and do what you can to help the person out.”
2. Give people room to grow.
“That guiding light helped me to try to attract the right people,” Morgan said. “I failed numerous times bringing partners in and people I thought could elevate this company. So, if you’re afraid of failure, you’re going to be in big trouble. You’ve got to be willing to fail brilliantly.”
3. Don’t be afraid to let yourself change.
Sitting on the sidelines, Crewse watched Morgan make a lot of mistakes and work through them. About five years ago was a big turning point. Morgan said that’s when he and Crewse started developing a five-year plan “to get me out and let her run the place.” He said no one else really knew it at the time. “We were just kind of practicing,” he said. “Seeing how it went. After three-and-a-half years, she asked me to leave.”
With Crewse running more and more of the company, Morgan would unintentionally cause problems. He wasn’t always fully aware of the issues and would get in the middle of things.
When Crewse asked him to step back, that created “a whole new set of magic,” Morgan said. “It elevated roles for everyone, and it allowed me to do something I’d always dreamed of. It allowed me to go overseas and help in a third world nation do some plumbing.”
4. Communication is key.
Both agree they don’t always agree on everything. But they’ve always had an easy dialogue. Morgan said, “We don’t get along 100 percent all the time, but that’s where we really grew.”
By talking candidly with each other, they learned to create efficiencies and develop strategies.
“He’s still my mentor,” Crewse said.
Morgan’s advice to business owners thinking about hanging up their cleats, but who haven’t fully embraced it: “Allow yourself to find your Stella. Allow the people who show the aptitude—and who give you the ideas—the opportunity to implement those ideas. If you implement an idea of an associate, they’ll come up with a half dozen more. All of a sudden you’ve got a different associate, someone who feels ownership. One thing I always say: ‘Act like you own this place, whether you do or not, and I’ll treat you like you do.’”
Crewse added, “Don’t feel threatened by strong employees with ideas. Surround yourself with great people who have great ideas. They’re only going to make you better.”