A reluctant plumber finds huge success with service
Spotlight on Blue Bear Plumbing
“I had no intention of becoming a plumber,” says Chris Murphy, PCA member and owner of Local 12 signatory shop, Blue Bear Plumbing. At the age of 33, however, he has grown his four-year-old business, which focuses on residential service, into a local dynamo. Now he is planning to diversify and expand into multiple markets.
Starting at age seven, his father, Local 12 member Sean Murphy, would drag Chris out of bed on Saturday mornings and have him shine fittings or whatever else needed to be done. He wasn’t crazy about helping his dad on the weekend side jobs, but he had no choice in the matter.
“I wanted to stay home and watch cartoons,” Murphy says with a laugh.
Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Murphy’s goal was to head off to college. In his junior year of high school, he penned an essay to submit with his college applications.
“It was about being a man and how you have to learn to work with your hands and fix things,” Murphy says. He heeded his own advice.
Something clicked in his senior year. Murphy decided he didn’t want to commit a lot of money to fund his college education. Instead, he was driven to make money and to support himself.
“I wanted to be my own person and drive my own destiny,” Murphy adds. And he decided to chart his own path by working with his hands.
Changing the trajectory of his life
He already had a taste of the money he could make in the trade. In addition to holding down a job at a produce market, he worked alongside his father and his uncle (who is also a plumber as well as a pipefitter in Local 537), helping them on nights and weekends with their side business. The trio did small residential jobs, such as kitchen and bathroom repairs and installations. Murphy told his dad that he wanted to forego college and get into the trade. He also told him he wanted to join Local 12.
His father hadn’t always been a member of the union. When he did join, his family’s life got “exponentially better,” Murphy says. “At the time I didn’t realize it, but as I got older, I knew how good Local 12 had been for us.”
He got some valuable experience working for small shops and, at age 19, entered Local 12’s apprenticeship program. He began working for signatory contractor, J.C. Higgins.
“Getting into Local 12 changes your perspective and the trajectory of your life,” notes Murphy.
The foreman at his first union project, a 30-story high rise, was his father. Noting that his dad could be demanding, Murphy says he had to work just as hard as everyone else on the crew. He later did hospital and lab work, among other projects, while finishing his apprenticeship with J.C. Higgins.
Murphy then moved to PCA member, Cannistraro, focusing on service work and small projects. He spent most of his time at Mass General Hospital where, at age 28, he led a young crew as its foreman. They got commendations from the esteemed medical center, doing work such as swapping over medical gas systems in intensive care units. Murphy says he enjoyed the hospital work, and especially enjoyed building relationships and developing the skills to run jobs.
“It’s all about personality and professionalism,” he says. “People can buy a plumbing product, but they can’t buy people.”
Always motivated to make money, Murphy continued to do side work. Along with a buddy, he did residential bathroom remodels and other projects, gaining business experience along the way. Eventually, he decided to go out on his own full time and truly drive his own destiny.
Frogs, penguins, and bears
At first, Murphy was looking at franchise opportunities and discovered one that was called “bluefrog Plumbing + Drain.” He thought the name was silly, but after doing some research he learned that business names that include colors and objects are easy to remember and are good marketing hooks. Murphy abandoned the franchise route but stuck with the marketing ideas as he kicked around ideas for his own shop.
He came up with two potential names, “Purple Penguin” and “Blue Bear,” and let his kids choose the winner.
“They chose Blue Bear,” Murphy says. “And we were off to the races.”
Launched in early 2018, Blue Bear was, initially, a one-person shop that Murphy operated out of his garage in Marshfield, Massachusetts. With four children, he was nervous about being able to support his family. That winter was especially cold, however, and Murphy was kept busy helping homeowners with frozen pipes and other plumbing issues.
Two months after he started his business, Murphy brought on John Oliva. The “right hand man,” as he describes Oliva, has been with the company ever since. The shop started winning contracts and began working on some sizeable jobs, including new construction of multi-residential projects. But from the start, Blue Bear focused mostly on residential service.
As his shop got busier, Murphy bought a second van. Realizing he needed additional help and health insurance for himself and his employees, he met with Harry Brett, who was Local 12’s business manager at the time. Blue Bear subsequently became a signatory contractor. In October of 2018, Murphy got an office space and brought on help to keep the books and answer the phone.
It took off like a rocket
Blue Bear continued to grow and added residential HVAC to its capabilities. By 2020, the shop had 26 employees, 20 of which were plumbers. Murphy needed more room and moved into a 5,000-square-foot shop. Then the pandemic hit.
“I thought that was the end of my business,” he says. “I figured I had a pretty good run.”
The phones stopped ringing. Murphy cut his workforce down to 14 employees and watched in horror as money started disappearing from his business account.
Instead of throwing in the towel, however, Murphy did something counterintuitive: He took the remaining $15,000 from his cash reserves and put it all into marketing. He bought a lot of Google ads along with Facebook ads and videos as well as other online media.
“With residential service,” Murphy explains, “marketing is a huge part of the business.” The ads let the community know that Blue Bear was open and ready to help people when they needed it. The result? “It took off like a rocket,” he says.
According to Murphy, Blue Bear earned $2.2 million in revenue in 2019. Despite the dropoff when everything shut down in the early days of the pandemic, the company closed out 2020 with $6.8 million in revenue. Instead of the business closing, it was once again off to the races–much bigger races.
Empowered by his newfound success, Murphy is moving to a new location in Norwell with three times the space. He is also rebranding and diversifying his business. Blue Bear Plumbing will be known as Blue Bear Home Services and offer plumbing, HVAC, and drain cleaning. Later this year, Murphy plans to roll out a second brand, C. Murphy Plumbing and Mechanical, which will focus on new construction. It will also be a Local 12 signatory shop and will seek tenant fit out projects and other commercial work. Between the two entities, Murphy anticipates topping $15 million in revenue in 2022.
He attributes the success of his company to the team he has assembled and says that the key has been to surround himself with top-notch talent. While he hopes to grow the commercial business, Murphy remains bullish on the work that has brought him so much fortune.
“Historically, Local 12 hasn’t focused much on residential service,” he says. “I want everyone to know that it is a feasible business model for a union shop. In four years, we established market share and recurring revenue.”
To prove his point, Murphy has ambitious expansion plans. He recently opened a second shop in the Buzzards Bay area to increase his geographical market. But that’s only the beginning.
“We want to open seven more Blue Bear locations by 2025,” he says. Once, again, Murphy’s business will be off to the races.