‘Won’t make a cent’: Plumber builds $25m empire
‘Won’t make a cent’: Plumber builds $25m empire

The plumber who built a $25m empire

Bundaberg plumber Warren Ballantyne was told he would never make any money from his fledgling gutter cleaning business.

A quarter of a century later and Mr Ballantyne's Gutter-Vac business is a $25m operation with franchisees in every state of Australia and outlets in the US.

Mr Ballantyne said Gutter-Vac was born after a discussion at a family barbecue about a better way to deal with the difficult and sometimes dangerous job of cleaning gutters.

"It was usually done by hand by a plumber or the kid next door who faced red-back spiders, snakes and all sort of rubbish," he said. The solution Mr Ballantyne came up with was a proprietary vacuuming system that meant the job could be handled from the ground.

What began as a "side hustle" to Mr Ballantyne's plumbing business in Bundaberg soon grew into a bigger operation.

"We had a need in our plumbing business to clean gutters and it became more and more a part of what we did," he said.

"We searched and found some vacuuming equipment and literally started the business a month after we thought about it. About that time my brother Trevor had lost his job and he came on board to help run it."

Gutter-Vac now has 90 franchisees around the country.

"Last year we grew 26 per cent and over the next five years we plan to expand to around 130 franchisees," said Mr Ballantyne, who runs the business with wife Anne.

About five years ago Gutter-Vac expanded to the US and the company now has operations in the Atlanta area.

Mr Ballantyne said in the early days people were reluctant to pay for gutter cleaning and the couple were told "we would never make a living out of the business".

"When we started charging $80 to clean gutters, people used to laugh at me. Today the same service would cost $400," he said.

These days people were more aware of the dangers of having clogged gutters, including water damage to internal areas of a home and fire. "If you look at the homes that burnt down during the Canberra bush fires, they all had gutters that were clogged up," Mr Ballantyne said.

Clogged guttering also attracted cockroaches and insects, which in turn attracted rats and snakes.

"Once we extracted 25m of a fig tree's root system that was blocking someone's guttering," Mr Ballantyne said.

In 2000, he sold his first franchise, which cost about $90,000 inclusive of equipment. The franchises are popular with young and more mature people seeking flexibility in their working life.

"We now have franchisees with multiple territories and they can increase their involvement as their circumstances change," Mr Ballantyne said.

Although the couple relocated to Brisbane more than a decade ago, the trailers and tools for the business are still made in Bundaberg.

"Bundaberg has been very good to us and we want to support the town," Mr Ballantyne said.

Married for 46 years, the Ballantynes have adjoining offi­ces at their Northgate headquarters. Mrs Ballantyne man­ages the accounts and other management tasks; Mr Ballan­tyne handles sales and strategy.

About 65 per cent of Gutter-Vac's business is non-residential including schools, defence facilities, commercial properties and body corporates.

"This is a business that has no bad debts and our franchisees know they are going to get paid," said Mr Ballantyne.

"It's a bit different from the plumbing business in the early days when you could install a hot water system and sometimes have to wait a long time to get paid."

Originally published as The plumber who built a $25m empire