Rob Playford, AKA Dr Boilers, talks to PHPI about his prescription for success.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the industry? What made you want to become an engineer and what was your route into the industry?
I am Rob, 30, and I had actually wanted to be a computer programmer from a disturbingly young age! For whatever reason, it became obvious during college that the academic life I had always thrived within was not working out for me and I dropped out. While I was waiting to go back to college the following September, in an attempt to earn some money, I was offered the opportunity to create a servicing database for my brother-in-law, who ran a small plumbing and heating business. A week later, with his other apprentice not doing very well, he offered me a week out on the tools to see how I found it. I took him up on the offer and have never looked back.
I was trained by him for three years on an apprenticeship at Steve Willis Training, alongside another lad he took on at a similar time, and we undertook all kinds of domestic work, although mostly breakdowns, but also boiler installation and some renewable work. He did bathrooms, but I never really had a knack for it; it was the breakdowns and diagnostics I really enjoyed.
Why did you decide to launch Dr Boilers? What is the main work the company undertakes and how has the company grown since its beginnings?
At some point, mid-2011 perhaps, it became obvious that we did not have the amount of work required for the number of guys we had in the company. My brother-in-law was a one-man band and operated as such. As the months went by we earnt very little, all self-employed, and with each new imposition I pushed out in a new way. Eventually, after a long search on the internet for available business names and domain names, I ended up with Dr Boilers. I actually did not like it at first, I wanted Dr Boiler! From there I did very little, few bits here and there but I moved to Reading, got a job here and again, did very little.
Similar things happened, my efforts were not taken advantage of and eventually I put those into my own business, working weekends and evenings doing domestic work (as commercial was never an option late at night or during the weekend) after a full day doing my own work until, eventually, my work during the day was the least productive thing I was doing. I left in 2016 to go for Dr Boilers full time and steered it in a more commercial direction, clearing out some of my more tedious domestic clients and focusing on my passion for giant boilers and emergency call-outs.
While I have looked back from time to time, I would not stop myself from doing it the same way again if I had the choice.
What do you enjoy about the commercial scene?
I did initially train as domestic, but even back then I was fascinated by the commercial side of the industry and the opportunity to repair these amazing boilers, with all kinds of complexity and controls. The chance arose when it became obvious there was money in it, and my old boss was interested in nursing homes, so he sent me off a year after my domestic qualifications to do my commercial appliances, only indirect though as it was expensive. I achieved very little on my own as a commercial engineer but a few years later, moved to Reading and took a job at a small commercial maintenance company.
I took a lower wage from the company than they were offering, on the understanding that I had basically no experience in the field. What I did after that was learn as much as I could, whenever I could, and along with Josh and Connor – who were my apprentices at the company – I learnt all about commercial appliances and plant services, some air conditioning, some more renewable energy. It was really rather advantageous in the end because of the huge range of works we carried out.
How do you find running your own business, and how easy is it to source work in the commercial and industrial sectors? Is social media used and how useful do you find it? Do you have any advice for fellow installers looking to set up their own company and be successful in the industry?
I am naturally optimistic. I am not sure that helps with running a business but it certainly helps with dealing with running a business. It is the organisational aspects that I fail to manage correctly most of the time, and what I continue to attempt to work on. I have found sourcing work in the commercial and industrial sector rather challenging, having gone from a well-positioned business that seemed to just get work to my own business, which to this day I believe still needs a larger and more varied client base. I may always believe that though.
Ironically, most goals of social media I have found to be pointless for the commercial sectors; Facebook is not a big place for commercial clients, reviews seem to mean very little to my customers and the internet remains a place where people in the commercial sector, while they would go there for their own house, would not go for a gas engineer for their business. However, I have found it brilliant for business to business work, sub-contracting, to extend the offerings of other engineers who I know through social media, and I have found some very good clients through this route of being recommended by engineers. I do also find the website, while not a good source for commercial customers, to be the first place they go when they have decided they are thinking about you; many a time I have had clients tell me that the website is good, but they did not find me on there.
I guess my only recommendation would be to focus on what you are good at. If you are good at something, people will want it and all you have to do is continue doing it; the business parts will come from there and the parts you cannot do yourself you can always be outsourced in today’s world. A good website, a little dab of schmooze with the clients and you cannot go wrong.
What is the biggest change or innovation you have witnessed in the industry since you started?
It probably is not an innovation that has happened in my measly 12 years in the industry but to my eyes, it has happened in that time and it is crimping. I recall the first time I did it; it was in a factory for some kind of American cult that whittled things with wood. They were very skilled, but they wanted toilet facilities and somehow my old boss got the job. Because of the wood, we were not allowed to solder so we got a load of Xpress fittings and hired a Novopress gun. It was truly fascinating, but it was the first and last time I did it. When I moved on to commercial, it was pretty much all we did and while domestically I probably would solder for convenience most of the time, it is certainly moving closer and closer to the day when the blowlamp is only used for lighting pilots and hobs.
The change that I believe has happened, and have had the pleasure of watching happen, is the pride that other engineers take in their workmanship, driven by Twitter, the support of magazines such as PHPI, and industry mainstays like Dennis Hollingworth and PB Plumber. When I started off, we all fit boilers fairly regularly, but we would never even take photos of our work let alone show it around. It probably wasn’t bad most of the time, but that did not matter. Why would you show it around? Now, the power of social media encourages us to do better and better work and I can only seeing that spreading – to the advantage of engineers and customers alike.
What do you do outside of work?
I actually cannot remember the last thing I did outside work. I quite enjoy milling about doing my website as I find that quite soothing. Strangely, health and safety paperwork is quite relaxing to complete. I will sit around coming up with posts for Twitter – it is possible I spend too much time doing that. I have always enjoyed Family Guy, the new Star Trek is awesome, Vikings is pretty good, I can sit around watching anything really. Generally though, as most business owners will know, I do all of these things while doing invoices, quotes, paperwork, or just thinking about new ways to get new customers!
You can find Rob tweeting from @DrBoilers at all hours of the day and night