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Working Through the Pandemic Made This Industrial-Services Franchise Stronger

Industrial-services franchise Pirtek USA was deemed an essential business last year. Making it through a pandemic wasn't easy, but CEO Kim Gubera says they're stronger as a result.

This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Kim Gubera may seem like an unlikely CEO for Pirtek. The industrial-services franchise performs hydraulic and industrial hose repair. But Gubera doesn't have an engineering background. She was trained as an accountant, and she joined the company in 2016 as corporate controller. In 2019, when she was promoted to CEO, she was apprehensive about leading a company whose 75 U.S. franchisees she estimates to be 95 percent male with career expertise in hydraulics. But she found a community of franchisees that respected her business background and were eager to collaborate — with the corporate office and each other. That community stayed strong in 2020, as Pirtek's business held steady during a tumultuous time. Now she is looking forward to 2021, and feels certain that the lessons from last year have prepared the company for anything.

Courtesy of Pirtek
Kim Gubera, CEO of Pirtek

Pirtek considers itself to be recession-resistant. Did that prove true last year?

We can also say we're pandemic-­resistant. We were only down 3 percent last year. That's not to say it wasn't a tough year for our network, but most of our customers are essential services — ­construction, waste management —­­ so if they're working, we're working. And here in Florida, where we're headquartered, the governor actually accelerated roads projects because there were fewer cars on the road. So we did see upticks in some regions.

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How did you adjust operations to keep franchisees and customers feeling safe?

We do all our work and repairs primarily through mobile services. In normal times, that's convenient for customers. If equipment doesn't work on a construction site, that can lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses — but because we can get to the site quick and make the repair, it saves them the time of removing the hose and going to a repair shop. In the pandemic, we were telling clients, "You don't even have to see us! The equipment is outside, we'll come repair it, and we'll send you a bill." That was a good selling tool. No one had to worry about social distancing.

What additional support did franchisees need throughout 2020?

The number-one issue was determining if we were really deemed essential. There was a lot of variation state to state, and the explanations felt circular in their descriptions. So we were able to help them sort that out, and we drafted a letter they could put in their vans in case they were stopped and questioned about being out and operating.

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That sounds like it required a lot of communication.

We typically have consultants and professionals who visit our franchisees regularly to provide support and guidance, but when that wasn't an option, we decided to call every owner in our system every single day. And we did that for eight weeks, making more than 2,200 calls to see how they were doing and letting them know what we were hearing from other markets. It was our job to keep them informed but also help keep them positive about what we were all going through.

What are you expecting from 2021?

We hope there's going to be some pent-up demand, and probably an infrastructure bill passed down the road, which tends to mean lots of work. Last year we sold nine locations despite the pandemic, so we expect to grow at a faster rate. Last year really taught us to prepare. We know now that we need to be adaptive, always have an emergency plan in place, understand cash flow, and know how to keep operating if working from home is required. We now know how to be fast on our feet.

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