Interview | Eugène Plompen: ROM Wasn’t Built in a Day

19 November 2020


Looking back at the last 40 years, RIDGID wanted to take the time to review the important moments in the history of the company with Eugène Plompen, Managing Director of ROM BV and valued RIDGID ambassador.

RIDGID and Eugène Plompen talked about key milestones, successes, failures and lessons learned and left a few open questions for the next generation: how will technology continue to impact the camera inspection and cleaning market in the future and how will the skilled drain cleaning professionals of tomorrow shape this industry in 40 years from now?

RIDGID: The story of ROM is fascinating. There is Amsterdam, an old bakery and two entrepreneurs passionate about pipe cleaning and good customer service. Can you tell us more about these beginnings?

E.P. This is indeed a nice story and we remembered it a few days ago when a customer came into our showroom with an old RIDGID KM-1500 that his father bought in the early 80s, when business was still done with pen and paper. I was intrigued, so I looked through old registers and found this handwritten order form, dating from November 1980. This was the beginning of ROM and RIDGID Kollmann.

We were a two-man band, working in a small company with office, repair shop and storage room in an old bakery in Amsterdam. There was no internet back then, so what we had was an existing list of RIDGID customers and… the Yellow Pages.

We were calling plumbers, sewer cleaners, municipalities and hospitals, asking them if they needed service, and offering them a special deal when they came to us: one year free of charge service, only pay for the parts.

After a while, we were getting the calls back “Oh, are you that company who makes the service for RIDGID, can you come over again?”

So, while talking to all these customers, we saw they needed cables, accessories, more machines and that’s how we slowly started to build a profitable business, organically. It’s amazing how certain things are still so relevant today. Good service, good customer care is what makes a business thrive.

RIDGID: Were you the service engineer and your colleague the owner or were you both owners?

E.P. ROM was then owned by two partners, Jacques Eijkens and Frans Zijnen who owned Rod-O-Matic. I came to the company in 1983 and at that moment, there was someone doing service and repair, but it was not a focus. My role was to change that.

I was a service engineer before 12 AM and in the afternoon I would put my suit and tie and go out to sell. I was doing demos and visits nonstop, I really loved that. I loved the sales job so much, that I didn’t have time for service anymore, so we started to hire more people.

RIDGID: Were you already manufacturing high pressure units or did that business come in later?

E.P. In the 1980s, we were already selling a German brand of high-pressure cleaning machines but after a few years, we realized the Dutch market was not ready for such expensive solutions.

In the meantime, we got better and better at understanding and using the technology, so we decided to start making these units in house.  It took us 5 to 10 years to gain experience and know-how and we needed a lot of patience and resilience to get there. But we took it step by step, we learned from mistakes and we won the long-term game from these small wins. 

Two months ago, I was sitting with the founder of ROM on a terrace in Amsterdam, to celebrate the 40 years anniversary of ROM and remember the nice moments. While we were talking, we saw one ROM machine after the other passing by, and we were laughing at the idea that maybe someone arranged this for us.

But we felt very proud of our achievements and the long journey we went through, to get where we are today. And you know, with all the ups and downs over the years, one thing didn’t change since day one. Having RIDGID as our number one partner.

RIDGID: How did you choose for RIDGID?

E.P. It was quite easy. Rod-O-Matic, the company where the idea for ROM came from, had already experience with RIDGID as it has a good reputation in the market, for the quality of the machines and cables.

There was also a second brand that was pretty popular, but they could not deliver parts and service on time. And that became really the reason why we chose to continue with RIDGID and leave the other brand behind.

We believed that we could go further and be more successful with one performant horse, so we did not bet on too many different horses.

RIDGID: What do you think were the key ingredients of such a long-term partnership?

E.P. If I truly believe in a brand, that’s not a coincidence but a conscious choice, based on facts. I get weekly calls and emails from so many different companies and brands, because we are well known in Europe for our expertise, but I am not interested.

What we built this partnership on, was trust, collaboration and passion for the customers and the industry. Having a long term vision and long term goals. Of course not everything is perfect all the time, like in any relationship.

But we can overcome the challenges when we think about the long term direction and I think that’s the most important element in a partnership. You’re in a boat together, sometimes you have to swim through difficult waters, but in the end, you’ll get together on the other side, with a better product, a better solution for our customers, making a difference in someone’s life and work.

RIDGID: At what point did you know that you were ready to diversify your business and get into new segments like ecological toilets or pipe renovation? What were the decisions you had to make when you started a new business?

E.P. Good question and not an easy one. ROM is a team of very good salespeople. When we see something interesting in the market, we like to go one step further, understand that application and assess if there is an opportunity. This of course involves taking some risk.

In the past, we jumped on opportunities a bit too fast, for example when we got into the sewer renovation business. We learned that we need to spend more time doing a proper market research first and assess if that opportunity is also the right strategic fit for us.

But to be honest, we don’t regret making those wrong choices because I believe they were part of what made us even stronger, and we learned a lot from them.

ROM is like a table with four legs: one leg is the high-pressure business, the second leg is vacuum units for the portable toilets industry, the third leg is RIDGID with pipe cleaning and camera inspection technology and the fourth leg is service.

We have learned that if we keep these four legs strong, we stay healthy. But of course, as you grow bigger as an organization (we are now with 140 people across our locations in The Netherlands and the Czech Republic ), you get a lot of ideas and everyone wants to contribute with their own ideas.

The risk is that you risk diluting your core values and core business. What we have learned over the years is that market research is very important, you cannot rely only on gut feeling.

To give you a recent example, we were thinking to invest in chemicals for sewer cleaning, it is an interesting market and we have the entrance to all the right customer segments who use them. But we decided not to do it, because the market is still too small and it would get in conflict with our cleaning business so in the end, it would hurt us more than it would help us.

RIDGID: Sometimes it’s better to keep it simple and stick to what you do best. Our former President at RIDGID, Fred Pond, was always saying “Be great at what you do and don’t just be good at what others do”. It’s more important than ever to have a clear direction for the company and communicate this vision to the people. How do you see this?

E.P. It’s true that customers today have so many choices and they have instant access to any piece of information they need. Just one google search and you will find dozens of answers to any question you might have.

So we want to make sure that when they get to us, we make it simple and easy for them. This is also something we encourage our sales teams to keep in mind.

It’s not only about the products and the applications, but the most important is to understand what the customer needs from us to work faster and better and be proud of the result of their work when they get home in the evening. That’s what I think we do best, helping customers with great products and great service.

RIDGID: How do you see the future of the drain cleaning industry? Do you think the rapid advances in technology will influence the nature of a drain cleaner’s job?

Drain cleaning has always been a profession where you worked yourself into the job, you learned by doing so I think this helped professionals to become very adaptable.  If I think back a few decades ago when there were no advanced cameras or locating equipment, we made a huge progress.

I remember when the first cameras were put on the market, we had plumbers coming to our showroom really happy that they managed to take a photo or a video, on a VHS cassette, but they had no clue how to read or interpret that information.

I think we will have similar examples in 40 years from now, looking back at today. The young professionals who now grow up with smartphones and connected devices will be used to have an app for everything. Any technology that helps them become 1% more productive, will be a winning technology.

And it must be an easy to use technology. Simple, intuitive, like the RIDGID cameras. Once you got used to one model, you will know how to operate all of them. I think that one area that changed a lot and will continue to change, is the cable market, so cleaning the drain with a mechanical drain cleaning machine.

Drain cleaners today want to limit the mess on the jobsite so machines like the RIDGID Flexshaft are great and will be more and more important in the future. Another important driver will be productivity. Nowadays, drain cleaners want to take as many jobs as possible in a day, to increase their revenues, so they want to work with equipment that helps them get the job done as fast as possible.

Finally, drain cleaners will want to see everything, to the last detail, and be able to show that to their clients. High pressure water jetting combined with live inspection, will be the norm in the future. You go left and right cleaning the pipe and you can see everything at the same time.

But pipe cleaning will always be a need if people live, eat and wash their clothes.

RIDGID: Do you think there will be an increased interest in high pressure cleaning compared to mechanical drain cleaning?

E.P. It think the mechanical drain cleaning machines will remain important inside the buildings, while the high-pressure technology will become the norm outside. We see that in France already, where there is almost no mechanical drain cleaning used anymore.

In Scandinavia, we have developed a whole new machine, 470 bar and 30L water to clean steel pipes with rust inside. They cannot clean them with cables, just with high pressure, above 400 bar.

RIDGID: How do you see the future generation of drain cleaners in terms of their skills and competencies needed? For these professionals, there are not so many educational programs like you would have for plumbers or electricians. Do you see this as a problem in maintaining a certain level of professionalism in this trade?

E.P. This is a very important point. Often, it is the plumber who will also take care of drain cleaning interventions, but not all plumbers want to do this job. So, we see a need to qualify and train the people working in drain cleaning companies, directly on the jobsite, whether they use a ROM machine or a RIDGID camera.

This is a very important aspect of our business because it helps us keep our relationships with our customers close and we also can take care of service and repair on a regular basis. You know that we are part of the KOKS Group and we have the KOKS Academy.

In this industry they work with pressures of 1000-3000 bar, so it’s very dangerous. They get people from around the world to their trainings and they certify them. We should think about a similar program for sewer cleaning, there is no option now, but we need to find the right framework and content, so it is relevant for our customers.

Customers expect to buy equipment that is easy to use and intuitive, from the moment they take it out of the box. Like an iPhone. They will want to spend time on a training, only when they have a real problem or challenge and they need additional support. The training needs to provide clear additional value, maybe tailor-made, and not a course containing information they already know.

RIDGID: If you are new to this trade, do you need training before you invest in pipe inspection and cleaning equipment? What do you need to know before making the investment?

Every month we meet people who want to start their own business. And they come to us for advice and ask what equipment they should invest when they start. They are sometimes concerned to spend too much on expensive equipment.

We help them with recommendations and we usually help them calculate the longer term return on that initial investment. It pays off to buy quality equipment from day 1 and not worry about a broken camera in the middle of your inspection job, because you can then really focus on solving your customers’ problem, and not repairing broken equipment.

Having the right equipment, helps these guys gain the respect and loyalty of their customers, and get better recommendations and more jobs in the future. It’s really about reputation. How do you want to be known in the market?

And you know, sometimes people do go somewhere else and they choose another brand. But what we’ve seen over the years is that sooner or later, they will always come back to the brand that offer the best quality. In 80% of the cases they always come back.

RIDGID: What do you appreciate mostly at the partnership with RIDGID?

The most important for us is to be listened to. We spend time with our customers in the field every day and we know this industry in and out. When we have a partner like RIDGID who is genuinely interested in what happens in the field and listens to our feedback, that’s the type of partner we like to have.

And it’s not only the commercial relationship, we also had RIDGID product managers and engineers joining our sales team in the field and paying close attention to some specific needs our market has. And sometimes we don’t always hear immediately back, but then a new product comes to the market and it has some features that we asked for, and that’s very reassuring, to know that our feedback matters and it’s considered.

RIDGID: How do you see this market in 40 years from now?

By then I will be 100 years old so I reached my goals. (laughing) I believe the future of pipe cleaning and inspection will mean more and more doing these two operations at the same time. Everyone wants to be faster, more efficient, in control, and seeing what you’re doing, while cleaning the pipe, is the way to go.

At the same time, I believe the role of the field sales teams will change, and that is also driven by what the current pandemic thought us. You don’t always need to spend long hours for a demo, you don’t need the long chat and coffee.

As a salesman, you need to be spot on, offer the right support the customers need, at the time they need it, and offer that extra valuable information that is not available anywhere else. Be brief, be relevant and be gone. I also think the role of marketing will grow in the future, because having the right content that customers need and making it available on the right touchpoints, will drive more leads and create demand.

RIDGID:  If you think about customers in the post COVID era, do you think they will want to go back to have more human contact with the brands or they will be used with the digital way and stick to that?

The younger generation was already used to have more virtual contacts, even before COVID, but I believe that people will want to be with other people and physical events will be back. We are human, social animals, we are not lonely wolves so I bet that everyone is craving for more social contact and that will come back when this situation is over.

And especially in our industry, customers will always want to see and touch the products before they decide so I cannot imagine that the entire customer journey can move online. Maybe once you made your choice and you are happy with your brand and you need accessories or repairs, you will want the convenience of a Webshop or app to transact in the easiest and fastest way.

But when you are still deciding what to invest in, what brand, what model of camera, you will want to see it and try it before you decide.

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