Before his 20 years in corporate America and his MBA, Mike Wickam spent his college summers working in the plumbing business.

Wickam has tapped that background, along with his marketing and turnaround expertise, to more than double sales at Mr. Rooter Plumbing, the Fridley-based franchise he acquired in March. The franchise now averages more than 80 service calls a week, up from 35 a week the month before the acquisition.

"This was a really solid business," Wickam said. "But it really needed that modern touch in marketing and my approach to management."

The company now does less phone directory advertising and more online marketing and customized direct mail. On the management side, Wickam introduced health and dental coverage, profit-sharing and a written compensation plan. Mr. Rooter offers full-service plumbing and drain cleaning services to residential and commercial customers, with round-the-clock service at no extra charge and free quotes based on the job, not by the hour.

"We're not in the plumbing business, we're in the serving customers business," Wickam said. "I'm here to help my employees get to their next step. When they do that, that means they're doing a great job here at Mr. Rooter and that turns into more satisfied customers and better employees."

To expand commercial service, Wickam is offering regular maintenance programs to help restaurants and commercial properties avoid large repairs.

Wickam's franchise location has 13 employees; he expects 20 a year from now. He operates 10 trucks and is hiring to add another.

Gross sales per work order averaged $497 for the 174 Mr. Rooter franchised businesses that were open for all of 2011, according to franchise disclosure documents filed by the Dwyer Group, its Texas-based holding company. Starting a Mr. Rooter franchise requires a total investment of $60,000 to $150,000, including a franchise fee of $29,500, plus payment of 5 to 7 percent of gross sales.

MBA plumber

Wickam, 45, spent most of his corporate years in mid- and senior-level sales management at big telecom companies in Minnesota, Florida, California and his native Illinois. He and his wife, who is from Minnesota, returned eight years ago when they started a family.

Wickam got an MBA at California State University San Marcos, and now serves as an adjunct professor at Bethel College in Arden Hills, teaching sales and sales management at the same school from which he and his wife graduated. "I'm probably the only MBA plumber you'll find," he jokes. Although not a licensed plumber, he pitches in on some tasks.

Tired of corporate bureaucracy and travel, Wickam two years ago started a consulting business that managed salespeople for small business. He met the previous Mr. Rooter owners, who were looking to retire and encouraged Wickam buy the franchise. He financed the acquisition with savings and a U.S. Small Business Administration loan. He aspires to launch an independent effort to offer low- or no-cost plumbing services to low-income residents.

"Those big companies had sent me all around the country to fix things," Wickam said. "I was kind of a turnaround specialist. I decided to do that for myself.''

Jessica Kunza, customer service manager at the Mr. Rooter location for the past three years, said employees are happy with Wickam's changes. "Morale in this place is sky high right now," Kunza said. "His marketing background has helped us. There's more business, and the way he handles things as a boss and the way he treats us is great."

Carol Kough, a Roseville resident, said the work that Wickam's crew did to repair the sewer main in her front yard surpassed her expectations.

"They couldn't have been nicer," Kough said. They explained everything as they went along and when half the neighborhood showed up to find out what was going on, they explained that nicely to them. I remember telling the guys I wouldn't want that job for a million bucks an hour. You've got to be pretty special to do that work."

The expert says: Mark Spriggs, associate professor and chairman of the Entrepreneurship Department at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said Wickam represents a growing trend among middle managers leaving corporate jobs to buy franchises.

"They are a significant audience for franchisors looking for franchisees," said Spriggs, who teaches a class on franchising. "They are a lot more common than you might think. The biggest thing is they have accumulated some capital."

Spriggs said he was impressed with how Wickam had updated the business operation of his franchise. "He came in with a valuable set of skills and moved forward based on that," Spriggs said.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is