Drain cleaning provides stepping stone to new jobs and continued growth for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business.
Alex Galicia calls drain cleaning his stepping stone to continued growth.
“It gives you the chance to show off your skills and show that you can be trusted,” says the owner of BPI Plumbing in Chula Vista, California, a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business.
“I would say a lot of our biggest customers started as a drain call.”
One such call brought BPI Plumbing a $2 million repiping job at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in nearby San Diego two years ago.
Meeting the challenge
A series of interconnected buildings had been remodeled, but a drainfield issue where recruits march and graduation ceremonies are held hadn’t been resolved.
“These are three of the original buildings that were World War I era,” Galicia says. “They presented every challenge imaginable, from asbestos to old, forgotten wires that were still active.”
On top of that, Thursdays and Fridays were parade days, which meant workers had to remain extremely quiet and out of sight.
“But with all that we were able to implement a plan and a schedule,” says Galicia, who completed the job about three months early. “We were able to get through it, but it required a lot of planning and a lot of coordination.”
On-call plumbing services account for about half of BPI’s revenue, which topped $4 million in 2015. New construction accounts for much of the rest. Drain cleaning plays a role in both areas and represents about a quarter of BPI Plumbing’s total revenue. It has also opened countless doors and provides an opportunity to build new relationships.
“Many commercial companies have plumbers on staff, but some are handymen as opposed to professional plumbers,” Galicia says. “When they hit a roadblock with issues like blocked sewer lines, BPI comes in, handles the issue, and oftentimes becomes their go-to plumber from that point on.”
BPI’s go-to cleaning tools are eight mainline machines, eight kitchen drainline machines, eight tub machines and a hand jetter — all manufactured by Gorlitz Sewer & Drain.
Other equipment includes an Eagle 600 trailer jetter from JETTERS NORTHWEST (600-gallon water tank, 18 gpm and 4,000 psi), RootX for clearing roots and Calci-Solve for dissolving rust, lime, calcium, concrete, hard water and mineral deposits.
Another piece of BPI’s equipment arsenal is its company fleet. At one time, BPI Plumbing paid workers mileage for driving their own vehicles, but Galicia wanted to move away from that model.
“Little by little we started buying a vehicle here and a vehicle there,” he says. “And now we’re 100 percent company-owned vehicles.”
The vehicle of choice was ultimately a decision Galicia calls circumstantial.
“During the height of the recession we decided to stick with one vehicle,” he says.
After doing some research, checking into reviews, and seeing what was available on the market, the Chevy Express 2500 floated to the top of the list.
While searching for the right fit, Galicia says brand was an important factor. When buying new, he tends to look for a top-notch warranty and when purchasing used he searches for lower mileage and good maintenance records.
“If we can find one that already has racks and things set up that’s nice, but most of the time we have to set it up ourselves. And that’s why we stick to that one brand because we’re kind of standardized,” he says.
Returning full circle
A service-disabled veteran, it was a military job that Galicia considers his most memorable. Teaming up with a larger plumber, BPI helped with a major tenant improvement project at the Marine Corps dining facility in 2010.
Fresh out of high school and 18 at the time, Galicia was on active duty in the Navy when the facility opened in 1985. He was attending a service school next door at the former Naval Training Center. When word got out about a meal the facility would be serving for its grand opening, Galicia made a point to fully enjoy lunch and dinner.
“I wasn’t limited to the dining facilities on my base. I could go next door to the Marine Corps base and utilize theirs as well,” he says. “I went along with some Navy buddies, and we chowed down on their lobster and steak.”
Nearly 25 years later, Galicia was back, this time taking on most of the plumbing, including a copper and DWV repipe and water fixture upgrades.
“I kind of love that,” Galicia says of the opportunity to come full circle and revisit a memorable site — this time as a plumbing pro.
A member of the Army National Guard, Galicia was activated for Operation Noble Eagle, airport security, following 9/11 and served on a series of activations for about eight years.
“The longest one was almost two years, which involved 15 months in Iraq,” he says.
While serving in the Middle East, Galicia thought of starting his own business — perhaps a travel agency.
“And then it hit me,” he says, recalling a pivotal moment.
As a transportation officer, Galicia went from camp to camp on deliveries in Iraq and Kuwait, supervising third-country nationals who handled everything from cooking to sweeping — whatever needed to be done in camp.
“I’m watching the plumbers and I thought, wait a minute. I grew up in the plumbing industry. I know I can get back into it, and it’s a really good industry.”
Galicia’s male role model was his Uncle Benny Garcia, the plumber who founded BPI Plumbing (originally Benny’s Plumbing) in 1976. Garcia lived next door and took Galicia — who was born and raised in Los Angeles — and his older brother, Moe, along on jobs as assistants.
From grade school through high school and even during and after college, Galicia developed his plumbing skills.
When he approached Garcia in 2005 about returning to the plumbing trade, the idea was well received. Moe was sick at the time, and when Garcia died unexpectedly, Galicia decided it was now or never.
“I became the heir apparent, so to speak, from overseas,” he says of losing his brother and uncle within six months of each other.
Returning to the U.S., Galicia was activated once again — this time to border security duty in San Diego. On orders with the National Guard and working 12-hour days, he was unable to focus on the business full time and called on his friend, Brian Wicklund, an Australian native with an entrepreneurial background, to lend a hand.
Now the CFO and chief estimator at BPI Plumbing, Wicklund took over operations in 2006 until Galicia was able to come aboard full time in 2008.
“My uncle basically ran it as an old 1099 shop where everybody was an independent contractor,” says Galicia, who envisioned a different future, and along with Wicklund, worked to transform the company from a sole proprietorship into a small-business corporation.
The art of training
Finding good people has been a key component of their growth and success.
“Everybody knows there’s a labor shortage, and it’s really hard to find good plumbers right now,” Galicia says. “The biggest thing I picked up from my uncle is a willingness and ability to train, mentor and develop our own plumbers. He basically raised his own people.”
Garcia became involved in the Job Corps and helped teach at-risk young adults, ages 18-25, the trade, and in some cases, hired them on. As a member of the board of directors, Galicia has followed in his uncle’s footsteps and has hired five employees from the Job Corps.
An advocate for apprenticeships and training in general, BPI Plumbing has donated time and offered ride-alongs to Castle Park High School’s industrial arts training program — another relationship that began with Garcia.
In recognition for its involvement with the Job Corps and the local high school, the South County Economic Development Council named BPI Plumbing its Outstanding Corporate Citizen for 2014.
Garcia came to the United States on Jan. 3, 1959, a few days after Fidel Castro marched into Havana.
A Cuban Army sergeant and plumber, Garcia’s name appeared on a security clearance list because of the work he handled in the Presidential Palace, generals’ homes and other government buildings.
Castro ordered most on the list killed, but fortunately for Garcia, the revolutionary soldier verifying identities was a childhood friend. He told Garcia to get out of Cuba and to not go home.
Catching a flight to Key West, Florida, Garcia never saw his mother again and didn’t see his father until almost 30 years later.
“He had the experience that a lot of refugees have,” Galicia says. “They come to the U.S. with nothing except the clothes on their backs and a few dollars in their pockets.”
It was plumbing that allowed Garcia to flee to the U.S. and find work.
Initially, he put his skills to use at Miami hotels, but about the time of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Garcia left for California to escape growing pressure to go back to Cuba and overthrow Castro.
Eventually, Garcia became known as a go-to guy who would help other Cuban refugees learn the plumbing trade and establish themselves.
“I don’t know how many plumbers out there owe their trade to my uncle,” Galicia says.
Paying it forward: Mentoring program provides business guidance
As a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business, BPI Plumbing takes its lead from Alex Galicia, who served in the U.S. Navy in the 1980s and continues to serve as a commissioned officer (major) in the California Army National Guard.
“As a veteran, first and foremost I feel a responsibility to help other veterans,” says Galicia, whose sense of responsibility partly stems from the guidance he received after his uncle and brother passed away within six months of each other.
“I didn’t have a lot of guidance at first even though I grew up in the industry,” Galicia says. “It’s nice to have a more experienced professional to fall back on as questions, both simple and complex, arise.”
Galicia found support in the Mentor Protégé program offered by the Associated General Contractors (AGC) and city of San Diego.
“I was lucky to be accepted,” Galicia says, “but I didn’t realize that getting accepted was the first challenge. Finding a mentor was the second one.”
Rich Collins, founder of Collins Plumbing in La Mesa, California, had been approached to become a mentor for other plumbers, but the timing wasn’t right.
“He’s a good guy, but he was busy running a business,” Galicia says.
When approached about helping a fellow veteran, Collins, who served in Vietnam, was more than willing to lend a hand.
“He took me under his wing,” Galicia says. “He basically taught me how to compete against him.”
The idea on the part of both the city of San Diego and the AGC was to develop competitors and make plumbing a more competitive industry. It worked out well for the city, Galicia says, who has bid against Collins on city projects.
“He took time out of his day to sit with me and teach me,” Galicia says. “And to this day I can give him a call and ask for his advice. So I see that as an obligation, and Rich helped me see it as one. He said, ‘Someday you’re going to do the same for somebody else.’”
Galicia has since paid it forward and then some.
A former board member of Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Businesses (SDVOB), he is currently a national board member of the Disabled Veteran Business Alliance (DVBA).
“I’m involved in the veterans’ business world to provide mentorship and guidance to up-and-coming veterans,” Galicia says. “And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in plumbing.”
There are other aspects of business that need to be figured out by those who are following an entrepreneurial path in any industry, he says, such as writing a business plan, setting up a marketing plan or figuring out how to finance a business.
“It feels good to give back,” Galicia says. “We do what we can based on our ability.”