Multi-generation company continues to grow by doing what they’ve done for years, having a customer-first approach
Customers have always come first for Schefer Radiant, no matter which generation has owned the company.
“My grandfather, my dad and myself, we’ve always strived on doing it the best possible way,” says Tom Schefer, current owner. “My dad always said that if you do it the best you can, the customer has no reason to complain. It’s always something that we’ve stood by. Just do it the best we can and give the customers what they deserve.”
The company, founded in 1945 in Santa Rosa, California, has gone through many technology changes, but the focus on radiant heating and plumbing and putting customers first has been a constant. That allows Schefer to look ahead to his son and even his grandson eventually taking over.
“I don’t think it ever started out to stay in the family, but it’s evolved into something like that,” Tom says. “The Schefer name has always been on the business and that is very important. I’d like to see it keep on going.”
BUILDING THE TRADITION
The family story begins with Walter Schefer in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was just a young man working for a plumbing operation in Santa Rosa. “It was during the Depression, and he and the other guys would sit there on a bench outside and take turns on services calls,” Tom says. “It was tough back in those days.”
Walter made it through and decided it was time for a change. He bought a 21-foot double-ender salmon fishing boat and would go fishing and sell the fish at the local market to earn money to start his own business. “In 1945, he bought a plumbing business from another guy in town,” Tom says. “He started doing plumbing by himself. He knew boilers, so that is how we got into radiant.”
Once old enough, Walter’s two sons came along and took over Walter Schefer Plumbing. After a falling-out, they split the company. Tom’s dad, Mel, took the repair service division, and his uncle took the new installations. Tom assumed ownership of the company in 1991 from his dad and renamed it Tom Schefer Plumbing and Radiant Heating.
Things changed in 2005. “We had 14 employees and it was just so much,” Tom says. “We were just starting the recession and I had had enough. I was done. Another company came along and I sold the business.”
Tom stayed with that company as an employee for a couple years. After those couple of years, Tom decided the time was right to relaunch his company again, forming Schefer Radiant.
“When my grandfather first started, the city had maybe 11,000 to 12,000 residents,” Tom says. “Now, there’s almost 300,000, so we’ve just seen it grow and grow. Back then, there were three, maybe four plumbing companies, and now I don’t even know how many there are. We’re still very busy, though, because we do what we do.”
GOING BIG RIGHT AWAY
After he relaunched the company, it didn’t take long for Tom to get back to work. He received a job at a 16,000-square-foot, four-story house doing a new home installation project. “We did all the radiant,” Tom says. “All the plumbing was in cast iron and heavy type-K copper, and everything was just high-class top dollar.”
The homeowner wanted radiant components tied into a geothermal heat pump. “We had a company come in and drill 14 wells at 350 feet deep,” Tom says. “We had the tubing go down inside those wells and then come back into a big, huge manifold in the basement to some heat pumps.”
Those pumps heated the water not only for the radiant floors, but also for the fan coils that were ducted throughout. In summer, the heat pumps would go into chilling mode and provide air conditioning. Schefer also installed a heat pump that worked the wine cave in the back of the house, supplied some of the refrigeration, and heated the swimming pool.
Tom worked on the project an average of three to four days a week, while also trying to build the company. He and his crews still go to the property every six months to check the systems — changing filters and UV bulbs used in the water filtration process.
“It was a very unique job and it lasted at least five years,” Tom says. “It was one of those jobs where it was so gratifying to work on it. Everything was the best and it turned out great.”
MANY SERVICES TO OFFER
While most jobs aren’t as big as that multimillion-dollar home, the company does serve a wide range of clients, from residential to commercial, and will do new installations and repairs. “We’ll put in water heaters, we’ll go out and fix toilets,” Tom says. “If people have leaky faucets, we’ll go out and fix that. Anything that’s inside the house we’ll take care of.”
Noritz tankless water heaters are a popular request on the plumbing side of the business.
There are some jobs, though, that the company won’t do. “We don’t do any sewer and drain,” Tom says. “We didn’t do enough of it to keep the equipment. You almost have to do that every day just to keep that side going.”
Radiant is where Tom finds the most appreciation: “That is something we really, really enjoy. The radiant is exciting and we love doing it.”
The company typically installs Lochinvar, Viessmann and Baxi boilers.
One big reason he enjoys working with radiant systems is the constant technology changes. Those changes are also a big reason his dad got out of the business.
“With the early boilers you’d just see one pilot light, a safety, an aquastat controlling the boiler and that’s all,” Tom says. “It was very simple and forgiving. You could do a lot with those things, but they weren’t very energy-efficient. We’ve taken out boilers 50 or 60 years old and it’s just because we can’t get the controls for them anymore.”
The first technology change was spark ignition. Then boilers changed to two-stage gas valves so they would modulate. Then manufacturers moved into modulating controls and burners, and fan-assisted systems.
“Now we’ve got the Lochinvar boiler with the CON-X-US systems,” Tom says. “We have an app on our phone and we can adjust the boiler from anywhere we want to. If the customer calls us because the house isn’t hot enough, we can turn up the boiler from wherever we are. If there is a problem with it, it’ll email me and send me an alert telling me what is wrong.”
That technology helps when customers call with problems in remote areas. Crews can grab the parts they need right away instead of traveling back and forth. “That saves us so much time and saves the client a lot of money,” Tom says.
The company often sends its employees to training with manufacturers to learn about new systems. “The boilers now, you don’t even have to put in a conversion kit to switch between propane or natural gas because the boilers figure out what it is and adjust to it,” Tom says. “They’re just incredible, but you have to be trained.”
BIG ON CUSTOMER SERVICE
Tom knows how important customers are to any business: “We’re there to take care of the people and we need to take care of them.”
A big part of that is being available for service calls. For Burbank Housing, for example, Tom’s crews installed close to 500 Baxi boilers — a combination boiler for domestic hot water and heating — in housing complexes. When one has an issue, his crews are on the job fast.
“When management calls and says they have a boiler down or it’s acting up, we’re there,” Tom says. “I’ll call my son, Brad, or our other plumber, Mario, and get them going. We’re there within a few hours getting them taken care of because we want to keep them nice and happy.”
Getting employees who will put customers first is a priority. Tom hires plumbers from other companies who have to be taught customer service: “We have to teach that into our employees, making sure they know how to take care of the people first and make sure they’re happy.”
FUTURE GENERATIONS AHEAD
At 60 years old, Tom knows its time to think about the future. His son, Brad, already works for the company and knows both radiant and plumbing.
“Brad has been with me since he was about 12 years old, working alongside me. I like to say he was born with a plunger in his hand,” Tom says. “Him knowing both radiant and plumbing is a big advantage.”
Schefer and his wife, Laurie, who serves as secretary, also have a grandson showing interest in the company. He will work with Tom this summer.
With the younger generations coming up, Tom has been spending more time in the office doing the design phase of the projects.
“It’s more of the designing and bidding, and going out and talking with the clients, and getting them set up,” Schefer says. “Then I’ll get all the materials ready for the guys doing the work so they’re ready to go and put the product in. I’ll go and check on them and make sure everything is done the way I wanted it. It’s time to let them do the hard work.”
Through the ages
Owning a company that’s seven decades old, Tom Schefer isn’t surprised when he’s on a job and finds a system his dad or grandfather installed.
Tom, owner of Schefer Radiant in Santa Rosa, California, finds some radiant systems his grandfather put in back in 1945. “In those days they would use wrought iron black pipe for the tubing in the floor,” Schefer says. “It would be welded together and they would put in big cast iron boilers.”
His grandfather, Walter, typically did installations at churches, commercial buildings and large houses. “A lot of those systems are still working today,” Tom says. “I just worked on a house that he did in 1948 and the system is still tight and everything’s working great. It’s on its third boiler with a big Buderus boiler in there now and it’s working wonderfully. It’s a tried-and-true system.”
When Tom’s dad, Mel, took over the company, copper installations became the norm.
“The copper had issues,” Tom says. “They tied it to the rebar and something they didn’t know then is that it would get electrolysis. The ones my dad did though, a lot of them are still out there because he did them in a certain way.”
Crews would put in a slab of concrete, install the system on top of that and then put in a second slab on top of it.
Now that Tom owns the company, he’s using PEX systems: “Maybe someday my grandson or future generations will be finding my installs.”