Waterworks Reinvests in Plumbing Success

Columbus contractor puts priority on people and fosters growth by providing convenience and quality service.
Waterworks Reinvests in Plumbing Success
The Waterworks management includes (from left) Vice President of Industrial Operations Jim Mathews, President David Specht, Vice President of Commercial and Residential Operations John O'Connor and Restoration Division Director Jeff Foster. Photography by Amy Voigt

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On the face of it, The Waterworks is one of central Ohio’s largest commercial and residential plumbing and drain cleaning companies. But David Specht, the president of the Columbus-based firm, defines the well-diversified company from an entirely different perspective. 

“We look at ourselves primarily as a service company,” he says. “We strive to be the best service company around, not the best plumbing company or the best pipe relining company or the best drain cleaning company. This has been the philosophy ever since our founder, Tom Havens, established the company in 1986.” 

Providing great customer service informs virtually everything the company does, from how it trains employees and the uniforms they wear to the equipment and vehicles the company invests in — more than $4.5 million worth and counting — and the growing array of services it provides. And it clearly is a key factor in the company’s growth; since emerging from the recession, the multi-million-dollar-a-year firm (in terms of gross revenue) has experienced several years of double-digit growth. 

“We had our burps in 2009 and 2010 like everybody else, but we recovered by focusing on what we do best. We didn’t compromise our quality or our pricing,” Specht explains. “We stayed true to our core values and the way we operate our business. We let some customers (who wanted discounted pricing) walk. Dropping prices would result in dropping the level of service we provide, and we weren’t willing to do that. 

“It was a difficult and risky strategy,” he says. “But after the recession, people were again willing to pay for value and dependable service.”

Professionalism counts
The company was founded in 1986 when Havens bought a sewer cleaning business called ElectraBore Inc., established in 1935, and renamed it The Waterworks. At the time, the company owned just three service vehicles and one vacuum truck, and initially focused on industrial cleaning and hazardous and non-hazardous waste hauling, plus drain cleaning. In 1991, the company sold its environmental services division and concentrated on just commercial and residential plumbing services. Today, its business volume is split evenly between commercial and residential work, Specht says. 

Waterworks builds customer loyalty by exceeding customer expectations, and that entails fostering a strong sense of professionalism among employees — a must in an industry marked by unflattering stereotypes. It all starts in the company’s call center, where separate staffs are dedicated to answering service calls and dispatching technicians. Customer service reps also touch base with customers every couple hours to apprise them of technicians’ progress; that includes calling about a half hour before the technician’s expected arrival. 

“We always want to be empathetic and sympathetic to our customers’ needs,” Specht notes. “We’re starting to use texts and emails more often, too. But we strive hard to respect customers’ time. Our challenge is that we have 50-plus service trucks out there and running. It’s a tough, tough task but a very important one (to stay in regular communication with customers).” 

To combat negative stereotypes, show respect for customers and differentiate the company from competitors, Waterworks technicians wear uniforms and put on shoe covers when entering customers’ homes. The company also offers online scheduling to make it easier for customers to make service appointments. 

“It’s all about convenience — people don’t want to make phone calls anymore,” Specht says. “They’re using their smartphones for everything. It’s how people operate and I think our industry is behind on that. We’re trying to get more engaged in that process. But customers still get a telephone call back from us (to confirm appointments).” 

The company also offers second-shift appointments for non-emergency work — from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday — at no extra charge. That way, for instance, if a husband and wife both work, no one has to take time off to come home for a service call.

Staying abreast of new technology
To better serve customers, Waterworks minimizes the chances for breakdowns in its fleet by changing out about 20 percent of its trucks every five years. Moreover, it continually invests in new, technologically advanced equipment to increase productivity, Specht notes. 

The company’s 70-plus service and support vehicles are mostly Chevrolets. Three trailer-mounted water jetters made by US Jetting supply the bulk of the cleaning power, and one Juggler pump truck from Labrie Environmental Group with a blower made by National Vacuum Equipment is used for cleaning grease traps. Nearly two dozen RIDGID camera systems and one tractor-powered color camera system made by R.S. Technical Services provide eyes in the pipes. 

The fleet also includes two Vac-Con combination vacuum trucks, built on International chassis — one with a 12-cubic-yard debris tank and the other with a 15-yard tank — and both equipped with hydroexcavating systems and pumps made by Giant Industries (4,000 psi at 50 gpm and 2,500 psi at 80 gpm); a 1994 Freightliner 3000 pump truck with a 3,000-gallon Cusco steel tank (a Wastequip LLC brand) and a pump made by Wittig (a Gardner Denver brand); a pipe-lining system made by Perma-Liner Industries; a trackhoe made by Kubota Tractor Corp.; and a front loader and backhoe manufactured by New Holland (a CNH Industrial N.V. brand). 

Waterworks is also equipping field technicians with Samsung tablets to achieve efficiencies through paperless invoicing and filing. Tablets also allow technicians to take photos and document jobs. 

“Again, we want to exceed expectations in the marketplace,” Specht says. “In the future, we’ll email homeowners a bill. In addition, the tablets maintain our flat-rate price book and update it in real time, as opposed to printing one every quarter or so. If the price of copper changes tomorrow, for example, that will quickly be reflected in the field without changing the entire price book, which avoids doing jobs at the old cost and losing margin. 

“The tablets also give our technicians access to the Internet, which boosts productivity by allowing them, for instance, to take a photo of an unfamiliar part and send it to our head purchasing agent or a vendor,” he continues. “We want to give our field technicians total access to email and the Internet to do research … give them access to the world, not just a couple of index books they might shove into their truck. This also creates a perception of value-driven service.” 

The company is also converting to a Global Edge software system from Davisware, which will “basically run our entire company, from dispatching and customer relations management to accounting and purchasing,” Specht says, noting he expects the company to save money in administration overhead and reduced accounts receivable through quicker billing. 

The investments in everything from business systems software to in-the-field equipment underscores another differentiating factor at Waterworks: Profits get put back into the company. 

“Most companies distribute profits to the owners,” Specht explains. “We never take money out of the company. We reinvest in the company — in technology and manpower and marketing. We don’t use lines of credit to reinvest. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we used a line of credit to expand a new facility or buy new equipment. 

“This approach gives us more financial flexibility and helps us through tough times,” he adds. “It enables us to be bold and grow the business and be a leader in the industry.”

Further growth expected
Specht expects Waterworks to maintain its growth pattern, through both adding services and geographical expansion. A good example of the former is the recent addition of water and flood restoration services and pipe relining services. Both offer a complementary service that allows the company to leverage relationships built with existing customers. Moreover, it’s more convenient for customers because they deal with fewer contractors. 

“We have not grown geographically yet, but that’s in the near future,” Specht adds. “We also need to grow our heating and air conditioning unit, which is our weakest and lightest segment. We need to grow through acquisition there. We also may get into the electrical service business and do more work with the same customers … leverage the loyalties we’ve built.”


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