True Calling

Rural nature of work area brings unique mix of jobs and customers to Virginia-based plumbing contractor.

True Calling


Jeff Matthews, owner of Precision Plumbing & Contracting Services, works in a crawl space of a modular home digging out the water main after discovering it was to close too the service and had an unnecessary filter on it. To correct this and give the customer better service, all of the old pipe, and filter, were removed and placed lower underground to protect from freezing. 

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Jeff Matthews always has his customers’ best interests in sight, even when it seems to harm his company’s bottom line.

Like the time when the owner of Precision Plumbing & Contracting Services was called to plumb the toilet of a 92-year-old woman who couldn’t afford a much-needed overhaul of her house’s entire plumbing system. Matthews worked it out to save the woman some money.

He gently persuaded his elderly client and her daughter that replacing the malfunctioning toilet was the practical solution to the dilemma. “The plumbing was in awful condition. I could have said, ‘OK, let’s do it all now.’ But it wasn’t in her best interests to spend all that money, not at age 92,” Matthews says. “So I said, ‘Let’s do the toilet now, and we’ll repipe it for you later.’”

This is Matthews’ idea of serving his coastal Virginia customers. “If you keep your customers’ best interests at heart when you are doing the job, it will all come out all right,” he says. “That’s the way we have always done business.”

FINDING THE PLUMBING INDUSTRY

The company just celebrated its 10th year plumbing the homes and businesses located on the lower 70 miles of the Delmarva Peninsula. The low-lying land is separated from the rest of Virginia by the Chesapeake Bay. The region contains no metropolitan area of consequence — the population of Temperanceville is less than 400. Fewer than 45,000 people live within the company’s 90-minute-drive service area that runs from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on the southern tip of the peninsula to the Maryland state line to the north.

The geographic and demographic character of the area has shaped the company. Precision Plumbing is small (five employees), mobile and personal. Matthews ascribes to the general truth that success isn’t fully earned; it is rented, and rent is due every day. “You have to work at it. We live in such a small, rural area and the people here depend on us. And we depend on them.”

For a co-dependent, Matthews is a very independent entrepreneur. He talks of an early family life on the peninsula that found him pretty much on his own at 16, working before and after school and on weekends, mostly doing carpentry tasks. After his high school years, he reluctantly helped a friend whose plumbing family needed an extra hand. “I remember telling him I didn’t want anything to do with plumbing, that nasty end of the construction business. But I helped him out and immediately realized that I really liked this.”

He also recalls realizing there were 15 carpenters for every plumber and that he would be smart to switch trades. He worked full time as a plumber apprentice, earning a master plumber license in 2008. Unfortunately for the young tradesman, the construction economy began to crash that year. To survive the meltdown, he went to work for NASA at its Wallops Island facility just up the road, working for five years as a utilities mechanic.

FROM NASA TO LAUNCH

Matthews didn’t abandon his plumbing, however. Rather, at age 24, he launched Precision Plumbing from his home in Temperanceville, taking on projects on weekends and in the evenings. “It was a crazy time,” he recalls. The two-job frenzy proved beneficial in the longer term: His years of work at NASA created a network of contacts who have since borne government contracts for his company.

Yet Precision Plumbing principally is a residential services company, with 80 percent of service calls to homes — old and new. The mix of housing stock can be a challenge. “I don’t know many places that you can answer a call to a home with all PVC pipe running through it and 10 minutes later be at a home with nothing but galvanized pipe leading to a terra-cotta main drain,” Matthews says. “You really need to be prepared.”

The company’s response to this diversity is to have technicians arrive in something larger than standard vans. He runs Mercedes and Chevrolet 3500 trucks with outside bins and filled with a full assortment of tools and plumbing products.

“We are pretty intent on having a lot of inventory in our shop and in our trucks,” Matthews says. “Basically there are three supply houses in two states in our service area and they carry minimal inventory. We stock more in our shop than any supply store on the Eastern Shore. If we run out, we can’t depend on a supply house having it any sooner than a couple of days. That’s not going to work in an emergency.”

The company’s inventory is stored in a new 5,000-square-foot building erected in 2017 on 18 acres. The warehouse area is part of a building that also contains a four-bay garage/shop and a separate wing dedicated to administrative office work.

UNIQUE CHALLENGES

From this headquarters, Precision Plumbing technicians head out to meet the somewhat unique needs of Eastern Shore customers. Because of the rural nature of the southern peninsula, municipalities supply just 30 percent of water to the population. The other 70 percent depends on wells, meaning that Precision Plumbing does a lot of well work, repairing or replacing submersible pumps and other aging well components, including water filters. “We do a tremendous amount of filtration systems.”

Even more pervasive are septic tank systems because some townships that run waterlines don’t offer sewer systems. Consequently, every other week or so Precision Plumbing techs are working on a sewer lateral or waterline. The absence of strict water and sewer regulations and enforcement has meant that systems are allowed to become more derelict and deficient. With an average annual household income under $40,000, property owners generally do the minimum, so when a plumber is called, the resulting project is not minimal.

Does the combination of big projects and relatively meager income mean that Precision Plumbing gets stuck with unpaid bills? “We don’t have to write off a bunch of stuff,” Matthews says. “When we get to a home, everything is upfront. We determine what will be involved, give them an estimate, they sign off and we get paid when we are done.”

He says his customers are sort of prequalified because Precision Plumbing has the reputation of being the professionals in the business and of not being the cheapest. The company also does a lot of financing through a third-party company, offering customers no-payment, no-interest loans for 12 months. “It has been a tremendous tool for us.”

The barrier island character of Virginia’s Eastern Shore — with the highest point perhaps 50 feet above sea level — also means that the company doesn’t run into much rock in their excavation of property for lines. There is no blasting of the sand or anything of that sort. Yet, Matthews says, “It is very difficult to do ground work. We are always in water. We constantly encounter sandy, watery conditions or soil that has lots of shells.” Matthew laughingly admits to doing a lot of shoveling, but the major ground or site work is accomplished using a Kubota mini-excavator and Kubota tractor fitted with blade and bucket. A Ford F-350 and trailer haul the equipment.

Service calls can vary from down the block in Temperanceville to a home on a spit of land or an island. Consequently, responses have to be tailored to local conditions such as how much rain has fallen in an area and tidal considerations. “If the toilet isn’t flushing, maybe it is a toilet problem, but how does the tide affect it? Where is the property located?” Matthews says. “You have to be aware of weather disturbances. We don’t just have the luxury of digging a hole wherever we go.”

The island of Chincoteague is served by Precision Plumbing. It is most famous for its wild pony penning festival in July, when feral horses on neighboring Assateague are herded across shallow water separating the islands, paraded through town and then released back to Assateague. The island community of less than 3,000 swells to crowds of 55,000 during the pony penning. “Making service calls that week is always a nightmare,” Matthew says. “It is very, very congested.”

In winter months, the island is frequently visited by Precision Plumbing technicians to free up frozen pipes. “Being surrounded by water, when it is cold here, it is miserable there. Other areas are more geographically protected, but on the island, there is nowhere to hide. So, it never fails in winter: We will have multiple calls to homes with busted pipes.”

BIGGER WORK

Other special equipment in the Precision Plumbing equipment yard includes an array of products from General Pipe Cleaners/General Wire Spring — “I think we’ve got about everything they make” — including line-clearing jetters, ground-penetrating radar pipe locators, mini-video camera pipe inspection systems and the relatively new Gen-Ear leak detection instrument. Matthews says jetting is being recognized as a line-clearing preventive measure. “We finally are seeing that start to catch on with the public.”

The “Contracting Services” part of the company name comes into play periodically when the magnitude of projects means the company techs will be on site for an extended time and may have to sub out certain portions of it, such as electrical work. In those situations, Precision Plumbing is the general contractor. “We undertake such projects maybe two or three times a year. It’s pretty rare. We stick to plumbing. If we have to do it to win a project, fine. Otherwise, we’ll recommend someone else.”

MAKING IT ENJOYABLE

Plumbing is almost an avocation for Matthews in the sense that serving people is what he most enjoys. “I had an interest in the trade, and it becomes a part of you. I was good at it, had a knack for it and enjoyed being able to help people. Providing the service is my niche. We do commercial and new construction — we do all that, but I enjoy doing the service for people in their homes.”

To serve more people, Matthews is excited to have earned his master plumber license for Maryland, to go along with his license in Virginia and Delaware. The company is setting its sights on operating in five counties of the two states north on the peninsula. The state line is just 10 minutes from Temperanceville. The population in the three Maryland counties is twice Virginia’s entire Eastern Shore population.

“We’re not looking to take Maryland by storm,” he says. “We want to grow organically and build a happy customer base. I think we’ll be able to handle it. One thing is that in Maryland there are supply houses everywhere. It is a better supply system for us.” At this point, he doesn’t envision the company opening a satellite office in the northern end of its new service area.

Life on the Eastern Shore seems good. The whole peninsula is vulnerable to Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, of course, such as Florence, which just struck the Carolinas to the south. Yet historically, Virginia’s shore is spared the full brunt of hurricanes, probably because of warm water patterns in the ocean, though nor’easters and the outer edges of hurricanes produce some flooding. “If we ever had anything above a Category 3 hurricane,” Matthews says, “we wouldn’t be here talking.”


For company and community

The mission statement for Precision Plumbing & Contracting Services talks about positively impacting the lives of employees and clients, elevating customer expectations and satisfaction, contributing to the community and “old-fashioned craftsmanship.” It isn’t just talk.

Owner Jeff Matthews says what his company is mostly known for is good work. “People call when they want a job done right,” he says. “Regardless of what it is — a faucet installed or a drain cleared — someone else didn’t do it properly and people call us to have it done right. Or they call us to have it done right the first time.”

So that speaks to the craftsmanship part of the mission statement. Matthews also has taken on the huge problem in the trades and construction industry of dwindling interest in such careers. He has lobbied Eastern Shore Community College to nurture more trade careerism and arranged with the state of Virginia for Precision Plumbing to become an official apprenticeship program. Any unlicensed employee of the company is enrolled in the apprenticeship program and works toward a license. In addition, Precision Plumbing can sponsor the apprenticeship of other young tradespeople working elsewhere.

Matthew also works with a local Boys & Girls Club. And backing up his mission talk with money, he donates $5 from each service call to www.water.org, an organization dedicated to providing clean water to people around the globe.

“I did a bit of traveling when I was younger,” says Matthews, now a home-guy with a 10-year-old and 12-year-old under his roof. “I made it to China, where I got a bacterial disease from bad water. Here, we take clean water for granted.”

How about impacting the lives of employees? So far, Matthews hasn’t been able to develop much longevity in his staff of technicians. “The guys I have now have only been here a couple of years. One reason is that I take a very firm stand on the company being drug-free and a good work environment. As so I do drug testing and have found that a lot of people seem to have some kind of drug problem. It is has led to a lot of releases, but I want to keep my company standards.”

Which, of course, goes back to the mission’s statement about elevating “overall customer satisfaction.”



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