Illinois Plumber Uses Professional Image to Grow

Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer in Illinois builds company by developing professional employees and being there for customers every day
Illinois Plumber Uses Professional Image to Grow
A Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer crew works on a new installation project at a residence in Downers Grove, Illinois, using a Spartan Tool jetter.

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A professional is an expert in his field and someone with knowledge, expertise, and the right skill sets to undertake and complete a job. But “professional” also alludes to the character of a person. That is, a true professional is one who respects his work and the person for whom he’s working, which he demonstrates by being trustworthy, dependable and candid.

Jay DeFrates would seem to fully qualify as a professional. The owner of Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer in a western Chicago suburb can fix a leak with the best of them, sure. But he has instilled in his crew the need to offer customers a larger package. After the drip-drip-dripping has stopped, DeFrates hopes a homeowner will also notice that the work area around the formerly leaking pipe is clean and that the plumber who comes to the door to repair the pipe is as courteous as he is knowledgeable — that he is a professional, in other words.

Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer is a professional shop with a philosophy, not just a business plan. After all, how many plumbing companies pledge in their online mission statement “to maintain an atmosphere of optimism, creativity, resourcefulness and excellence”?

“I like to think we do a little bit better than our competitors — that we do things with a little bit more finesse,” DeFrates says. “Anyone can get a job done, but when you can do it with finesse … well, I think we bring that little extra to the table.”

Asked what he means by “finesse,” he uses adjectives like “polite, neat and thorough.” Such a workplace culture doesn’t just spontaneously develop. It’s cultivated. “We constantly teach it to our crew,” DeFrates says. “Once they get it, they know they are offering customers something above and beyond what others are offering.”

FINDING HIS CALLING

DeFrates was born on the underside of Lake Michigan in northern Indiana, a contiguous part of Chicagoland. He first put a wrench on a pipe 30 years ago as an apprentice, working for several plumbing businesses. He also labored at other kinds of jobs as a younger man, including factory work, before getting his plumbing license and opening his business west and a little south of Chicago’s Loop in Downers Grove.

From there, his crew rolls out 25 miles or so to plumb homes and commercial properties in places like Wheaton, La Grange and Naperville. The area includes new residential developments as well as an abundance of World War II-era residences, structures that are still sturdy and attractive but have been occupied long enough to begin to have plumbing issues. Ninety percent of the work at Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer is residential, and this housing stock is one reason why.

“It is a general mix of houses, but there are a lot of older homes in places like Riverside,” he says. “Businesses — a lot of time — will have someone on staff to do the plumbing. But the things that need to be maintained in a person’s home are not the things that a lot of homeowners can do for themselves.”

DeFrates worked from his own home in the beginning and then began to stockpile inventory in a warehouse owned by his brother in a nearby town before finally moving the company into the current Ogden Avenue facility in Downers Grove. He found plumbing work immediately. “I was at the right place at the right time,” he says. “A large remodeling company I knew about was going through some plumbers. They had a ton of work, and I was hungry. It just kind of worked out.”

He also began to develop expertise. At the same time he opened his business, DeFrates moonlighted as a licensed state Environmental Protection Agency inspector of cross-connection control devices — the backflow valves that prevent possibly tainted water from entering a potable water system. Seven years later, he tested out and became a certified plumbing inspector, subsequently inspecting plumbing work part time in Elmhurst and full time in Hinsdale.

More credentials? He is a certified “competent person” for excavations and confined spaces, both of which can come into play in plumbing projects. The latter competency protects his crew members while his inspection knowledge protects homeowners.

“When I was inspecting, I basically was making sure a job was done correctly.” Though he is not inspecting now because he has more administrative responsibilities in the company, he says he gleaned knowledge from his inspection work that he regularly passes on to his crew.

A SHIFT IN JOBS

As years passed, the steady work continued for the company, but DeFrates began to modify the range of jobs undertaken by his crew. He moved away from plumbing remodeled residences as well as working on new residential construction and small commercial properties. He moved instead toward service and repair work. He did so, he says, because there are fewer headaches in servicing existing plumbing systems. “And I think that’s where the demand is.”

Certainly there is enough potential work there — from jetting and repairing sewer lines to installing sinks or sump pumps and fixing leaky faucets or water heaters. DeFrates trademarked the slogan, “Your Problem is Our Problem,” to fit the changed focus of his company and to emphasizes both the service nature of the business and the company’s personal approach to individual customer satisfaction.

His equipment, which includes pipe inspection cameras and electronic locators, has evolved along with the industry. His RIDGID cameras have become necessities, DeFrates says. “It’s common now to run a camera through a sewer along with a rodder. It’s almost standard to push a camera in there. More and more, it is not doing a customer justice if you are not camera-ing as well as rodding a line.”  

Each of the company’s crew members supplies his own hand tools. Larger company equipment is hauled to work sites in five service vehicles — box trucks with a Ford or Chevrolet van chassis and a utility body. DeFrates prefers Goshen, Indiana-based Supreme service box bodies because they “come in a lot of different styles, with bins on one side or the other, or bins on the outside. They seem to be of great quality.”

The company does pipeline work, so periodically, crews must dig up a lawn or alley to repair or replace a line. For such jobs, DeFrates leases excavation equipment for the same reasons so many other companies do. “Jobs that require excavation are not a big part of our work yet. That may come, but for now when I lease a mini-excavator or backhoe, it’s not my maintenance headache. I’m not paying for it when it’s just sitting around either.”

LUCKY NUMBER 7

There is, in fact, not a lot of sitting around at Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer. The company offers customers service and emergency repair work seven days a week, from seven in the morning till seven at night. This “seven-seven-seven” schedule, as DeFrates refers to it, is not a common business schedule. What makes it especially appealing to customers is that the price of service work is the same every hour, every day.

“When customers realize you can come on a Sunday for the same price as during the week when they have no one home to let you in, it usually is seen to them as a blessing,” he says. Consequently, while the company’s office staff are not in the office on weekends, some crew members are on the job in people’s homes.

The service schedule was implemented within the last year. DeFrates was asked how the weekend work sits with his crew. “It just kind of happened and works well. Some guys prefer to have some days off during the week as opposed to weekends and others couldn’t work weekends, so it worked itself out. The ones who work weekends take off Monday and Tuesday or whatever days they want.”  

Whatever day they are working, the six service technicians at Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer carry with them current know-how about doing their jobs. DeFrates keeps them informed by holding weekly hour-long training sessions. The in-house training ranges from new product knowledge and review of plumbing techniques to updates about company bookkeeping procedures. He and his service manager and general manager also welcome visits by manufacturers. “When parts on a water heater or something change on a product, we have company reps come in and talk to us and show us what’s involved. It’s always very helpful to be a part of that circle.”

CONTINUED GROWTH AHEAD

The 46-year-old company owner is a full-time administrator now, presiding over a company that he wants to keep growing. He is currently looking to add an employee and plans to roll out another service truck next year. All of which means DeFrates doesn’t have time to handle the tools any more.

“When I personally was doing the work, it always was art to me: the finished jobs were works of art. I wanted my work to look better and be better than anyone else’s.” He admits, “It was hard to break away from that. It was. But I think it’s part of the evolution of the company. You find key people who want to come behind you, and you let them do the work.” 


A focus on lead

Water flows from one place to another through man-made pipes and has been doing so for thousands of years. For just as long, pipes have been leaking — regardless of the material from which the pipes were made. Earthenware. Copper. Stainless steel. Or, yes, lead. In fact, “plumber” comes from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum,” so leaks and plumbers go back a long way.

Now, those old lead pipes may be the cause of a new wave of plumbing work. Jay DeFrates of Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer sees it happening. “If there is a coming news flash, it could be about underground lead waterlines. It’s a big issue around this part of the country (the Midwest).”

The issue flared up again in 2016 from reports about unhealthy water in Flint, Michigan, a community with lots of lead water pipes in the ground. Public health officials have long warned that consumption of lead is unhealthy — whether it be lead paint nibbled on by children or lead in water from deteriorating pipes. A water additive was developed that coats the interior of pipes and prevents lead from being leached into the flowing water. That preventive solution evidently failed in Flint.

The only permanent solution is to replace lead pipes with some other type of piping. DeFrates says it will not be easy. “Lead pipes are so entrenched in housing stock. If it was easy to replace them, they would be out already. But I think as time goes on, more people are going to get rid of those lead pipes. It may become mandatory that if you have a certain size remodeling project, you will be required to get the lead waterline out of there.”

If it comes to that, Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer might be a good choice for the job: Since 2010, DeFrates has been certified as a lead safety expert and his company has been certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a lead-safe firm.



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