O’Connor Builds Off Its Customer Base

Maryland contractor grows by offering customers a one-stop shop for plumbing services.
O’Connor Builds Off Its Customer Base
Plumber Pedro Duarte of O’Connor Plumbing and Heating prepares a new dishwasher to be installed during a kitchen remodel at the Parkhill apartments in Washington, D.C. (Photography by Ryan Rayburn)

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Successful contractors usually reach a tipping point where they must decide to either be content with what they’ve accomplished or keep growing. Tom O’Connor has chosen the latter. 

During the last 10 years or so, O’Connor has greatly expanded the scope of services and the size of the company that bears his name: Thomas N. O’Connor Plumbing and Heating in Germantown, Maryland. 

The move has paid big dividends. O’Connor Plumbing mushroomed from a company that focused largely on plumbing for commercial and apartment remodeling projects to a more diverse firm that now includes commercial plumbing service work and drain cleaning. Reflecting that growth, the company now runs 20 service vehicles, owns numerous trailer-mounted water jetters and portable drain cleaning machines, employs 135 people and works throughout the Washington, D.C./Baltimore metropolitan area. 

The catalyst for the growth was twofold. Around 2005, the company hired sales rep Ron Saul, a former Washington Redskins football player, to drum up commercial service work. “That really helped us a lot,” says O’Connor. “He had a lot of great relationships in the area.” Secondly, the company leveraged its existing customer base for renovation/remodeling work to generate service work. 

“We are always looking for different opportunities that could help the company grow,” he says of the effort to expand. “If you do business with a company and all of a sudden they plan on doing a renovation project, and they like what you do on the service side, they’ll definitely give you the opportunity to bid on the renovation work. So we figured it would help us grow by offering more services. 

“Plus, if one side slows down, you can rely on the other side,” he adds. “That (business diversity) helped us out a lot when the recession hit in 2007 and 2008. It was a major help to have the service work.”

Deep Plumbing Roots
The origins of the company date back to 1949, when O’Connor’s father, George, started a small service company that repaired boilers and handled minor plumbing jobs. O’Connor started working for his dad full-time around 1959 and continued to do so for almost two decades. 

In 1976, O’Connor established a small heating and plumbing business, serving mostly commercial accounts. After one of O’Connor’s sons, Tommy, graduated from high school and came on board, the company started installing new plumbing for commercial-remodeling projects. A turning point occurred in 1996, when the firm was hired to work on a major hospital renovation project that lasted nearly three years. During that stretch, O’Connor says the company grew to six or seven employees. “The hospital really liked the work we did,” he notes. 

Right about the time that project concluded, O’Connor’s other son, Kevin, who had earned a business degree at the University of Maryland, joined the company. Today, Tommy and Kevin O’Connor play prominent roles in the company; Kevin is the chief financial officer and Tommy is the chief production officer and a master plumber. 

“Then we got into apartment renovations, which involved things like waste and vent lines, replacing and adding fixtures and replacing hot- and cold-water lines,” O’Connor says. “Some of those jobs were quite large — buildings with up to 300 apartments. And as people heard about the good work we did, we got more and more referrals and kept doing other jobs. Then general contractors and building owners would ask us to bid on other jobs.” 

Three years ago, the company expanded into cleaning drains (primarily commercial), which continued to boost revenue. Today, the division employs 17 people and contributes significantly to the company’s annual gross revenues. 

As the company grew, it required more structure and better organization, areas where Kevin and Tommy excelled. “It’s difficult to develop all that structure of running a business from top to bottom,” he says, acknowledging the skills the two sons bring to the table. “From estimators and project managers and superintendents to lead mechanics and helpers … all these different phases have to be done as a team.” 

But all of that new structure also meant O’Connor had to give up various responsibilities after being used to doing so many things on his own for so many years. Was it difficult? “Absolutely,” he says without hesitation. “As soon as I hear there’s a problem, I want to jump in and help out. But I have to realize there’s also a supervisor who needs to learn how to solve problems, too. It required quite a bit of adjustment on my part, but I knew it was the right thing to do to help make the business successful.”

Investing in Productivity
Of course, adding all those new services required a significant investment in tools and equipment. Today the company owns 20 service trucks, mostly Chevrolets and Ford pickups, vans and box trucks; five trailer jetters made by US Jetting LLC (ranging from 18 to 25 gpm at 4,000 psi); numerous RIDGID inspection cameras of various sizes for inspecting drains ranging from 2 to 6 inches in diameter; RIDGID K-50 sectional drain-cleaning machines for unclogging small drains; and RIDGID K-1500 sectional drain-cleaning machines for tackling larger lines. The company primarily uses Warthog nozzles made by StoneAge, and also owns Power Smoker 2 smoke-testing machines, made by Hurco Technologies. 

In addition, the company owns angle drills and Sawzall reciprocating saws made by Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp.; hammer drills manufactured by the Robert Bosch Tool Corp. and the Hilti Group; electric jackhammers made by Bosch; and RIDGID cast iron snap cutters to cut large cast iron pipes. Technicians also rely on RIDGID rings and jaws that are compatible with ProPress solderless press-pipe joining systems, made by Viega, and Hilti core-drilling machines that can drill through concrete floors to install new stack pipes or water risers. 

The RIDGID ProPress tools are one of the most valuable productivity enhancers for the plumbing division. “We have RIDGID ProPress on all of our service trucks,” says Tommy O’Connor. “We want our guys to have the proper equipment to do every job. A lot of companies might have just one (inspection) camera and two ProPresses, even though they may be running 10 trucks. But we make them available for all of our service and construction jobs because we don’t want guys waiting around. Time is money.” 

ProPress tools allow O’Connor Plumbing employees to install pipe up to 50 percent faster than if they soldered or glued pipe joints, Tommy O’Connor estimates. Instead of having to clean a fitting, apply flux, solder it, wait for it to cool off and then test it, technicians just put a fitting together, press it with the tool and turn the water right on for testing. “There’s no waiting for a pipe to cool down or for glue (for CPVC pipes) to dry,” Tommy explains. “Some types of glue require up to eight hours to dry. So from a service standpoint, we can turn water back on very quickly for customers. And on construction jobs, we can speed up installation. 

“Plus, ProPress enables us to perform a cleaner, neater installation — create a nice, professional look,” he adds.

Employees Drive Success
It takes more than just good equipment to run a successful business. Tom O’Connor says his company thrives because of its employees. “We’re blessed with a lot of talented and skilled people,” he says. “When we find a really qualified individual, we try to get them on board. And we always try to promote from within because that’s the best way to keep our employees — let them know they have an opportunity to improve themselves and move up the ladder.” 

Skilled employees — from office personnel to plumbers out in the field — who work well together have become even more important as the company enjoyed rapid growth on both the construction and service sides. O’Connor notes that years ago, he used to sell jobs, order materials and go out in the field and do the work, too. Now every job requires many employees to take specific steps. “Each step has to be done properly, right down the line,” he says. “It’s a lot to handle — but our team makes it happen.” 

George Brinton, the company’s operations manager, says the business succeeds because the O’Connors treat employees like family. “They take good care of and value their employees,” he says. “They give their teams responsibilities and hold them accountable for those tasks, but don’t micromanage them. 

“People here like coming to work — they like their jobs and feel a commitment to the company,” he continues. “I think that’s unusual in any industry. And if someone cares about a company, they perform better … they’re going to give the extra effort and finish a job today, not say, ‘I’ll go home now and finish things tomorrow.’”

Great Service
Having great employees also translates into a high level of customer service, O’Connor points out. “We finish jobs and work as hard as we can to get them done,” he explains. “We really strive to take care of the customer.” They also work well with fellow subcontractors; this is an essential part of completing jobs on time, given the many moving parts required in renovation projects. And it also leads to more word-of-mouth referrals, he notes.

“On the construction side, we may have four or five different trades working with us and every one of them has schedules to meet,” O’Connor says. “We try to be the first finished whenever possible. 

“We also do design/built-type work,” he continues. “When you work on an apartment or office-building project and the owner wants to add a lot of additional fixtures, the design must include sufficient water supply, waste lines and so forth. Sometimes they get an engineer involved, but sometimes they ask us to come in ahead of time and go over what they have and let them know if existing water and waste lines are sufficient. Our drain division can also check out sewer lines and see if they need replacing.” 

O’Connor points out that it takes many employees working in concert with each other to be successful, from office staff and estimators to project managers and superintendents. “Our supervisors may run three or four jobs at a time and need to coordinate with our lead plumbers, mechanics, apprentices and helpers to meet the customers’ needs,” he says. “There are lots of moving pieces — and that’s just the construction side. The service side has a similar setup, but the jobs are not as large or lengthy, just more numerous.” 

As he looks back at more than 50 years in the trade, O’Connor says he never envisioned his company growing so big. “It just happened,” he says. “It’s absolutely amazing to me. And we’re still growing. 

“We’ve been very fortunate to get highly qualified people to help us grow. And over the years, we’ve taken on some really difficult jobs at times and figured out how to do them and do them well. It’s neat to see — it really is. And in the end, I think it all comes down to good people. It’s sure as heck not just me, that’s for sure.”


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