Plumbing Company Looks Ahead in Training and Customer Interactions

Family atmosphere and a focus on making employees better leads to success and growth for Georgia company.

Plumbing Company Looks Ahead in Training and Customer Interactions

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Plumbing in the Savannah, Georgia, area is almost synonymous with the Henry and Flanders families. Henry Plumbing itself dates from 1968, but the families’ heritage of plumbing extends beyond that.

“We definitely have history with a lot of properties in Savannah,” says Tonya Reed, co-owner with her husband Todd, of Henry Plumbing. “The history really comes into play when a new homeowner purchases an existing property. Since we go back so far, we might have done the original plumbing on the structure or put in a water heater in the last year or two.”

The company doesn’t try to leverage its experience advantage. It merely welcomes a new homeowner to the neighborhood with a refrigerator magnet and best wishes. After all, the fact the company has been around for more than half a century speaks for itself.

FAMILY HISTORY

No need to dwell on its history because Henry Plumbing is forward-looking. Yet a glance back at its beginning is instructive. Robert Henry Sr. was a glider pilot out of Mississippi who, in 1941, was stationed in an Army air base near Savannah. He married a Savannah girl and, following the war, the couple returned to Savannah to make their home. He started working for his father-in-law at Hutson Plumbing.

Twenty-three years later in 1968, Henry started his eponymous plumbing house with his son, Henry Jr., and son-in-law, Winston Flanders. History began to repeat itself when Flanders’ son-in-law, Todd Reed, joined the company. Like Henry Sr., Todd came to Georgia in uniform, met a Savannah girl, Tonya, and forsook his native state, Oklahoma in his case. “Men who meet Savannah girls don’t leave,” says Tonya Reed, half-joking.

So, a third generation of the Henry-Flanders families began to work through the company. Tonya Reed says it was mostly happenstance that she and her husband joined the firm when they did. They had planned to retire from the military before possibly getting into the family business. However, her father — Winston Flanders — became ill and died and the Reeds decided to exit the Army early.

“Todd had no clue about plumbing,” Tonya Reed says of her husband’s entrance into the company. “So, he went to work on a commercial plumbing truck and began to learn the business from the ground up.” Eighteen months later, he started learning operational responsibilities, with Reed’s grandfather teaching her husband how to read blueprints and bid commercial jobs.

Clearly, Henry Plumbing leadership has some deeply planted familial roots in the local trade, and that’s without mentioning Tonya Reed’s great-grandfather, who also was a plumber. A fourth generation of the family in the business is the Reeds’ 29-year-old son, Tanner. After five years in the Army including two tours in Afghanistan, Tanner Reed worked a while in a plumbing supply house before coming aboard. “He learned the materials side of plumbing hands-on,” his mother says.

Of this longstanding family heritage in the trade, Tonya Reed simply concludes that “it’s in the blood, I guess. And plumbing never goes out of fashion. It’s a necessary and needed skill. We just continue to try to make companies and property owners happy.”

A CHANGE OF PACE

Henry Plumbing is a full-service plumbing installation and repair company with residential, commercial, municipal and industrial customers. Yet half of its business and more than half of its revenue comes from laying pipe and stubbing out walls and floors on new residential and commercial construction job sites.

This was not the mix of the company’s work back in 1968. When Henry Plumbing opened its doors, it worked exclusively on construction sites. That changed 40 years later. “We have had to evolve and one of the biggest changes came in 2009-10 when a lot of house-builders went out of business,” Tonya Reed says. “We had to figure out a way to get some fast money.”

Because service calls have a much shorter turnaround time for payment, Henry Plumbing expanded its business model to include plumbing installation and repair for residential and commercial customers. Starting with one service van, the company now sends seven vans on service calls.

The company is equipped to handle most emergency or routine service work, as well new construction contracts. Besides the van, it has nine work trucks and, as needed, can trailer to job sites a Hotsy Cleaning Systems hydrojetter and two Kubota mini-excavators. Most of its cabling and video inspection equipment is RIDGID.

It hasn’t yet gotten into trenchless repair work, though doing so remains a possibility. Tanner Reed likes to explore new technologies and equipment and could take the company in that direction, Tonya Reed says.

The company’s service area actually ranges as far as 50 miles outside the city. Todd Reed is licensed to work in South Carolina, just across the Savannah River from the city, and the company currently has three projects underway there including a county athletic stadium. Shortly after Henry Plumbing was founded, the founder opened a satellite office in South Carolina because of a surge of work at Hilton Head. Tonya Reed says history could repeat itself if the demand for their services grows in the Palmetto State.

GROWING FROM WITHIN

A notable strength of Henry Plumbing besides family is the methodical way it trains and instills loyalty in new employees. New hires just learning the trade are systematically turned into lead plumbers and long-time employees.

This success story can be summed in a statistic: Fully half of its lead plumbers started with the company as helper apprentices. The new help usually ranges in age from post-high school to mid-20s and tends to hang around, year after year, teaming up with a lead plumber to learn the ropes.

“All of our crews have a lead plumber and a helper apprentice,” explains Tonya Reed. “We give the new hires a chance to learn hands-on at job sites. As they gain skills, we eventually let the helper take over on a project supervised by the lead plumber, and they continue to learn. When they are ready to take on their own truck, we know they have been taught the Henry Plumbing way.”

Though some of the new employees know which area of plumbing they want to focus on, that is not always where they will start out. They are put to work first where there is a need for help — and then, as training continues, are allowed to gravitate toward an area of plumbing specialty.

All the plumbers and apprentices are cross-trained, though, for flexibility in assigning work. Even so, there are carve-outs. One lead plumber has gone through all the training Rinnai tankless water heater systems offers and is considered the local expert. As a company, Henry Plumbing enjoys preferred status in repair of A. O.  Smith water heaters.

Georgia requires a person to have three years of experience in plumbing before being granted a journeyman license. Most of the Henry Plumbing apprentices take from three to five years to develop the needed skills, so the timing works out. Licensing follows fairly intense testing in Macon, Georgia. Three successive weekends of Saturday-Sunday, eight-hour classes are required.

As an incentive for employees to take the tests and become licensed, Henry Plumbing pays the approximately $2,000 cost of doing so. Tonya Reed is working with Work Source Georgia to win a grant to partly offset some of the cost. If an employee wishes to go on and become a master plumber, he must pay for that licensing.

Its successful apprenticeship program is not the only investment Henry Plumbing makes to grow the available local workforce. Savannah, after all, faces the same challenge as elsewhere, with construction and utility industries struggling to hire capable people. Upcoming generations are turning thumbs down on blue-collar careers.

Over the last couple of decades, Tonya Reed has watched disheartened as local high schools have de-emphasized vocational education among students in favor of a college degree. Now, though, she is seeing some reversal of that trend.

“It is slow progress, but we have at least three high schools with trade programs that they didn’t have before,” Tonya Reed says. “It definitely is coming back and that’s exciting.” Savannah Technical College offers a few basic introductory classes on plumbing, but Reed sees more value in the local ACE Mentor activity.

ACE is a national program for high school students that aims to inspire youth to pursue architecture, construction and engineering careers. About 9,000 students across the country have been mentored by ACE to date and some $15 million in scholarships awarded. Reed serves on the Savannah ACE board. “The last two years have been a problem (because of COVID) but going forward, we are ramping up for a new school year.”

TRAINING AND RECOGNITION

The Reeds’ belief in education includes intensive weekly training sessions for its crews. Todd Reed has an unrestricted master plumber license and brings his experience to bear every Friday morning. Session topics include compliance with codes and dealing with any issue that has arisen during the week. Company reps train crew members on new products. Atlanta Gas sometimes demonstrates techniques in working with its lines.

“And everyone gets a biscuit,” adds Tonya Reed.

Henry Plumbing isn’t an esteemed plumbing house in Savannah because of its biscuits, however, delicious as they may be. It is company leadership that’s credited with keeping the business in the forefront of the industry.

Tonya Reed was singled out for praise in 2021 by the Coastal Empire chapter of the National Association for Women in Construction. She was presented NAWIC’s President’s Gavel Award for her service to women in the industry. Though no women presently are plumbers or apprentices at the company, “we would be happy to have them,” the co-owner says.

She is effusive about the three women who work in the company office — office manager Janine Hand, assistant manager Kim Bennett and part-time assistant Meghan Reed, who happens to be her daughter-in-law. “We couldn’t do without them.”

A more sweeping recognition of Henry Plumbing’s success in 2021 was the Georgia Business Journal company’s salute to the company: In November, it was named Best Plumber in the State of Georgia. The title came through a statewide vote by plumbing house customers.

“We believe in providing the best plumbing repairs for our customers, the best plumbing contracting for our construction customers and the best continuing education for our plumbers to be their very best,” Tonya Reed says.

That’s what you call a winning formula. 



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