Contractor Builds Bigger to Keep Customers Happy With More Services

Indianapolis plumber grows operation from home garage into a large facility and takes on more services to become a valuable resource for customers.

Contractor Builds Bigger to Keep Customers Happy With More Services

Lance Smith, owner of L.D. Smith Plumbing, stands in his company’s shop near downtown Indianapolis.

When Lance Smith started his plumbing company in 2011, he never expected it to grow as fast as it has in such a short amount of time.

A year after starting in his garage, the Indianapolis-based plumber found himself moving his company, L.D. Smith Plumbing, into a 3,000-square-foot building. He rented that facility until May 2017 when he had to upsize again. That’s when he bought an 11,000-square-foot building near downtown Indianapolis.

“And we’re still growing,” Smith says. “We’re looking to be about 20 percent above last year, and we have some room to build out if we need to at this spot. I love this space.”

The company, with its 12 employees, offers services from the typical plumbing work of fixture repairs and installations to drain cleaning services and trenchless sewer repair.

MAKING A CHANGE

Smith wasn’t a newcomer to the plumbing industry when he started his company. He worked in the business for 10 years, starting as an apprentice at 23 years old. He began by working on the new construction side of plumbing, but transitioned into service.

While working for other firms, Smith saw changes in the industry that he wasn’t happy about. “A lot of national HVAC companies were coming in and purchasing good mom and pop shops in the late 1990s and early 2000s and either ran them into the ground or just made them not a very good place to work,” he says.

Smith decided it was time to venture out on his own and create something to fill the void in the market.

“I tried to find a small plumbing company to buy, but I couldn’t find one and didn’t have a lot of money at the time,” Smith says. “I decided to strike out on my own out of the garage at my house. It was scary. I didn’t have deep pockets and banks don’t lend you money if you don’t have a lot of money.”

Smith had a vision and went all in, knowing that if it didn’t work out, he would’ve lost almost everything. “Six years later, we’re in a building and have a great staff,” he says.

PLUMBING IS PRIMARY

L.D. Smith Plumbing is a full residential service contractor covering everything from drain cleaning, fixtures, water heaters and sump pumps. Residential, including drain cleaning, makes up about 70 percent of the business. The company also handles some light commercial work as well.

“It’s a very competitive market here,” Smith says. “We offer a personal touch that many of our competitors don’t.”

The company has eight service vehicles, all Chevy 2500 vans, which are stocked with about $5,000 in parts. Plumbers carry basic hands tools ranging from Channellock pliers to RIDGID pipe cutting tools, wrenches, drills and reciprocating saws from Milwaukee Tool. The vans are also equipped with Spartan Tool 100 drain machines.

“They are good trucks,” Smith says. “They aren’t as big as those trucks that companies have to carry water heaters and toilets, but we stock all that in our shop and have a delivery person available to bring those items as needed.”

Smith says the trucks are much easier to maneuver in a busy metropolitan area like downtown Indianapolis.

GOING DIGGING

The other 30 percent of operations for L.D. Smith Plumbing comes in excavation and trenchless repair work.

“Excavation is anything from putting in clean-outs to total line replacements,” Smith says. “We do trenchless sewer repair and replacement; we do water service repair and replacement. The excavation side has become a larger and larger part of my business.”

It wasn’t until about three years ago that Smith really got into the digging and trenchless repair work. “I didn’t have the space or money to add it right away,” Smith says. “It’s a big investment to make that leap.”

That investment included purchasing equipment like a Bobcat E35i, being pulled by a Ford F350 with custom-built pipe racks and bins and a TRIC Tools V26 pipe bursting setup.

“I’ve just always liked to play in the dirt. I love all of plumbing, but I’ve always liked that aspect of it. I can’t explain it. There’s certainly a need for it, and I’ve always liked excavation and drainlines and sewer lines. And I’ve always enjoyed that type of work,” Smith says.

Smith has found that offering the trenchless repair methods has made working in tighter spaces, like downtown Indianapolis, easier. The company uses its pipe bursting equipment on a section of sewer line that needs to be replaced in areas that are inaccessible by an excavator and typically require moving a structure just to access the line.

“One repair involved us replacing a line under a newer garage and another one involved us replacing a line between two houses where we couldn’t get any excavation equipment in,” Smith says. “We are one of only a few contractors who could provide a long-term solution to those difficult problems.”

Adding trenchless services to the company’s offerings has allowed L.D. Smith Plumbing to be a one-stop shop for customers. “It has just given us more solutions to offer to the homeowner,” Smith says. “It’s less destructive and helps us diversify and expand to truly become a full-service contractor.”

The company also uses three complete RIDGID camera systems with V10 monitors, three Spartan 2001 machines, reels and locators.

“There are times when homeowners have to make a very expensive repair to a sewer line and we’re able to do trenchless and save them a lot of money,” Smith says. “We have videos to show homeowners what we’re going to do and how it’s done. They can watch them online, and our technicians carry videos of us doing trenchless work too.”

IN THE FIELD

There’s one thing that Smith says makes his company stick out amongst many of the competitors: He works along with his crews.

“For a company this size, you seldom see owners still actively involved in the field, which I am,” Smith says. “I wear a uniform just like any other guy. I don’t have dress pants and a collared shirt on, except if I have meetings. Even when we’re really busy, I’m a helper on the jobs, if needed.”

He says it helps him keep in touch with the needs of the customers and plumbers, allowing him and his crews to be more responsive to their needs and concerns.

“Sometimes people tell me not to go out and work in the field, but to concentrate on running the business,” Smith says. “Why change something when it’s working? It shows that I actually care, that I’m involved and not just sitting up in some cushy office chair watching the dollars roll in. I care about what goes on.”

MORE GROWTH AHEAD

Even being in the field, Smith can see that his company has the potential to keep growing.

“Within the next five years, my target goal is 15 service vans and two complete excavation crews,” he says. “I’d also like to continue adding benefits to make the company a better place to work than it already is, to attract top talent to a place where everybody wants to work until they retire.”


Looking for the right attitude

Lance Smith knows a big part of his Indianapolis-based plumbing company’s success is thanks to his employees, and he knows what he wants when he needs to hire.

“We have a variety of different plumbing backgrounds,” says Smith, owner of L.D. Smith Plumbing. “There’s seldom a time where we can’t put our heads together and figure out a problem. We have a great well technician, a guy with an excavation background and two guys with new work backgrounds. If there is something one of us gets stuck on, we communicate very well. This is a team-first environment.”

With the company growing as fast as it has been the last few years, Smith says it’s important to have quality employees and an open line of communication.

“It’s their hard work that got us here, too, and allowed us to grow. Letting them know we’re in growth mode right now helps,” Smith says. “We make sure to keep open lines of communication when we’re sharing our goals.”

While it’s tempting to hire staff based solely on work experience, it’s a strategy that isn’t always successful, Smith says. He admits it’s a little bit of luck and seeing the real person when it comes to hiring.

“I find attitude and character are more important than anything else,” Smith says. “I can teach plumbing. I can’t teach work ethic and character. I have had some success with guys who are inexperienced with a solid character and good work history who want to get into the field.”



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