Supply & Command

Alabama plumber creates a new business model built for efficiency and productivity.
Supply & Command
The Fayette Drain & Sewer crew includes (from left) Justin Simmons, Jerry “Uncle Jerry” House, Melissa Vice, Harrison Kummer, Mark Vice, Will Byars, Jamarcus Hughes, Russell Oswalt, Josh Jackson, Shawn Leonard and Jeff Goree.

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Master plumber Mark Vice likes to do things on his own terms. That independent streak is vividly reflected in Vice Plumbing Supply, a store he opened in downtown Fayette, Alabama, to boost efficiency and reduce operating expenses at the other business he co-owns: Fayette Drain & Sewer Service. 

In one respect, Vice is a lot like any other plumber: He hates to see his technicians waste precious time waiting for repair parts at plumbing supply houses. He also dislikes paying retail prices for those parts. But unlike most plumbers, Vice decided to do something about it. So several years ago, he took a radical step, buying land and building a 5,100-square-foot plumbing supply store. The building includes service bays in the rear for servicing and repairing Fayette Drain vehicles and equipment. 

“It came to the point where we had two or three trucks sitting at a local hardware store every morning for 30 minutes,” says Vice, whose company does residential and commercial plumbing, excavating, drain cleaning, and septic and grease trap pumping, plus natural gas pipework. “Not only were we losing all that time at the store, we’d also waste time running back and forth to it to get parts during the day. I’m guessing it was costing me at least 30 minutes every time a service technician had to run to get, say, a 50-cent part … and in most cases, you can’t charge a customer for that lost time.” 

Vice also estimates he was paying about $150,000 to $200,000 a year for plumbing parts, thanks to a 40 to 50 percent markup compared to the wholesale prices he now pays for parts. He says he also sells repair parts to do-it-yourself homeowners and some local contractors. 

“We’ve been running the store for four years now and it’s paying for the mortgage and the land,” Vice says. “It’s been a great investment for us. It’s a great location. Now we have a quick (employee) meeting every morning, then they get their parts, get in their trucks and head out to their jobs.”

Driven to succeed

Vice says running what effectively amounts to his own private supply depot reflects his upbringing as a country boy who was raised to do things on his own. “I don’t like to wait for someone else to do things,” he explains. “If you depend on someone else to do things and you have to wait, you’re losing money. 

“I look at it as being self-sufficient,” he continues. “Before this, if I needed a water heater on a Sunday morning, for instance, I’d have to call the hardware store and see if the owner could meet me and get me one. Sometimes he could and sometimes he couldn’t. Now I just run out to the shop, grab one, throw it on the truck and go. It all goes back to convenience. I like things ready to go and right there when I need them, especially since this business is so unpredictable.” 

Currently, the store is only marginally profitable, but Vice looks at it as an investment. He says the money he used to spend at supply shops now covers the mortgage for the new building. “When I put a pen to it and calculated the wholesale costs versus the retail costs, it has worked out great,” he says. “And after we pay off the note in about five or six years, the store will be more profitable.” 

For tax purposes, Fayette Drain and Vice Plumbing operate as separate corporate entities. And because the store sells supplies to the general public, it has to pay state and local sales taxes. “Vice Plumbing charges Fayette Drain for all the parts,” Vice explains, which also cuts into the profits. “But we needed a shop, too. So now we have a situation where Vice Plumbing pays for the mortgage and Fayette Drain lives rent free in the building. Basically we built a shop and the store pays for the building.”

Diversified services

Vice started his company in 2000 by primarily focusing on unclogging drains. After he earned a master plumber’s license in 2001, he entered the plumbing market. He wanted to diversify his customer base and bring in more steady business. 

“Fayette is a small town, so to survive, you have to do a little bit of everything,” says Vice, who co-owns the company with his wife, Melissa. “If you just specialized in drain cleaning, you’d starve to death. Not only that, but when someone calls you to clean a drain, they assume you’re also a plumber who can fix a leaky faucet, too. 

“So if it’s got water running through it, we go after it,” he adds. “The thought of calling someone else to do something that I can provide to our customers is awful.” 

Today, Fayette Drain receives about 30 percent of its revenue from plumbing repair, 35 percent from drain cleaning and 35 percent from septic system and grease trap services. And thanks to its diversified customer base, the company has grown steadily since its inception. The company now employs 12 people and owns a sizeable fleet of equipment that includes three service vans, two mini-excavators, a trailer-mounted water jetter, numerous drain cleaning machines, several pipeline inspection camera systems, and two vacuum trucks.

Perseverance pays off

There was a time when buying trucks and equipment seemed like a pipe dream to Vice, who worked in a cotton mill for about 11 years before taking a job as a technician at the local Roto-Rooter operation. He worked there for four years, gaining valuable experience. When the franchise encountered financial trouble, he decided to strike off on his own. 

“I bought a service van and some used drain cleaning equipment and started going door to door in Fayette, handing out business cards and begging for work,” he recalls. “I was flat broke at the time and was lucky to find a banker who loaned me $7,000 to buy the van and drain machines. 

“I did a lot of footwork — and a lot of praying,” he says. “I gave out 3,000 business cards my first year alone and asked people if there was anything I could do for them. I even painted someone’s house because we didn’t have enough plumbing work.” After three months, Vice was seriously questioning his business prospects. “I knew one thing, though: I didn’t want to go back and work in a factory again. I loved service work and dealing with people. … I was driven by my fear of going back to a plant.” 

Then fate intervened with a cold spell that generated a lot of work repairing broken lines. After six months, Vice had made enough money to pay off the $7,000 loan, and things took off from there. “Business just exploded,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. People who I’d given business cards to just started calling with jobs. We’re thankful that the Lord sent us a hard freeze.” 

By 2008, the company employed about five workers, then six. Vice expanded into industrial cleaning and cleaning drainlines in apartment complexes. As the company’s reputation grew, he pushed for more commercial business. “Residential work is great, but it’s very unpredictable,” he points out. “You might get 10 calls today and just two tomorrow and 15 two days from now. But apartment complexes and restaurants provide steadier work. You’re not going to pump a lot of septic tanks when it’s dry, but you’ll pump out grease traps whether it’s wet or dry.” 

Vice says he tries to get commercial customers — especially the owners of restaurants and apartment complexes — to buy into the concept of routine maintenance cleanings, because they’re easier to schedule than emergency calls. He does not ask for formal signed contracts, just verbal agreements. “We want customers to be able to drop us at any time if they’re not happy with our work,” he explains. “We don’t want them to feel trapped by a written contract — just pleased with our service.”

Equipment matters

On the plumbing and drain cleaning side of the business, the company relies on three Chevrolet service vans with KUV bodies made by Knapheide Manufacturing, plus two Chevrolet service trucks. Each van is equipped with three drain cleaning machines made by Duracable Manufacturing; a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection system; and a pipeline locator made by Pipehorn Utility Tool Co. 

The company also owns a trailer-mounted water jetter (4,000 psi at 18 gpm) made by US Jetting; two mini-excavators made by Kubota Tractor Corp.; a Caterpillar backhoe/loader; and two dump trucks with chassis made by Mack Trucks and Chevrolet and dump bodies built by Ox Bodies. On the septic side, the company owns two vacuum trucks built by Abernethy Welding & Repair Inc. One truck features a 2,500-gallon steel tank and a Jurop/Chandler water-cooled pump. The other truck features a 2,500-gallon steel tank built by Keith Huber Corporation and a 350 cfm pump made by Power-Flo Pumps & Systems.

Of course, all the great machinery in the world isn’t worth much without also providing quality service. Vice says that Fayette Drain provides a high level of customer satisfaction through great employees and a rather simple philosophy: Always answer the phone. 

“When people can’t flush their toilet (because of a backup), they want someone and they want someone right away,” Vice explains. “So when they call, they want to talk to someone, not an answering machine. They want to be assured that someone is going to come and fix their problem.” 

As such, Fayette Drain contracts with a 24-hour answering service that runs from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. “It’s a great investment,” he adds. “If people get an answering machine when they call, most times they’re probably going to call someone else. You have to value every phone call because every time you miss one, you miss out on at least $100 in work. The answering service costs about $160 a month, so it easily pays for itself with, say, one septic tank pumping job.” 

Looking back, Vice says that despite the extremely tough times during the early years, he has no regrets about starting his own business. “When you start something from scratch … you eat, breath and sleep it. It’s basically all I do, other than family and God. If I could do it all over again, I still wouldn’t do anything else.”


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