A Key Focus Keeps Plumbing Company in Forefront of Customers

An emphasis on water heaters keeps Portland plumbing firm thriving for 92 years — and counting

A Key Focus Keeps Plumbing Company in Forefront of Customers

Cody Heineman cleans up after installing a water heater at a job site in Hillsboro, Oregon. The company’s Ford Transit 250s make hauling supplies to and from job sites easy with sliding side doors and fully opening rear doors.  

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George Morlan Plumbing Supply is anything but a conventional plumbing company. After all, there aren’t many plumbing firms that focus primarily on water heater sales and installations, own seven retail stores that sell plumbing fixtures and repair parts, and can attribute their growth to a career in the circus and a catchy radio/TV jingle.

But as odd as that combination might seem, it’s hard to argue with the results, which have withstood the test of time: This year marks the company’s 92nd year in business.

“A lot of people try to put us in a box,” says Alex Kramien, 33, president of the Portland, Oregon-based company founded by the late George Morlan, his great-stepgrandfather, in 1927. “But I don’t know of too many other companies structured the way we’re set up. We install thousands of water heaters a year, but we also sell them, along with plumbing parts, to contractors. And we’re a contractor, too. That’s why it’s hard to put us in a box.”

BECOMING THE KING

The emphasis on water heaters occurred organically, not by design, albeit aided by some serendipitous news coverage. When Morlan first moved to Portland to open his plumbing firm, electric water heaters were just hitting the market. And Morlan became one of the first contractors in the Northwest to install them.

In the 1940s, someone at a local water-heater manufacturing company dubbed Morlan the “water heater king.” The nickname stuck and remains a big part of the company’s marketing/branding efforts even today, as evidenced by the company’s logo: A smiling, animated water heater wearing a golden crown. In fact, “The water heater king!” is a registered federal trademark.

“The name and the branding stuck, so we just ran with it,” Kramien says. “According to research from our advertising agency, our brand is so strong that people actually will Google ‘George Morlan Plumbing’ more than they Google ‘plumbing.’ We’re told that among regional Oregon brands, the only company with higher name recognition than ours is a tire dealer.

“We were one of the first in the industry to run TV ads,” he adds. “That was in the 1980s. It was unheard of at the time to talk about toilets and showers on TV. We even had a TV show on Sundays for a while, sort of like a home improvement show where we handled plumbing questions from viewers.”

WATER HEATERS FRONT AND CENTER

The company used to do more than just water heater installations, but switched primarily to water heaters in the 1980s. Why? The company had opened its second retail plumbing showroom in Tigard, just southwest of Portland, and the company was concerned it might alienate potential contractor customers by competing against them for repair work.

“We essentially got to a certain point where we were competing with customers that we relied on to buy our products,” Kramien explains, noting that about 20% of the retail stores’ customers are plumbers. “Why would you want to buy from a competitor? Since we basically owned the market for water heaters, we had the luxury of sticking with them.

“By sheer volume, we’re able to leverage the price of water heaters from manufacturers,” he continues. “And along with that, we added more showrooms. So if we can pick up margin on the products (water heaters and repair parts/fixtures) and keep the guys busy installing 30 to 40 heaters a day, we can make a living doing it.”

The company now has seven locations — two in Portland and one each in Tigard, Bend, Lincoln City, Salem and Beaverton.

Aren’t contractors still a little irked by buying water heaters from a company that competes against them for installations? Not really, Kramien says, thanks largely to the company’s overwhelming name recognition and market presence.

“Other plumbers don’t look at water heaters as the holy grail, like we do,” he says. “And we’ve been doing this since 1927, so we’ve moved past any animosity (from other contractors) about the fact that we mostly install water heaters. There are always new competitors popping up, but it’s so ingrained in the public’s mind that we’re the water heater king that it (animosity) is a moot point when it comes to contractors buying water heaters from us.”

ONE-DAY INSTALLATION

To even further differentiate from water heater competitors, the company promises one-day service for installations. “It can be more expensive on our end sometimes, but if we get out to the customer on the same day, then the chances of our competitors taking installs from us dramatically decreases,” Kramien notes. “We gain market share and/or keep current customers and increase the chance of repeat business for water heater replacements, plus we’ll likely get the customer to one of our showrooms if they plan on remodeling and building in the future.”

Moreover, the company doesn’t charge extra for service on Sundays. “We know Sunday is the one day that a lot of people have off, and water heaters don’t fail at a set time — it can happen anytime,” he notes. “So we don’t charge more for Sunday work. Plus, if we do installations on Sundays, then we don’t compete with other companies for those installations on Mondays.”

When installing commercial water heaters, the company is trying to streamline operations and improve efficiency by dedicating one employee to just delivering new units and picking up old ones. To provide this service, the company recently bought a 2018 Ford E-450 with a 28-foot box body made by Morgan.

What else cemented the company’s reputation as the region’s premier water heater installer? Kramien credits the work ethic of his family predecessors in the business: George Morlan; his stepgrandfather, Gary Morlan; and his father, Rick Kramien. “It wasn’t unusual for Gary or my dad to install 10 water heaters a day,” he says. “They figured if the Morlan name was going to be so upfront, they had to take care of customers. That has a lasting effect that builds up over time.

“If people call us, it’s very likely we’re the first company they’ve called,” he adds. “So living up to that reputation is key.”

The company’s earworm jingle, created in 1983 by a family friend and musician, Dave Lutz, also helped spread the word. “Once a jingle catches on, it really catches on,” Alex Kramien says. “It really builds value.”

The jingle is so familiar to Portland residents that a few years ago on a local radio show where people answer questions to win prizes, the disc jockey was totally shocked when a caller couldn’t sing it. “It turns out the woman had just moved here, which is why she didn’t know it,” Alex explains.

DEEP FAMILY ROOTS

The late George Morlan moved to Portland from Arkansas in 1927. A plumber by trade, he opened a business that by the mid-1930s included a small parts counter and plumbing showroom. “They used to repair faucets for customers right there at the counter,” Alex notes.

Spurred by the development of an electric water heater by the Fowler Co., a pioneer in the industry based in Portland, George quickly became immersed in both selling and installing the new appliances.

After George retired in 1965, his son, Gary, became the next owner. The circus/show business influence soon came into play when he married Leone Kramien (Alex’s grandmother), who used to be married to a magician who also owned a small circus. As such, Leone picked up sales and marketing skills over the years that she later applied to the Morlan retail operations.

“The company had built a good reputation, but my grandmother felt it was missing out on a lot of sales potential with so many fixtures sitting in boxes and collecting dust,” Alex says. “She brought in the sales and marketing expertise to get things going.”

Retail sales really took off in the 1970s, spurred by a do-it-yourself boom among homeowners. The company was one of the first in the area to encourage this DIY movement, showing customers how to install their purchases. As decorative plumbing options became more popular in the 1980s and ’90s, retail sales played an even bigger role in the company’s growth, Alex says.

As the company grew, so did its fleet of vehicles. Today the company runs 11 service vehicles: five Ford Transit 250s with rack-and-storage systems from Ranger Design, three Ford service vans, one 2005 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 and two small Ford Transits. Technicians generally use DeWALT power hand tools.

The company also has started to emphasize the installation of FloodStop leak-detection units made by Aqua Managers. “That business has grown several hundred percent in the last few years,” Alex says, noting that more and more insurance companies want customers to use the technology to avoid costly home flooding. “It used to be something optional to sell, but now it’s either required or it’s an easy sell. We just add another $300 to the water heater installation. … We’re already there anyway and it doesn’t take much time, so that makes it more profitable right there.”

POSSIBLE DIVERSIFICATION AHEAD

Looking to the future, Alex foresees the company doing more than just water heater installations, which now generate about 90% of the service revenue. For example, the company is slowly moving into toilet installations, he says.

What about angering plumbers who buy supplies from the company? That’s less of an issue these days because demand from customers usually outstrips contractor availability. “Many customers can’t even get a contractor to return their calls, so we’ve started installing toilets and other items — basically anything we can do in a day or less,” Alex says.

“We don’t want to do plumbing installations or remodeling projects, but we’ll install a new sink, toilet seat, shower door or faucet aerator, for example,” he continues. “Installing things we sell out of our stores is a niche we can fill right away.

“Some people know us only for our water heaters and our showrooms,” he adds. “But adding service and installation departments at all of our stores enhances the portfolio of things we offer to customers. That’s the future for our company.”


Perks for the employees

A weeklong, all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. Spot bonuses, or “spiffs.” Tickets to sporting events and concerts. Signing bonuses. Use of a company-owned, two-bedroom condominium on the Oregon coast for a weekend. Competitive pay that often is higher than union-prescribed hourly rates.

These are the major perks George Morlan Plumbing Supply uses to attract and retain plumbing technicians — and to try and sidestep the labor shortages afflicting so many contractors nationwide.

“If we recruit someone from out of town, we might even pay up to $2,000 in moving costs as a kind of signing bonus,” says Alex Kramien, president of the Portland-based company. “We’ve also sent people to Hawaii for a ‘Work Week in Paradise’ for selling the most water heaters in a day. Or sometimes we give away a pair of Portland Trail Blazers tickets to someone who comes into work while on call and installs six water heaters.

“We do everything we can to let our employees know their hard work is very much appreciated.”

Big-ticket expenses such as paying signing bonuses and/or moving costs are done on a case-by-case basis. “It’s not a blanket, one-size-fits-all system,” Kramien says. But higher pay is uniform across the board. The union-shop company pays $44.84 per hour plus benefits for journeyman technicians and $27 to $29 an hour plus benefits for technicians who get licensed to install residential water heaters, the company’s bread-and-butter service. That’s well above the union rate of $20 an hour for water heater installers, he says.

“There are so few technicians for a lot of work, so we have to pay guys more to keep them on board,” he explains. “They get 40 hours of work a week, get paid at a commercial rate for residential jobs and work for a stable, 90-year-old company — it all helps attract and retain people.”

A popular perk, perhaps awarded for the least number of job callbacks during a particular week, for example, is a weekend stay at the company-owned condo in Newport, where lodgers can go crabbing right off a dock. In other instances, technicians get invited to go trapshooting at the Portland Gun Club for an evening, Kramien says.

“And the first time they hit 20 out of 25 (clay pigeons), we give them their own shotgun,” Kramien says, noting that one of the company’s former owners, Gary Morlan, the son of company founder George Morlan, was an avid trapshooter.

The great perks are more effective than raiding competitors for employees because some of those competitors might be customers of the company’s seven retail showrooms that sell fixtures and repair parts. “Burning bridges in this industry is not good,” Kramien notes.

The company started offering the perks during the last several years as the economy boomed and the labor pool subsequently shrank. “It allows us to pick employees from a better group of talent and then retain them,” Kramien says. “We know we’re going to struggle if we don’t use every asset we own to attract and retain talent.”




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