Pennsylvania Plumber Pumps Up Profits

Cleaning, inspecting and relining become key components of fourth-generation plumber’s success
Pennsylvania Plumber Pumps Up Profits
Master plumber Phil Arena, an employee of Matt Mertz Plumbing in Wexford, Pa., installs a repair coupling on a leaking section of 2-inch copper water line using a RIDGID Pro-Press crimping tool. (Photography by Joe Appel)

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When master plumber Matt Mertz was hustling to establish himself as a one-man shop about a decade ago, he was pretty excited when his company — Matt Mertz Plumbing in Wexford, Pa. — hit $150,000 in revenue.

But the fourth-generation plumber had much more ambitious goals in mind. And by virtually any measure, he’s fulfilled those aspirations in dramatic fashion. Take revenue, for starters: more than $6 million in 2014. In addition, Mertz now employs 29 people — including 12 full-time licensed plumbers — and runs 27 trucks in the area around Wexford, about 15 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Moreover, thanks to significant expansion, his company morphed into a fully diversified outfit that offers a wide array of services, ranging from general plumbing (primarily residential work) and drain cleaning to pipeline inspections and relining. And he owns about $2 million worth of tools, vehicles and equipment.

Not bad, considering that in 2004, after he struck out on his own, Mertz at one point owned just a Ford truck, some miscellaneous plumbing tools and supplies, a pipeline camera and a drain snake — and had just $200 in the bank.

The company’s transition from a one-man operation to a thriving, large-scale plumbing company reflects the power of a strong, relentless work ethic; Mertz still routinely works 60-hour weeks. “I’ve always felt that if I work way more hours than the time I take off, I can’t mess up,” he says. But it also shows how small plumbing operators can benefit from constant reinvestments in productivity-enhancing equipment, establishing good credit, delegating job responsibilities, a strong advertising program and differentiating through great customer service.

“Things happened pretty fast,” Mertz notes, referring to the company’s early years. “I grew because I did a lot of little things differently than other guys. I wasn’t afraid to go out late on jobs. I worked hard and was polite to customers. I did very clean work — I take a lot of pride in the finished product. I charged a fair price and worked quickly. And when I hired employees, I only hired guys who felt the same way about jobs that I do.”

Deep plumbing roots
It’s no surprise that Mertz became a plumber. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father worked as plumbers, and Mertz says he always had an affinity for the work. “It sounds cliche, but plumbing is in my blood,” he says.

While working for his father, he earned a journeyman plumber’s license in 2003 and a master plumber’s license in 2004. (In Pennsylvania, only master plumbers can run a plumbing business.)

Mertz established his own shop in 2004. “I had no choice but to make it a go,” he says. “I ran some ads in local newspapers and even pinned flyers on community boards in coffee shops. I did any work I could get and was charging $50 an hour. I was willing to do anything I could to feed my family, and finally things started to click. The phone finally started to ring. And all of a sudden I had $30,000 in the bank.”

Mertz gives a lot of credit to his wife, Lisa, the company’s vice president. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” he notes. “She’s always been there for me — she’s extremely supportive, even though I put in long hours. She helped me get to where we are now. We’re a really good team.”

Tons of tools
Running a full-service outfit requires a large fleet of equipment, and Mertz has aggressively purchased tools and machines that improve efficiency and boost profitability. Here’s a run-down of the company’s equipment on the plumbing/drain cleaning side of the business:
• 12 one-ton Chevrolet service vans and one Ford van
• 12 RIDGID RP-210 ProPress solderless pipe-joining tools
• 12 M-Spector 360 pipeline cameras, made by Milwaukee Tool
• Four RIDGID K-1500 sectional cable machines
• Four Model 300 drum cable machines, made by Spartan Tool LLC
• Eight RIDGID K-60 sectional cable machines
•12 Kinetic Water Ram drainline cleaners, made by General Pipe Cleaners
• Spartan Model 727 wheeled cart jetter (3,000 psi at 4 gpm)
• General Pipe portable jetter (3,000 psi at 4 gpm)
• 10 RIDGID See-Snake pipeline inspection cameras
• Spartan 740 trailer jetter (4,000 psi at 12 gpm)
• Warthog and Lumberjack nozzles, made by StoneAge and Nozzteq
• 12 Super-Vee hand-held drainline cleaners, made by General Pipe

On the pipe relining/lateral replacement arm of the business, the company relies on:
• An 18-foot trailer used for carrying a pipe relining system and equipment from Perma-Liner Industries
• Dodge 3500 dually pickup truck used to pull the relining trailer
• Viper air compressor (VanAir Manufacturing) for inflating liners
• Four Isuzu 14-foot cab-over service vans
• Two skid-steers and four mini-excavators, all made by Bobcat Co.
• Five dump trucks (made by GMC, Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford)
• Two TT Technologies Grundomat pneumatic “pencil moles” for boring underground lines
• Two SC75 gas-powered, tracked hauling buggies, manufactured by Canycom USA
Ingersoll Rand tow-behind air compressor
• 10 Brute 90-pound jackhammers, made by Robert Bosch Tool Corp.

How could Mertz afford to buy all this equipment? He sums it up in two words: financing and frugality. At first, he relied on a line of credit from a local bank and financing through a national loan company. He focused on making loan payments on time and saving money.

“I established really good credit,” he says. “No matter how much money I earned, I always made sure I saved some and made the payments. I was never afraid to buy the things I really needed, but I was smart about it, too — I didn’t get in over my head financially. I’d wait until a job required a certain tool or piece of equipment, but made sure I could make money with it afterward, too.

“Now I pay cash for everything,” he adds.

Managing inventory
Each plumbing truck carries about $10,000 worth of repair parts. “You open up one of our plumbing service trucks and it looks like a mini Home Depot,” Mertz quips. The trucks get restocked every morning to minimize the need for time-consuming and productivity-killing runs to a supply house.

Moreover, to further maximize efficiency, Mertz dedicates one truck to delivering parts to crews on job sites rather than have them make supply-house runs while the clock is ticking. Theoretically, daily replenishment of parts carried by trucks is supposed to eliminate on-the-job parts shortages, but they still happen occasionally, he notes. But if they do occur, job crews aren’t wasting time on supply runs.

“When I first started out, we made supply-house runs [from job sites],” Mertz explains. “But now we’re doing 400 to 500 plumbing and drain cleaning jobs a week, working six days a week, so I want to keep my guys out of the supply houses. It’s just wasted time.”

Speaking of trucks, all the company’s vehicles look the same: white with maroon lettering, which promotes consistent branding. Furthermore, trucks get checked every week to make sure they’re clean and well organized, detect damage and determine if they require any maintenance.

“I check every truck every week and they sign off that it was washed,” Mertz says. “I’m a neat freak. It’s all about image. If you’re clean and organized, customers will think you’ll do a good job. We charge $135 for the first hour of service, and it’s easier to charge that kind of rate if our guys go to the job with a newer model truck that’s clean, well stocked and doesn’t leak oil on a driveway. Our guys also are required to be clean-cut, wear a uniform, greet customers at the door and put on shoe booties before they enter a house.”

Planning for more growth
What does Mertz see in terms of future growth? In a word: more. He plans to expand into heating and cooling services and recently hired two employees and bought two new trucks to get started.

On the plumbing end, Mertz’s goal is to eventually run 50 trucks, and after 10 years he’s more than halfway there. “It gets tougher to grow,” he notes. “It’s harder and harder to find good employees.

“But I definitely see more growth ahead,” he continues. “The market is here for the taking.”

No matter what lies ahead, though, Mertz says he’ll always rely on the most valuable lesson he’s learned in the last 10 years: Trust yourself, even if you’re down to your last $200 in the bank.

“Never doubt yourself,” he emphasizes. “Don’t ever let someone say you can’t do something, because you certainly can. Just keep focusing on moving forward and don’t dwell on the stupid stuff.”


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