Taking Pride in the Plumbing Profession

Levine and Sons prospers through its commitment to customers and an expanding slate of complementary services.
Taking Pride in the Plumbing Profession
The Levine family, including (from left) Paul, Dan, Tom and Jim, has been serving the Detroit area since 1927. The company has stayed true to its plumbing roots, but has expanded its offerings to include sewer lateral relining and other complementary services. Photography by Gerald Bernard

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Levine and Sons is a family-owned business that’s been active in the Detroit area so long that when it opened in 1927, technicians on plumbing service calls traveled by trolley with their toolboxes.

The company has remained true to its plumbing roots, providing traditional plumbing service, repair and drain cleaning, but has expanded its offerings to include sewer lateral relining and the installation of water purification and filtration systems, water softeners and tankless water heaters. It also offers commercial and residential HVAC. The business thrives on four simple principles — know your market, know your job, arrive quickly and work efficiently.

The company was founded by Louis Levine, but went on hiatus during the Great Depression. However, it was firing on all cylinders by the end of World War II.
Louis’ son Tom got into the business when he was 18 years old and is still working with the company in his mid-80s.

Then, as now, the company’s bread and butter was service and repair work including both plumbing and heating. It also performed heavy industrial work at local oil refineries, working on large cast-iron pipelines for such companies as Marathon Oil. Even then, the company hedged its bets, preparing for the possible conclusion of refinery work with an increased investment in the plumbing business.

Today, the business employs 28 people and is headquartered in Redford, Mich., about 10 miles west of Detroit. Tom’s three sons assist him with the business, with Jim running operations and estimating, Dan handling finances and Paul specializing in ordering, inventory management and equipment maintenance.

Concentrating on private sector
While municipal work is available for bid, Jim Levine says the company sticks to residential and commercial contracts, including such clients as office complexes, banks, restaurants and medical offices. The customer mix is 80 percent residential and 20 percent light commercial.

“We don’t own big vacuum trucks and we’re geared to responding quickly, working quickly and billing quickly,” he says. “We’ve developed a great rapport with home and business owners, but dealing with the city is another type of work altogether, including permitting and major traffic control. The municipal jobs are generally longer-term contracts, and the longer you’re on the job, the greater the chances of running into a snag.”
When customers require financing, Levine and Sons partners with Wells Fargo to offer credit.

The company operates 19 trucks, including two Chevy 3500 one-ton cargo vans, a Chevy Silverado half-ton, two Chevy 4500 box trucks and a Chevy Tiltmaster. The Ford side of the family includes a one-ton extended van, an F-150 pickup and 11 E-450 cube trucks with 14-foot boxes and attics by NBC Truck Equipment Inc. in nearby Roseville.

“We’re doing things a little different with the bodies,” says Levine. “We got away from aluminum body components, which corrode too quickly, especially at the back of the truck. We’re using fiberglass-reinforced polymer bodies for the box, and all the trim is stainless steel.”

The company stretches its budget by shopping around for the best price on plumbing supplies, primarily buying from Ferguson Enterprises Inc., Plumbers Wholesale and Barnett Pro Contractor Supplies.

Drain cleaning and sewer lateral work form a steady revenue stream. The company devotes a full-time crew and three trucks to this segment of the business.
“Years ago, it wasn’t considered fashionable for a master plumber to do sewer work,” says Levine. “Today, with all sorts of cool, high-tech gadgets, it’s much more glamorous to get involved in sewer drain work.”

The work begins with a free video inspection. Levine and Sons operates seven CCTV cameras including the RIDGID SeeSnake, the Gen-Eye GL from General Pipe Cleaners and various models from Vivax-Metrotech.

“The video inspection is really a loss leader for the drain cleaning and rehabilitation side of the business,” says Levine. “Generally, they also want their sewer line traced and we use either a RIDGID or Radiodetection locator for that.”

Traditional or trenchless?
Customers are offered a variety of options from root cutting to hydro jetting, relining and dig-and-replace.

To help provide year-round service in cold weather, the company uses a US Jetting 5018, 600-gallon heated trailer unit. Root-cutting nozzles include models from Warthog, Enz USA and StoneAge. Crews also rely on two mini-jetters from General Pipe Cleaners.

“I explain to the customer that I can try to cut out roots but that I can’t clean out all of the roots from a 6-inch clay pipe with a 3.5-inch cutter,” says Levine. “We tell them that we’ll clear out 100 percent of the roots with a hydro-jet but they will still have root regrowth at some point — or we can reline the lateral so they’ll own a seamless length of pipe with no joints and will never have to experience root intrusion again.”

Levine and Sons primarily works cured-in-place-pipe (CIPP) technology on 4-inch residential lines through the 6-inch transitions and will work on lines as large as 12 inches for light commercial customers. All CIPP technology is supplied by Formadrain’s pulled-in-place, steam-cured pipe repair system.
“It’s a licensed product and we buy all of the fiberglass and epoxy from the supplier as well,” says Levine.

The product is a rubber bladder wrapped with epoxy and fiberglass. Once prepared and delivered to the site, a rope is run from the city manhole to the clean-out.

“We then pull it through from the basement using a four-legged, torque-multiplying winch with a tow strap as the crew feeds it through the manhole and communicates with the guys in the basement with a walkie-talkie,” says Levine.
The product is then inflated and cured.

“We like this product for two reasons,” he says. “First, it’s approved by the National Sanitation Foundation, which is required by the Michigan State Plumbing Board, and second, it’s steam-cured. We’ve tried ambient cure products that we have to baby-sit for two to six hours, and with Formadrain we’re ready to move to the next project in 45 minutes.”

The CIPP process works well if the pipe runs under a pool, driveway, garage or other building.

“For broken clay pipe, I can’t use the system,” Levine says. “If there are sharp chunks of clay you might get an aneurysm in the bladder when it’s inflated prior to curing. Then we’re stuck with wet, goopy fiberglass that’s partially hardened.”

If the lateral is damaged over a short section, Levine offers to install a 2- or 4-foot length of Fernco PipePatch from Source One Environmental. “These packers are pushed in using 10-foot fiberglass rods with their ends wrapped in epoxy and fiberglass,” he says. “We push them in place and then fill them with an air compressor.”

The company owns pipe bursting equipment from Pipe Genie Manufacturing Inc., but in most cases other technology better fits the project bill.
After all of the trenchless options are offered, the company will also provide dig-and-replace service.

Flush TV offers novel exposure
Levine and Sons relies on word of mouth, Yellow Pages ads, radio commercials and its own extensive website for most of its business. The website includes links to a series of five-minute reality TV-style episodes of a series called Flush TV, which feature the staff.

“These were done by Jennifer Katz, a Brooklyn filmmaker friend of Dan’s,” says Levine. “They were fun to do and they’ve been good for recognition value. Occasionally, people will walk up to me and say, ‘You’re the guy from Flush TV.’”

Cable TV advertisements, pay-per-click services and email campaigns continue to become more important advertising vehicles.

“We keep an email database and run email blasts to our existing customers,” says Levine. “On Thanksgiving, we’ll run a Turkey Day garbage disposal installation or maintenance special, or a discount in air conditioning service on the first day of summer. Sometimes we’ll offer a discounted line inspection and jetting service in a particular neighborhood when we’re getting a lot of storm advisories — whatever it takes to spur on existing customers.”

The company has also experienced recent success with radio advertising, airing a series of 60-second spots starting in summer 2014.

“On the radio, we’re stressing sewer lateral lining as part of a branding exercise that’s also educating the customer,” says Levine. “Word is getting out and we’re generating a lot of leads through radio.”

Detroit on the rise
The battered Detroit economy is showing some signs of recovery as discretionary income begins to rise. However, competition for those dollars remains fierce.
“We’re even facing competition from municipal utilities who are making a profit on selling their subsidized services to homeowners, charging a flat monthly fee for plumbing service,” says Levine. “These deals don’t always offer the best value to the customer because so much of the potential work is not actually covered.”

The recovering economy has also increased competition for qualified technicians among local plumbing companies.
“With union membership down, the trade schools aren’t as active in the area and it’s a big challenge to hire qualified workers,” says Levine. “We often have to hire someone with a little bit of experience and train them ourselves.”
Still, the company remains on a growth trajectory. Levine and Sons is doubling its footprint in 2015, when it plans to move into a 21,000-square-foot facility in nearby Southfield.

“We’d like to grow and service more adjacent counties,” Levine says. “But we still serve some of the same customers that we served when we started in 1927­, and we’re going to keep taking care of them as we grow.”


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