Plumbing Company Learns to Adapt to What Customers Want

Knowing when and how to adjust to industry changes allows New York’s Nebrasky Plumbing to grow from a once bankrupt company to a thriving one

Plumbing Company Learns to Adapt to What Customers Want

Plumber Jim Cusanello works with a gas pipe in Middletown, New York.

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Learning to pivot was one of the best business lessons Paul Nebrasky has ever picked up in his more than 30-year plumbing career.

The 54-year-old owner of Nebrasky Plumbing, Heating & Cooling has had to pivot his company’s service offerings several times over the last three decades in order to stay on top of the industry and continue to be a go-to for customers.

“In the last 31 years, we’ve grown a bankrupt business into a 30-employee business,” Nebrasky says. “Over the years, there have been bumps in the road, but we’ve added services. We’ve been able to move as the economy has moved and pivot as business changed.”

While the Monroe, New York-based company has added services, one thing that hasn’t changed over the last 31 years is its dedication to customer service.

“Any great company you want to talk about needs to start with customer service,” Nebrasky says. “If you don’t have great customer service, you’re going out of business.”

That won’t change anytime soon either, as the company brings on more technology that will help its technicians serve customers even better in the years to come.

FROM NOTHING TO SOMETHING

Nebrasky found his way into the industry and owning the company in a roundabout way. While he was working for other plumbing firms, his stepfather was operating his own one-man plumbing company.

“I wasn’t working for him at the time because I couldn’t get along with him,” Nebrasky says. “Like a lot of kids who try to work with their dad, sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

While his stepfather was a skilled plumber, it was the operating end of the business that he wasn’t so great at — not knowing what to charge, for example. Finally, in 1988, Nebrasky’s stepfather had to file for bankruptcy, giving his stepson a call to say he was done and he and Nebrasky’s mom were moving to Florida.

“The truck was already mine from the first time he went bankrupt, so this time he said he could leave me the rest of the company if I would like it,” Nebrasky says. “I took over the company and changed the name, and since then we’ve grown.”

At the age of 24, Nebrasky knew it was his time to take a try at owning a plumbing business. The risks were low as he had just two roommates, wasn’t married or engaged and had very little expenses at the time.

“It was a great time to start the company,” Nebrasky says. “Was it scary? Yes, but I never looked back.”

The company is more diverse now, offering services such as new construction plumbing, heating, air conditioning and home energy assessments.

THE BIG PROJECTS

New construction is one of the company’s most recent pivots. That division began with a focus on residential housing, but as the area’s needs have changed, so has that focus.

“Our area that we serve has changed from residential housing to more commercial buildings because LEGOLAND is building its first Northeast theme park 15 minutes from my office,” Nebrasky says. “What followed LEGOLAND were hotels.”

Nebrasky saw this shift three years ago and now is doing small residential hotels like Holiday Inn Expresses.

“Right now, we’re in the process of doing plumbing in three hotels — which 10 years ago if you would have told me I would take on a big job like that, I would have told you that you were nuts.”

He says he saw the need and realized if he didn’t pivot the company into that direction, his company could be in trouble.

GETTING SMARTER

That mindset of adjusting to what is happening in the market isn’t just on the construction side. It’s also on the technological side. With younger homeowners being the current trend, the company is seeing a more tech-savvy customer taking shape.

Many homeowners today are looking for more ways to use their smartphones or Alexa-type devices in their homes. “In the HVAC industry, some of the smart technologies have been out for a while, like the Nest thermostats that allow users to operate a thermostat from their phone,” Nebrasky says. “Recently, large manufacturers like Kohler, Moen and GROHE are starting to come out with smart technology in plumbing.”

Nebrasky jumped on the smart technology quickly, saying it works in HVAC, so why couldn’t it work in plumbing? “It comes down to customer demand,” Nebrasky says. “We have to look at what our customers want down the road. And the millennials are going to want this.”

With that smart technology has come some growing pains. One of the biggest has been training the plumbers to install the technology.

“You have to send a technician or plumber who can tie this into the homeowner’s Wi-Fi,” Nebrasky says. “You would not believe how many customers don’t know their Wi-Fi access number. It’s not as easy as just putting this in and leaving. You have to tie it into Wi-Fi and program it with a laptop. Plumbers aren’t used to that.”

Nebrasky himself is a user of smart plumbing technology in his own home. His home, which was recently built, has the Uponor Phyn installed in it, which will shut off the water if it detects a leak.

“We have eight of those in right now, and one of them is in my own home,” Nebrasky says. “It’s a great product, but like a lot of technology, it’s not without it quirks.”

Nebrasky has seen some of those quirks himself — both good and bad.

After installing a washer and dryer at his home, Nebrasky’s Phyn alerted him via smartphone that there was unexpected water usage in the house. He called his wife, who wasn’t home to see if she left something running. She didn’t.

“So right on the phone, I was able to go in and shut the house water off,” Nebrasky says. “When my wife got home, she found that one of the hoses from the wash machine had a slight crack in it. Not a lot of damage was done because the Phyn alerted us right away. It learns what your water usage is, and it saved me from a flood in my house.”

Smart technology also sends alerts to the customer’s plumber if they so choose, giving the plumber a better idea of where a leak might be.

“The Phyn will tell you when there is a leak, where it thinks it is coming from and how much there is,” Nebrasky says. “At the end, it’ll ask if the homeowner would like to alert the plumber, and if the homeowner says yes, it’ll automatically call us. That’s all built right into the system.”

Nebrasky is looking forward to seeing where the industry moves with the technology and how customers react to it.

“I think it really sells itself,” he says. “I’m not fully pushing it at this point, but I’m offering it because I see where it is going. I want to make sure we are selling the best of the products that are coming out and coming out quickly.”

DELIVERING THE TECHNOLOGY

Helping the plumbing technicians deliver that smart technology to homes are the company’s fully stocked Nissan NV vans, which are carrying the typical hand tools of plumbers along with some pipe components that could be needed on the job.

Hand tools of choice for Nebrasky are anything by Milwaukee Tool. “I’m a Milwaukee guy all the way,” he says. “I moved to them about four years ago because of the service they were giving us.”

Nebrasky is quick to note though that if there was one area of his company that needed improvement, it would be the inventory in both the shop and on the trucks. After having a bar-coding system installed, Nebrasky’s warehouse manager retired and moved, and the position wasn’t refilled.

“The warehouse system got back to where it was prior to the bar-coding system,” Nebrasky says. “We watch it, but our inventory system is not where it needs to be. I do not have a comprehensive inventory system, but it is on our list of things to do yet this year as ServiceTitan is coming out with an inventory module. We’re hoping that works out and we’ll get our inventory back into check.”

The company uses ServiceTitan for its billing and scheduling needs already, with each technician carrying a tablet on the truck with them.

A STEADY GROWTH

When looking ahead to the rest of 2019 and into 2020, Nebrasky is forecasting continued growth, but at a pace that is sustainable.

“I’ve learned from where we’ve grown too quickly and I’ve seen other companies grow too quickly,” he says. “I want to add services and be nimble enough to pivot with smart technology and pivot with the economy.”

One possibility for the company is adding an electrical division.

“Your great customer wants you in the house to do everything,” Nebrasky says. “If they trust you in the house to do your plumbing and heating and home energy assessment, why put another contractor in there who they might not trust?”


Taking on the recession

In his 31 years of business, Paul Nebrasky has attended several seminars over the years to help him get more comfortable running a business, but what really taught him the most about business was making it through the recession in 2008.

“Getting through that really shaped the rest of the business for me,” says Nebrasky, owner of Nebrasky Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in Monroe, New York. “It’s pretty easy being in business when the economy is going up every year and you’re making more money, but now you’re in a recession and you have to learn to operate a business and be a businessman in a recession when most people around you haven’t ever been in one.”

His company wasn’t immune to the hardships of that time as construction industries — including plumbing — slowed.

“For the first time, I had to lay off people, like many others,” Nebrasky says. “We had 32 employees at that point and I’m laying off people. As I’m doing that, I have trucks sitting outside that I’m making payments on. I thought to myself that there had to be a way to repurpose those plumbing trucks and get them back on the road making money.”

That’s when New York began an incentive for property owners to save energy. Contractors were trained to come into homes and see where they were losing energy and what could be done to fix it, whether it be added insulation, new windows or air sealing.

“That program had just started, and I thought it would be a great way to pivot because not only could we do the home energy assessment, but we could sell them on the boilers or heating plan if they needed it,” Nebrasky says.

The company trained three technicians who were otherwise going to be laid off. The training, Nebrasky says, was paid in part by the state.

“To this day, it’s not a huge part of my business, but it’s a nice part of my business,” Nebrasky says. “It was born out of ingenuity and necessity during the recession. We have two full-time people doing it now.”



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