Contractor’s Daughter Dives Into Plumbing Trade

Family guided both father and daughter into plumbing, and now the Texas duo is finding new success as a team.
Contractor’s Daughter Dives Into Plumbing Trade
Pete Johnson Plumbing owner Pete Johnson and his daughter, master plumber Makenzie Johnson. (Photography by Misty Doyle)

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In business, it’s important for companies to differentiate from competitors, especially in highly saturated markets. In Wichita Falls, Texas — a city with a high concentration of plumbers — Pete Johnson proudly holds a differentiation card that competitors will find difficult to trump: his daughter, Makenzie.

Makenzie, who just turned 25, is one of only about two dozen female plumbers in the Lone Star state, and one of even fewer who hold a Responsible Master Plumber endorsement, which effectively means she’s qualified to open her own plumbing business.

“I’m just ecstatic that she’s a plumber,” says Johnson, a master plumber who established his company in 1988. “She’s been tagging along with me at work ever since she was a youngster. She earned her journeyman license when she was 20 and her master plumber license when she was 24. I’m very proud of her.”

Makenzie’s older sister, Mallory, 27, also considered a career in plumbing when she turned 16. But after trying it for one summer, she decided it wasn’t for her. “That was fine with me,” Johnson says. “I try not to force my kids into anything.”

Like Mallory, Makenzie also discovered that knowing what you don’t like is as valuable as finding out what you do like. Case in point: While earning a mechanical engineering degree from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, she also worked in a retail store.

“I worked in retail for four years and found it wasn’t for me,” Makenzie says. “I like to be outside and meet new people and face new challenges every day. There’s no repetition when you’re a plumber.

“I knew this was what I wanted to do when I started working with my father at age 16,” she continues. “It’s so much better than being stuck inside all day, and I love helping people who have a problem.”

Good working relationship

In family-owned businesses where parents and their children work together, there’s always potential for generational conflicts and clashes, but this father/daughter team gets on pretty well.

“Here’s the deal,” explains Johnson, 51, a no-nonsense, old-school type. “My old boss always told me, ‘I’m the boss. I write the checks. Right or wrong, we do it the way I say.’ But with this younger generation, I listen to her input — I understand that technology has changed.

“On the other hand, that doesn’t mean my old tried-and-true tactics have stopped working,” he adds. “Yes, she provides input and I listen to her. But down the road, I’m the boss and I write the checks, so I have the final say. Overall, I’d say it’s been a good working relationship — a good learning experience for both of us.”

Marketing is one area where Johnson gives Makenzie wide latitude to implement new ideas. While the company is firmly established and well-known in Wichita Falls, a more polished and professional image never hurts, Makenzie notes. And it might be particularly useful because the city is a challenging market for plumbers, with about 100 licensed plumbers in a city with a population of about 105,000 people.

“It’s a really competitive market,” he notes. “Now, some of those guys might be retired and just kept their license, but even so, that’s still a large volume of plumbers compared to the population.”

Family affair

For Johnson, a plumbing career seemed as natural as water traveling downhill. Some of his uncles worked as plumbers and carpenters around Wichita Falls, so he was no stranger to the trades while growing up. “I went to work digging ditches for my uncle, Michael Brown, when I was about 14 years old,” he recalls. “In all honesty, it was the best time of my life working. The labor was hard, but we had fun doing it. We worked hard and played hard and there was great camaraderie.

“You never know what’s going to happen in life, but I just took to it (plumbing),” he adds, noting he earned his journeyman license at age 16 and became a master plumber when he was 21. “I worked for my uncle for years and found it’s what I liked to do. So that’s what I did.”

For about 10 years or so, Johnson worked for his uncle and then a couple other local plumbing companies before starting his own company in 1988. He credits two primary factors for his success. The first was a series of mentors, including his uncle, who gave him guidance and advice, leavened with a good amount of common sense. “I’d say that 99 percent of the time, their advice was spot-on,” he says. “The younger generation should listen to the old-timers because they know what they’re talking about.”

The second factor centers on handling customers with care. “I take care of my customers,” he says. “And that includes being diverse so we can provide them with multiple services. We don’t do just new houses or just repairs. I train our employees to do a wide variety of things so that when customers call — whether it’s installing plumbing in a new house or fixing a broken garbage disposal or replacing a sewer line — we can do it.

“I’ve learned that TLC is one of the most important things in business,” he continues. “It keeps customers coming back to you. I’m talking about leaving customers’ houses as clean as when you arrived. I’ve even changed light bulbs for customers who couldn’t reach them or walked their dog. It makes a good impression when you do all those little things.”

Equipment matters

Johnson Plumbing does repairs and plumbing installations for commercial and residential customers, and also installs water and sewer lines and makes utility repairs for municipal customers. To provide all these services, the company owns a Grumman Kurbmaster cargo van, a Chevrolet 1-ton pickup truck and an International 5-ton crew cab service truck that carries equipment and materials for municipal work.

“The International can carry pipes as wide as 36 inches and up to 21 feet long,” he says. “We can put all our tools and materials on it and tow a tractor, all at the same time. If we travel 50 miles from here to work on something, we can take everything with us on one vehicle.”

The company also relies on four RIDGID drain cleaning machines capable of cleaning pipes from 1 1/4 up to 12 inches in diameter, one RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera, another inspection camera built by General Pipe Cleaners, a Case backhoe and ditching machine, one mini-backhoe made by Terramite Corp., and a Ditch Witch trenching machine.

In addition, the company owns a hydraulic dump trailer made by Big Tex Trailers and three flatbed trailers made by Ditch Witch, Big Tex and Belshe Trailers.

But Johnson also relies on hand-held technology, like smartphones. While he points out that it’s always important to listen to customers to fully understand what they need, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

“I always ask customers to explain what happened and how it happened, but now I also ask them to send me a digital photo of the problem so I get somewhat of an understanding of what I’m getting into and what materials I might need,” he explains. “That saves me a ton of time and money because once I’m at a customer’s house, I don’t have to take a half hour to go back out to buy a 39-cent fitting.”

Looking ahead

Johnson Plumbing is a bit unusual because it’s now a smaller company than it was years ago, when Johnson ran five service trucks. But at that size, the business proved too difficult to sustain because he couldn’t find enough employees who could provide the customer service he demands. As such, quality control suffered.

“It was a bad experience,” he says. “It just wasn’t worth the misery — the people problems and all the mistakes. It cost me more money to keep them and try to get them to treat customers right. It can get out of control pretty quick.”

As such, Johnson welcomes consistent growth, but is reluctant to make that happen until he can find more professional, knowledgeable employees with good customer service skills. “Don’t get me wrong — I don’t mind growing,” he says. “But you need to have the right people to grow … and at this point, I don’t think it’s worth the misery to reach out there and try to find them.”

In the meantime, he says he’s content to keep it all in the family by rolling with Makenzie and his two part-time employees: his brother, Dusty, and his nephew, Kinneth Sluder.

“I just want my kids to be happy and be able to support themselves,” he says. “As long as they’re healthy and happy, the rest doesn’t matter.”

The good, bad and ugly of plumbing

When a female works in a male-dominated profession such as plumbing, it can create some odd dynamics, ranging from comical to just downright sexist. But Makenzie Johnson, a plumber who works for her father’s company, Pete Johnson Plumbing in Wichita Falls, Texas, takes it all in stride.

“I’ve run across some pretty rude men (customers) who tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m not a ‘real’ plumber,” says Makenzie, who earned her journeyman license when she was 20 and her master plumber license when she was 24. “But fortunately, they’re far and few between.”

“Most customers are very supportive,” says Pete Johnson. “But I’ve had a few people who’ve refused to let her in their house to work. Or I’ve had people call me and ask, ‘Did you send a girl over here?’ or ‘Is she a real plumber?’ It takes all kinds of people to make a wolf pack. It’s comical sometimes, I promise you.”

One customer – ironically enough, a woman — wouldn’t let Makenzie in because she thought the plumber was too young. “I look pretty young and she assumed I wasn’t old enough, so she asked me to get my dad,” Makenzie says. “In the end, she was very apologetic. Most times customers are congratulatory and supportive. They’re excited to see a young female break into a male-dominated field.”

Overall, Makenzie says she has a very good working relationship with her father.  “Sometimes I get a little frustrated because he won’t give me an opportunity to do something,” she says. “Or he tells me how to do something even if I know what to do.

“But when it comes to work, he is well-respected around town,” she adds. “So I respect his knowledge and if he says, ‘This is the best way to do it,’ I don’t try to change that.”

One thing she is trying to change, however, is the company’s image, which she feels could use some sprucing up. “We don’t look as professional as we could be,” she says, noting that one logo adorns the company’s trucks while an entirely different logo appears on the company’s business cards. “My dad didn’t put up a fight about it,” she says. “Deep down, I think he knows it wouldn’t hurt to look more professional.”

What advice would Makenzie give to a child that works with a parent in a family-owned company? Don’t be disrespectful, no matter how far apart you are on opinions. And if you don’t agree on how to do something, defer to the parent’s way of doing it, because he or she has more experience.

Makenzie earned a mechanical engineering degree from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, so she has a fallback position if she ever gets tired of wrangling monkey wrenches and soldering pipe fittings. “But for now, I’m sticking with plumbing,” she says. “If a really good opportunity came along, I’d consider it. But it would have to be a dream job — like designing faucets for Delta or Kohler — because I really love what I do.”


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