Adapting to Change Helps Plumbing Company Reach 100-Plus Years

This 100-year-old Illinois company is quick to adapt to changes to stay relevant and to provide customers with exceptional service.

Adapting to Change Helps Plumbing Company Reach 100-Plus Years

  Pat Armbrust, whose family owns Armbrust Plumbing & Heating Solutions, stands outside one of his company’s many service trucks.

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Pat Armbrust doesn’t know the brand of vehicle Clarence Armbrust cranked up to haul his plumbing tools after he started the family business in Wheaton, Illinois. Such details tend to get lost over the course of 103 years. That’s how long since Clarence Armbrust opened the door to Armbrust Plumbing.

Pat Armbrust does know that the door to the business was at the Armbrust home in Wheaton, a western suburb of metropolitan Chicago. His great-grandfather operated the plumbing business from his home on Ohio Street for more than 30 years before moving the shop to a downtown Wheaton building in 1954.

Back then the company focused on new construction, plumbing houses and multiple-story buildings.

When Clarence Armbrust’s son, Art, became the second-generation owner of the shop, the company continued to work solely with contractors to fit out new structures. Though the Wheaton area wasn’t experiencing a building boom, nearby communities like Oak Brook were. During the 1950s, new subdivisions began to spring up across the nation.

What happened next became an inflection point in the company’s long history. An uncle of Pat Armbrust — Dave Armbrust — assumed leadership of the company and decided its future lay in plumbing services rather than plumbing installations. An economic recession that had struck construction activity in 1978 led to the change in mission. “That was a huge transition,” Pat Armbrust says. “We stopped doing new construction altogether.”  

Plumbing services continued as the focus of the business when Pat Armbrust’s father, Richard, took over the company in the late 1990s, and remains so in 2021. Today, as accounts manager, Pat Armbrust oversees all aspects of Armbrust Plumbing & Heating Solutions, the fifth Armbrust and fourth generation of the family to do so.

“I don’t know many plumbing businesses that have been around for more than a hundred years,” Armbrust says. His 92-year-old grandmother is especially pleased by the longevity of the family business, he says. “A lot of the pride has to do with relationships created in the community over the years.”

Armbrust acknowledges that it “would be quite impressive to pass it on to another generation,” but that won’t be happening any time soon. On a recent Sunday, Armbrust took one of his children, Alexa, on an emergency run to fix a home water heater. His daughter relished the service call, but she is just six years old.

BEYOND PLUMBING

The company settled in as a plumbing services company, including servicing boilers for both commercial and residential hot-water radiator heating systems. In the mid-1990s, the company took a logical next step and began hiring technicians to work on cooling systems.

Today, Armbrust Plumbing & Heating Solutions is committed to both heating and cooling service on top of general plumbing repairs. The company crew numbers nine plumbers and four HVAC techs. Some 60% of service calls come in for the plumbers, most of the rest for the HVAC specialists.

“That varies according to weather, of course,” Armbrust says. “When it’s a hundred degrees, air conditioning work is going like crazy. In mid-June, we had a four-inch rain and plumbers were hard at work on drains and sump pumps.”

Most of the calls for service originate in DuPage County, of which Wheaton is the county seat. Some responding techs do end up working in homes and businesses in adjacent Cook County to the east, or Kane County to the west, but the company footprint is solidly in DuPage.

The company’s base of operations, however, has shifted from Wheaton to Carol Stream in the northwest quadrant of the county. The relocation from downtown Wheaton occurred five years ago. The Carol Stream location is a former doctor’s office that was reconfigured to offer more efficient company operations as well as to provide sufficient room for equipment and parts inventory.

“We have room to grow here,” Armbrust says. The family didn’t turn its collective back on the previous long-time office, honoring the company roots on Ohio Street (which has been renamed Liberty Street). “Our company name and logo still are on the front of the old office in downtown Wheaton.”

The roomier Carol Stream shop will more easily accommodate such machinery as the trailered Spartan Warrior jetter that Armbrust plumbers use to clear clogged drainpipes where cleanouts give them access. “Not every house is suited for using a jetter, but it does produce a cleaner pipe.”

The techs rely on a variety of RIDGID tools for different applications, such as SeeSnake and SeeSnake Mini cameras for pre- and post-inspection of pipes, cable drum machines for mechanical clearing of lines, and K9-204 descalers. Three box trucks and a pickup carry these and other pieces of equipment to customers’ doors.

When a sewer pipe collapses or otherwise is beyond jetting, Armbrust crewmembers crank up a Kubota KX91-3 backhoe to excavate the buried pipe and perform a spot repair. The 28 hp excavator is utilized weekly on average. To date, the company has subbed out trenchless repair jobs — lining of pipe — but it might be doing the work in-house before long.  

“We don’t do any lining, but I would like for us to get into trenchless work,” Armbrust says. He is a believer in new technology and is willing to spend to procure it. “One thing we have done over the last 20 years is invested in our tools. When we can have the proper tools on a job, a customer has a better experience and is given a better product. I don’t invest to have every kind of new tool, but because I want to simplify the service process for my techs. That’s half the battle.”

GOING WITH THE FLOW

In short, the company is not afraid of change. “We had paper invoices when I started. Now we use tablets, which makes it simpler for the technician and the end user, too,” says Armbrust. “And the convenience trickles down. A tech might work on something and three years later a different tech responds to a service call and can pull up the history and be guided by it.”

Technological change also brings the challenge of keeping technicians current in industry knowledge. The company is a union shop, so plumbers have continuing education opportunities.

“Every two months we pull them out of the field for some in-house training, two to four hours of training, about changes in the code, how we are performing, any changes in a product line.”

The older hands in the crew — some have been with the company for 10 or 20 years — naturally find changes a bit harder to accept.

“I tell them the most valuable tool in their toolbox is their iPad,” Armbrust says. “The internet gives them everything they need when they encounter one-of-a-kind challenges on the job. That’s the power of the internet. Most of them are starting to understand that.”

Long tenured crewmembers are a result of company policies that encourage longevity. Armbrust says most of the company service technicians end up retiring with the company.

“When I hire, I don’t just look for an employee. I want them to have careers here,” Armbrust says. “When I bring them on board, I’m filling a need right in front of me, of course, but at the end of the day I am looking for a career employee.”

Long-term employees also are a consequence of Armbrust Plumbing & Healing Solutions keeping employees on the payroll through difficult economic periods. Over the span of a century, every company will experience bad times. Armbrust specifically cites the slowdowns after the 9/11 attacks and the housing crash in 2008-09 that wreaked special misery on construction trades.

“In 20-plus years, we haven’t laid off anyone,” he says. “Hours got slow during bad times and some techs were down to four days a week. Decision making in such times has to come with everyone at the table, techs included. In both downturns, we knew we were going to come out on top, but we just didn’t know how long it was going to be.”

His current concern is not about keeping his crew fully staffed. Rather it is about ensuring he has the inventory of materials and products he needs for the rest of the year. The distortions of the economy during the virus onslaught seriously interrupted manufacturers’ supply cycles. 

“Across the industry, water heaters are back-ordered, PVC fittings are back-ordered,” he says. “Furnaces. Air conditioners. Knowing this was a potential problem, I developed an overstock of materials — a full quarter’s worth of air conditioners, water heaters, pipe — to make sure we could maintain our work and service till things got back to normal. If I don’t have the materials on hand when I answer the phone, I’m in trouble.”

CHANGE CONTINUES

All kinds of changes have occurred over the 103 years the company has been in business. Armbrust is determined to keep up with the changing world of plumbing by continuing to invest in people and equipment.

“The plumbing world is constantly evolving and we have to evolve with it, meeting the constant change head-on, rolling with it,” he says.

He adds that the last century of change probably means that early generations of company leadership wouldn’t recognize the plumbing industry today. “I think my grandfather, if he were still alive, would be lost. There are hardly any plumbing procedures or truths still around from a hundred years ago except that sewer water still flows downhill.” 



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