Plumber Adds to Bottom Line with New Service Offering

Perry Plumbing learns the ups and downs of adding HVAC to a business built upon family values and a passion for plumbing.
Plumber Adds to Bottom Line with New Service Offering
The field crew and office staff of Perry Plumbing pose for a group photo before tackling the day’s jobs throughout the San Diego area.

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After nearly 40 years of serving customers throughout San Diego County, Perry Plumbing Heating & Air has ventured into HVAC territory — a move driven by customer requests.

“After being in business for quite a while, I’ve developed a large customer base,” says owner Harley Perry. “Through the years they kept asking me to add that service.”

Now less than two years in, it’s adding to the bottom line, he says, while also adding benefits to his customers — a mix of roughly 60 percent commercial and 40 percent residential clients that includes homeowner associations, apartment buildings and restaurants.

Although Perry estimates the HVAC segment represents just 1 or 2 percent of his overall business, which also includes plumbing service and repairs, underground pipe replacement and pipe lining, it is a figure he expects to grow over time.

Added challenges

In order to foster that growth, Perry continues to address a variety of challenges. Even though customer requests led to the addition of HVAC services, one of the challenges has been developing a sense of comfort with those customers. “They don’t all trust the fact that you just jump from plumbing into HVAC and know what you’re doing, so it’s a long process to get them to trust that,” he explains.

And while he gets to enjoy the beautiful weather the San Diego area is known for, the mild temperatures make it difficult to thrive on HVAC-related work. It’s seasonal to begin with, he explains, and in an area like San Diego there’s little heating to do in the winter and little cooling to handle during the summertime.

Finding the right employee was an added challenge, too, he says. It took him roughly a year to find someone he thought was appropriately qualified. After working with that new hire for about two months, it became apparent that it just wasn’t the right fit.

“I went through about four people before I finally found the right guy,” he adds. “I’ve only got one HVAC tech right now, and he’s a very good one. He’s been with me for about five months now, and he’s been getting a lot of requests from a lot of people.”

Tooling up

Finding the right technicians to hitch his wagon to was just the first challenge. Before he even put his first HVAC hire in the field, he spent three months finding the right truck, obtaining the right tools, and marketing the new service to customers.

“I had to first purchase a vehicle and then completely tool it — from pumps to gauges to hand tools to temperature gauges to evac pumps and compressors,” he says. “I had to completely start from ground zero and tool up.”

During this process, Perry says he relied on his son, John, who had recently gone through two years of HVAC training at the PHCC Academy of San Diego — a federally certified school Perry launched in 2009 that offers two- and four-year programs for apprentices and journeymen.

Less than two years into their new endeavor, the company is continuing to explore what equipment best serves their needs. Perry has discovered that the company’s Chevy standard van isn’t large enough for much of their commercial work, for example. For now, they ship equipment when it won’t all fit, but Perry intends to eventually move up to a larger van.

Although they’ve chosen tools from a variety of manufacturers, including the company’s “go-to” laser temperature gauge and pressure gauges that are used on most jobs, Perry’s team has turned to one brand in particular when installing furnaces and air conditioners for customers.

“Right now we’re using Ruud (Rheem Mfg.),” he says. “It seems to be a pretty popular name. People know it, and my HVAC tech likes that equipment.”

One big reason they’ve remained devoted to Ruud products is because company representatives reached out and spent several hours with Perry, and a full day with the company’s HVAC specialist. An added convenience is the ability to purchase Ruud equipment through Ferguson, an HVAC contractor supplier located right by the Perry Plumbing shop.

“I’ve got two different outlets right next door to my office where I can get different types of equipment. It’s easy access, face to face,” he says. “I don’t have to store it here in my warehouse. They store it in their own warehouse right next door.”

Passion for plumbing

While Perry’s entrance into the HVAC market was calculated, it was actually a series of chance encounters that initially brought him and his wife, Veronica (better known as Ronny), into the plumbing profession.

Ronny worked in a beauty shop back in 1975, and one of her co-workers was married to a plumber who needed a hand. Although Perry didn’t have plumbing experience, he had a construction background and was willing to step in and fill the void. At the time, he had no intentions of developing a career out of it.

“I never gave plumbing a second thought before I met Dave Brown,” he says. “I kind of wanted to be a general contractor, but I wasn’t exactly sure which direction I was going to go.”

He realized he needed to learn a trade, however, so when Brown offered to teach him plumbing he jumped at the opportunity. What was initially a job to earn some extra cash quickly turned into a true passion.

“The more I learned and the better I got, it was more like, ‘I get to do this and get paid?’” he recalls. “I really like the work. I enjoyed plumbing a lot, and I still do.”

While his boss was a talented craftsman, Perry soon noticed that his business skills were lacking. He worked as an apprentice for two years, sometimes without compensation because of the business’ financial woes.

Over time, he was made part owner and oversaw the business and financial elements of the company. Eventually, he became sole owner after buying out his partner for a mere dollar. In 1977, he founded Perry Plumbing and hasn’t looked back since.

Helping hand

In addition to leading the way within his own company, Perry has discovered a number of ways to give back through volunteer efforts with the Bonita Optimist Club and the South County Economic Development Council.

Another volunteer endeavor near and dear to his heart is Challenge Air San Diego, a nonprofit created to change the perception of children with special needs through flight. It was founded by Perry’s best friend who crashed a jet during a landing attempt on a naval aircraft carrier and became paralyzed before discovering ways to move beyond his disability.

“My first contact was with a kid in a wheelchair about 16 years old,” Perry says. “He wouldn’t talk to me, and he wouldn’t talk to the pilot. He was barely speaking, and you couldn’t understand what he did say when he did speak.”

When he returned from the flight, however, he was laughing and talking. “When they come back, they’ve got a completely different outlook. You can see there’s a difference in the kids immediately,” he says. “That was what hooked me.”

Now that Perry is in the midst of pulling back and passing the torch (read more online), the variety of honors and awards pouring in are a sweet reward that seem to point toward a bright future for Perry Plumbing Heating & Air.

Back to school

Even though his HVAC tech, Fernando Martinez, has 15 years of experience in the field, Perry Plumbing Heating & Air owner Harley Perry says continuing education remains a top priority. “I’m sending him back to our school to make sure he gets trained the way I want him trained,” he says.

That school is the PHCC Academy of San Diego, which Perry launched back in 2009. The federally certified school offers two- and four-year programs for apprentices and journeymen along with the opportunity to “earn while you learn.”

The plumbing apprenticeship program gives trainees knowledge in all aspects of the trade, including drafting and blueprint reading, math, safety and regulations, while the HVAC training program provides a knowledge of the latest tools, equipment and technologies along with the hands-on learning needed to maintain and troubleshoot heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems.

The program employs industry professionals as instructors, and students attend a four-hour class one evening per week for a total of 39 weeks.


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