St. Louis Plumbing Company Returns to Top

A new generation of leadership builds on family heritage and pushes plumbing firm out of crisis toward a brighter future.
St. Louis Plumbing Company Returns to Top
Removing a garbage disposal to make room as he prepares to install a shut-off valve for a new dishwasher.

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When Chris McNulty was presented with the opportunity to bring an iconic St. Louis plumbing company back to its former glory, he was determined to be successful.

McNulty’s great-grandfather, Arthur J. Dippel, founded Dippel Plumbing in 1945 and eventually passed it on to his daughter (McNulty’s grandmother, Karen Marks) and a cousin. McNulty joined the company in 1995 and became manager in 2002, with high hopes for adding to the Dippel legacy.

The recession hit the firm hard, however, and their crew was reduced from 12 to a mere three plumbers in the field by 2010. Nevertheless, they struggled through and found that with many other firms going out of business, their phone continued to ring.

Over the next four years, McNulty built the crew back to a healthy 11, including six plumbers and five technicians (three working as apprentices). The company was involved in everything from excavating to remodeling and even became a Nu Flow licensee. Things looked good until he began to realize they were going in too many directions and were losing the kind of control he sought.

At the end of 2014, McNulty began putting more focus on the plumbing division, gradually transitioning away from some services like remodeling and excavating, and trimming the staff.

Old systems, new technology

Dippel Plumbing secured the Nu Flow license in 2013, and while McNulty believed lining would be a good move for the company, he wanted it to stand on its own as a separate operation under the Dippel umbrella.  

“My belief was that installing a relining product under the Dippel name was not as dynamic as having the Nu Flow St. Louis designation. This has given customers more confidence and allows for more potential expansions. While we operate as two separate companies, when the schedule requires, employees can cross over on basic procedures.”

As Nu Flow St. Louis, their presence in the community does go beyond the family firm and reaches a more extensive client base. They have a broad foundation for their relining services, covering all of Missouri and parts of southern Illinois.

Over the years, Dippel Plumbing frequently excavated and replaced failing lateral lines, but the problems that arose with those jobs — homeowners deciding the concrete at the retaining wall wasn’t replaced quite right, or the basement floor is not exactly how it was prior to the job — convinced McNulty he would rather offer relining.

He spent a good bit of effort educating the public on the advantages of relining, going so far as offering seminars to real estate firms, insurance companies and plumbing contractors. McNulty saw relining as essential to growth. For many years the company offered sewer patching, but he could see that he needed to provide other options. He also decided to add a pipe bursting system from Pipeline Products, believing it would present new opportunities for waterline replacement.

Fine tuning

On the plumbing side, things had to take a different turn. Dippel has always been (and still is) a union shop, but McNulty saw the opportunity to improve profit margins by trimming the plumbing staff and moving away from the traditional apprenticeship model. He currently has two experienced, licensed journeyman plumbers who have his full confidence to take control and handle the unique issues they face in the field.

The restructuring included getting out of remodeling and supplementary services, which had become excess baggage. The company is leaner and more efficient now, and Dippel Plumbing is still always booked a solid week ahead.

“It took about a year to make the transition we wanted,” McNulty says. “When you look at the number of customers we turned away as we shifted, someone could have opened two or three companies off of that business. But frankly, with our two plumbers concentrating on the finer points of plumbing while servicing homes that are primarily 80 to 100 years old, we are seeing a larger profit margin than we did nine months ago. Actually, it took us about one year to turn the corner. It has proven to be a good move.”

On the Nu Flow St. Louis side, they are booked out at least one month. McNulty operates with a two- to three-man crew, serving a much larger client base across the entire State of Missouri and parts of southern Illinois. They currently have a total of 10 employees in the two divisions.

Some of the clay, cast iron and Orangeburg pipes in their service area were installed over 100 years ago. Cracks are common, and the cast iron often rots out from the inside. They also contend with the always-present issue of root intrusion.

As Nu Flow St. Louis, their presence in the area goes beyond the family firm. Their Nu Flow St. Louis-lettered equipment on the road includes a box truck, a pickup truck and signage on two trailers.

There are usually two vehicles on relining job sites — one signed with Nu Flow St. Louis and another with the Dippel Plumbing logo. To McNulty, this job site presence is the best form of advertising for both divisions.

When they’re not on the job site, the trucks — two Ford E-250s and two Ford E-350s — are kept at the company’s 2,000-square-foot shop. Crews in both divisions are expected to take care of their vehicles and keep them fully stocked with parts and supplies. The plumbing vans carry around $7,500 to $10,000 worth of inventory.

To help maintain proper inventory, plumbers and technicians note every item they take on a form, and ordering is then handled by employee Erik Dixon, whose job is to keep that important inventory in control. Dixon checks the list daily and orders two or three times each week, depending on the need. Dixon also works closely with McNulty’s wife, Carla, who is the company office manager.

The company’s JM 2512 Typhoon trailer jetter from General Pipe Cleaners and cameras from General, RIDGID and Ratech are among the most important tools, but the vans also carry some lesser used but helpful items like a TK-9A backflow test kit (Watts Water Technologies).

Selective service

As a union shop, McNulty says they have been told numerous times they are too expensive, but clients keep calling. He attributes this to their experienced plumbers who are adept at fixing the challenges unique to the territory.

“In this area of older homes we see some complicated plumbing issues with old pipes in the walls: numerous water and drainpipes leaking; poor water pressure and continuous blockage in the drains; gas pipes leaking. All these different factors must be considered. Sometimes we need to cut into walls. This upsets the client. We have to have people who can get in there and figure out where to go and how to get there, and then solve the problem.

“We see people buy a mansion with seven bathrooms and plumbing that is 100 years old. If two people live in the house, one of those rarely used bathrooms will undoubtedly cease to perform as expected. Surprise. Back to the drawing board.”

McNulty says they will find the stacks starting to dry out. The cast iron will have cracks. Soon everything may start leaking.

“In a commercial building, water may be bubbling up on one side of the building. The customer asks, ‘Why is there water here and not a few feet away?’ We have to answer and fix it.”
McNulty says his two plumbers, Ben Bippen and Matt Koenig, have full authority to do their job, but they frequently contact McNulty or send photos to share some of the interesting situations they discover. On the rare occasion when they’re working on a newer home, it’s like going on vacation compared to their typical duties.

Share the fare

Providing 24/7 service is yet another challenge with only two plumbers. To compensate for the small staff, Dippel networks with other plumbing companies in their jurisdiction to cover evenings and weekends. While his two plumbers take turns for some of the work, they provide their invoices to other firms who cover for them. The customer gets the Dippel invoice and writes the check to Dippel, and then Dippel settles up with the other contractor.

Dippel also works for other contractors in some instances, and Nu Flow St. Louis often gets calls from plumbing firms that have encountered obstructions or other problems with line replacement jobs.

Working in a 60-mile radius around the city also poses another challenge: scheduling. Maintaining efficiency across a relatively large service area is difficult with only two plumbers, so they coordinate and schedule work within certain zip codes, eliminating unnecessary travel time. Emergency situations present additional challenges, but Dippel makes it work.

“Managing this company for my grandmother has been a tremendous challenge, but it has also been very satisfying for so many reasons. For a while, if there was something to do we would be in it. Now we’re back to basics. We’re confident we have truly found our niche.”


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