Plumbing Shop Establishes Remodeling Niche

Mississippi plumber builds his business around a reputation for quality remodeling work.
Plumbing Shop Establishes Remodeling Niche
Skeen Plumbing & Gas owner Ricky Skeen with one of his Chevrolet service trucks outside the company shop in Ridgeland, Mississippi.

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Ricky Skeen has been remodeling bathrooms long enough that he’s done some twice.

He opened Skeen Plumbing in 1983 with a focus on kitchen and bath remodeling services, believing it would help him build a dedicated customer base. Today, remodeling services still anchor the plumbing division, contributing 15 to 20 percent of revenue, and a lot of those early customers are still coming back.

The Ridgeland, Mississippi-based company has grown in many ways, with more services and a larger staff. Skeen added drain cleaning in 1995, and it’s since become a separate division within the business, providing trenchless rehabilitation solutions in addition to standard cleaning and inspection services.

While the company has grown with additional services, remodeling has played a big role in developing the company’s customer base. “You do a good job in the remodel, and when the client needs a plumber, they know where to go for that service,” he says.

Remodeling work still generates new customers, but the majority of jobs come from the established client base. “We see that someone living in the same house for a number of years will want to do some kind of remodeling every 15 years or so. We can look at a track record of a customer and see what we have done in the past. People get older and want to make things easier to deal with.”

Skeen will work for other contractors in some instances, but the company doesn’t get involved with new construction. He says remodeling projects are often high-end, with elaborate bathrooms and shower setups that have numerous faucets and heads.

“So many people in our part of the country ride bikes and run, and are very health oriented,” Skeen says. “When they come in from their activities they want this big, beautiful shower to refresh themselves. They want the body sprays. They want the whole works.”

The price tag can rise to $25,000 on some kitchen and bath jobs. Skeen’s daughter, Emily, who recently graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in marketing and advertising, handles layout and design. She also manages the company website, which has become a virtual showroom for their many projects. She says the site provides a better platform to show design options and examples of their work than their physical showroom.

Prepared to perform

From the beginning, Skeen recognized the importance of branding his company, and he has worked hard to present a clean, professional image. All employees are neatly uniformed. Service vehicles are lettered with the company logo and are always clean and uncluttered. On the job, technicians use shoe covers and always put down protective mats in the client’s home. He instills in his people the importance of “treating the house as you would treat your mother’s house.”

Skeen preaches the tenets of good customer service in weekly meetings with his technicians. Every Tuesday morning they review policies, issues, project updates and proper interaction with the homeowner.

“We will actually do role playing, where the technicians go through the process of meeting the client at the door and greeting the customer, and then giving up-front pricing, and doing a walkthrough and visual inspection of the home or property.

“In the service call we like to look at everything. We have a check-off sheet that describes if a fixture or piece of equipment is in fair shape, good shape or excellent shape. This only takes a few minutes, and our customers seem to appreciate it.

Someone might have had a leaky faucet, but in the process of taking care of another problem, might forget that faucet. But we’re there to take care of our customer. We try to look at everything.”

Other issues that crop up in the morning meetings include safety, inventory and the appropriate care of service vans. Skeen has six 2007 Chevrolet 1-ton vans with enclosed KUV bodies from Knapheide. The drain cleaning division runs three Chevrolet 4500 2-ton trucks.

Each service van is set up the same, so no matter who is using the truck that person knows where to find every tool and fitting. Each technician takes care of his own truck, and cleanliness is required. Cabs are to be clean, with nothing on the dashboard, and even the tires are expected to shine.         

Vans are equipped to fix anything from a simple stoppage to a new toilet installation. Each carries two different types of toilets and a water heater. Each van also carries a sewer camera, just in case, but if it’s more than a simple clog, the drain team is called in.

Sustainable support

Efficiency depends on the right tools and a sufficient inventory of parts and fixtures. Richard Parker, a 28-year employee and senior technician over the plumbing/service department, has arranged for two supply houses to visit Skeen’s facility every week to evaluate and update the inventory for both the plumbing and drain divisions, which are maintained in separate areas of the facility.

They deal with Carr Plumbing Supply, a local company, and Ferguson Plumbing. One house calls on Monday mornings, and the other stops in each Monday afternoon. They supply Delta faucets, Kohler toilets, water heaters from A. O. Smith and State Water Heaters, and all the other necessary parts, fittings and fixtures.

In the area of hand tools, the Skeen team uses RIDGID basin and pipe wrenches, Crescent pliers and Klein screwdrivers. They like Craftsman socket sets, TPI gas testers and specialty tools from Jones Stephens, along with DeWalt drills and saws.

Drain cleaning equipment includes RIDGID K-50 and K-1500 cable machines, as well as SeeSnake cameras.

The company’s 7,000- square-foot facility sits on 2 acres, with 2,500 square feet of office space and plenty of room for all the vehicles, inventory and equipment.

Tech savvy

Skeen currently has three plumbers and three apprentices on his staff. He says he empowers the technicians in the field and also makes sure they have time for life outside work.

“I missed so much of my kids when they were growing up because I was so busy,” he says. “I don’t want that for my employees.”

As a result, turnover among technicians is low. Most stay with the company for at least 10 years. “They know we are going to give them every tool, every bit of training because we want them to be in control,” he says. “This is the career they have chosen. They know they can make good money with Skeen Plumbing.”

But that doesn’t mean hiring is easy. “Frankly, we don’t get a lot of applicants because they know we will be screening and checking,” Skeen says. “When we find someone, we will give them a shot at the job and do in-house training.”

New hires go through a 90-day probation period during which they study training materials and spend time with a senior technician, who takes them out in the field and puts them to the test to determine if they are dedicated in the work or just passing through.

“We want to give people a chance, because I believe this is the best trade out there,” Skeen says. “I don’t think there is a better trade out there than plumbing and drain work. If a fellow does the right thing he can name his price as to what he gets paid. Definitely knowledge is power. You get in and learn your stuff backward and forward. You know what you are saying when you talk to the customer. If you are a people person to boot, you have won the battle right there.”

Skeen gives a great deal of authority and responsibility to technicians in the field. He says they realize they are in control and have opportunities to make more money if they provide great service, and that kind of service keeps customers coming back.

“In 60 percent of the calls, the customer will ask for the specific technician they want to come into their home because they have worked with him before. If it’s not an emergency they will wait two or three days for that person.”

All in the Family

Emily Skeen recalls how embarrassed she and her sisters were when their father, Ricky Skeen, would pick them up from elementary and middle school in his big service truck.

The girls never worked in the office growing up, and it wasn’t until Emily was in her second year at the University of Mississippi that she began to take a serious look at her career and her future, and the family business.

Emily, the youngest sister, was studying business and marketing. The idea of joining Skeen Plumbing began to take shape in her mind, but her father was skeptical she would actually make that decision.

She didn’t feel obligated to join the family business, but rather saw an opportunity to utilize her education and skills. She came on board in December 2014. “As a business marketing major, I learned about business and advertising, and was ready to put all that into my dad’s company.

“Every day is different, and this work is nothing like I expected,” Skeen says. “Every job we get is different, every person is different. It is all different. I’ve really had to change a lot of my positions because nothing is the same and there is no strict schedule as I expected.”

Skeen is spending a lot of time working on their website, and is always pushing to incorporate new technology. She also fields service calls, and has had opportunity to handle anxious customers with plumbing emergencies. She has had an opportunity to go on some service calls where she has seen firsthand how stressed customers can be when there is a leak somewhere and water is flowing or things are backing up to the toilet.

For the future, she is excited to continue learning the business, and her father is pleased to see his youngest in a leadership position.


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