Boston Plumber Expands Offerings While Still Emphasizing Service and Repair Work

Contractor’s strong emphasis on diverse services and customer satisfaction fuels rapid growth.

Boston Plumber Expands Offerings While Still Emphasizing Service and Repair Work

Frank Trumpet uses a crimping tool from Milwaukee Electric Tool to assemble copper pipes for a hot-water heater installation.

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For a guy who never planned to become a plumber, Joseph Wood has done pretty well by anyone’s measure. After dropping plans for a career in computer networking, he eventually made a career U-turn and followed the tradesman path trod by his father and brothers, then went on to establish Boston Standard Plumbing and Heating, which last year generated more than $5 million in revenue.

Not bad for someone who bounced around between several jobs after he left New Hampshire Community Technical College, which he’d been attending for several years. At the time, the dot-com bubble was starting to burst, a prelude to a deep recession that hit around 1999 and into 2000.

“I always was interested in how the technology side of things works,” he says. “I had planned to go to college and end up working on cellphone towers. But then the market tanked, which essentially forced me to reconsider my career choice. The trades have always been good to my family, so I looked there first.”

After stints at several different jobs, Wood’s brother, John, took him on in 2002 as an apprentice at the plumbing company he owned at the time. “That’s when my career took off,” he says. “It was a great experience for me.”

In plumbing, Wood — a self-described “fire put-er-outer” — found a perfect match for his passion for both technology and solving problems. “I deal well with things that are important and urgent,” says Wood, 37, a master plumber, gas-fitter and sheet-metal worker. “I really enjoy troubleshooting with field techs and handling tough customer situations. I like the problem-solving — figuring things out and helping everyone win. I don’t want people to spend money on us and regret it.”

While the company has expanded over the years to include heating and cooling services, plumbing still generates about 55 percent of its revenue, with a primary emphasis on service and repair work. To service customers, Boston Standard relies on seven Ram ProMaster service vans (model years 2014 through 2016) and five Ford Transits (2016 to 2018), plus an older Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and a Chevrolet Express van with a Hackney box body.

New England Van & Truck outfitted the vehicles with Adrian Steel storage systems. Technicians primarily use power tools made by Milwaukee Electric Tool, RIDGID and DEWALT. For small drain-cleaning jobs, technicians use Super-Vee hand-held drain machines made by General Pipe Cleaners. “For anything larger than a 3-inch line, we refer jobs to a drain cleaning company,” Wood says. “But we’re aiming to change that this year.”

RECESSIONARY ROOTS

Wood started Boston Standard just as the deep recession of 2008 was hitting full force. Oddly enough, he says it was an opportune time to start because he focused on a necessity — service and repair plumbing, as well as boiler and water heater installation — instead of chasing larger installation jobs.

“I wasn’t timing the market, but it worked out quite well for us,” he explains. “I wasn’t trying to do 50 new apartment buildings, just service work — small leaks, faucet repairs and the like. I just wanted to meet people with small problems and do right by them. If you have a new garbage disposal you need installed, here we are. Need a new dishwasher installed? Here we are. I just wanted to be that local plumber who’d be good at that stuff.

“By sheer luck, we were geared for the right speed for the market at the time,” he adds. “Plus, I already had all the hand tools and my overhead was pretty low, so I didn’t need many jobs over the course of a week to make it work. Now we have the capacity to do 40 calls a day.”

Wood opted for an interesting process to pick a name for his new company: He used an online tool called SurveyMonkey to ask family and friends to pick their favorite from a list of potential names. He liked Boston Standard because it sounded established and traditional. In fact, he says that customers occasionally tell him that his grandfather installed the boiler that Boston Standard is there to replace. “I have to tell them it isn’t possible,” he says.

As much as Wood enjoyed a strict focus on plumbing, he soon recognized that a two-legged stool isn’t as sturdy as one with three legs. So by around the summer of 2009, Boston Standard started to offer cooling services to complement the plumbing and heating side of the business. His reasoning was simple: Many other plumbers do HVAC work, too, and customers would rather deal with one contractor than two or three.

“If you don’t offer heating and cooling, customers will call someone who does and then you run the risk of that company also taking away your plumbing work,” he explains. “It’s the way the industry is heading. If you don’t do it, it’s the equivalent of a retailer saying it won’t do two-day delivery. As consumer expectations change, you have to stay up with them.

“It’s like an Amazon shopping experience versus a random online retailer,” he adds. “Some people do a piece of this or a part of that, but we provide the total package. We’re going to do a great install, then register your warranty and help you get your rebates, too. We want to provide a really good experience for our customers. They’re usually calling us because they’re already having a really tough day, and it’s our job to turn that around for them.”

Furthermore, heating and cooling work provides offsetting cyclical income streams; as heating work declines in summer, air conditioning jobs pick up the slack, he says. Wood obtained certification from the New England Fuel Institute to perform HVAC work. Then he hired two expert and experienced HVAC workers and job-shadowed them whenever possible to get in-the-field training.

DIFFERENTIATING FROM COMPETITORS

What is Boston Standard’s “secret sauce” for success? There are many ingredients, and they all stem from the company slogan, “The company you count on.” In short, technicians offer customers options that best suit their situations — and with an eye toward staving off future problems. For instance, a technician won’t ignore a looming problem with a shut-off valve just because he was asked to fix only a leaky faucet.

“We try to embody our logo,” he says. “I would rather have to apologize that we cost more than a competitor than to say we didn’t offer customers the right solution because we thought they were looking for a low price. The customer is counting on us to tell them what’s the right thing to do. We give customers options at every turn.” But the company also insists on certain standards, such as installing high-efficiency toilets with soft-close lids as a matter of course, as well as devices such as AquaPure scale filters on tankless water heater installations and Caleffi North America air and dirt separators on high-efficiency boiler systems.

That means Boston Standard typically isn’t the low bidder on projects because it includes components that other companies might charge extra for — or might not even offer. If customers question the price difference, it gives Wood a chance to explain how the company wants to do things right the first time. “In other words, it raises the question of why those things (like scale filters and air and dirt separators) aren’t included in other bids,” Wood points out.

In addition, Boston Standard warranties all its work — parts and labor — for two years (three years with a service plan). As such, technicians have a vested interest in taking the time to do jobs right. And when mistakes happen — as they inevitably do — Wood strives to make things right. As an example, he points to a high-end residential air conditioning installation that went awry. “You can turn tail and run or stand up and make it right, and we chose to make it right,” he notes. “We pulled the incorrect unit off of a roof with a crane, did all the required demo work and repairs, and redid the installation — all on our dime. It was a real bummer. But that’s ‘the company you count on’ in action.”

The company also works hard to create what Wood calls a “brand experience” that emphasizes a professional image. That includes a “head-to-toe” branding effort in which everything from the vinyl wraps on trucks to technicians’ uniforms to the company’s website all feature the same design and graphics.

To boost repeat business, technicians also put Boston Standard stickers with the company’s contact information on new equipment or tags on new valves and the like. Wood says the tags and stickers are an inexpensive and effective branding tool. Even providing customers with a great experience doesn’t guarantee they’ll remember the company’s name the next time they don’t have hot water, for instance.

To improve efficiency, the company also uses ServiceTitan service management software, he says.

MORE GROWTH EXPECTED

In terms of growth, Wood doesn’t plan to take his foot off the gas pedal anytime soon. One strong area of growth is the market for ductless heating and cooling systems (the company uses equipment made by Mitsubishi Electric). “We can’t do anything to grow the boiler market or water heater market,” he explains. “But ductless systems (which rely on independent wall-hung units in each room for more exact heating and cooling control) offer more opportunities because there’s a huge market for retrofits. It’s just another option we can offer our customers.”

The company just purchased a new larger building in Boston; after it’s renovated, it will provide ample room for further growth. Ultimately, Wood would like to employ about 50 employees and hit $10 million in sales. “Our goal is to dominate the market — become that company that people think of when they need a plumber in Boston,” he says. “But in the meantime, we’re going to try to continue on the same path we’ve been on, which is to do small things correctly, put one foot in front of the other, stay true to what we do very well, and grow our company that way.”


Money Talks: Contractor uses new strategies to recruit, retain workers

With an expected labor shortage of more than 138,000 employees by 2022 in the plumbing, heating, and cooling trades, finding qualified workers has become a real headache for contractors like Joseph Wood, the owner of Boston Standard Plumbing and Heating, a Boston-based plumbing and HVAC company.

The situation worsened in 2008, when the state of Massachusetts increased the plumbing apprenticeship period to five years from three years. “That’s a big barrier to entry,” he notes. “There are not many kids setting out to be plumbers to begin with, so now even those interested in entering the trade are dissuaded.”

The labor shortage is forcing Boston Standard to come up with innovative ways to attract and retain quality employees. As Wood puts it: “If you keep running the ball up the middle without success, you have to try something different.” That something different includes paying referral and signing bonuses.

For example, take a job candidate that’s referred by an employee for a plumbing or HVAC technician’s job. If the candidate gets hired and stays for six months, the referring employee receives a $2,500 bonus. In addition, any employee who comes in without an employee referral and gets hired receives a significantly higher signing bonus after one year of employment, Wood says.

In addition, the company is refocusing its hiring approach — thinking more like marketers than recruiters. What’s the difference? The former approach merely advertises a job opening and perhaps lists job requirements and a salary, while the latter approach markets the position to prospective employees the way that retailers market products to consumers, Wood explains.

“Think about how companies market to customers by offering things such as rebates up to ‘x’ amount of dollars and zero percent interest financing,” he says. “We’re doing the same thing, but we’re talking about things like health and dental insurance, nice service vehicles, and (computer) tablets for technicians. Promoting what we do for employees that’s different from what competitors offer. Recruitment stuff is boring, but marketing is sexy.”

The company has been trying this approach since early 2017, and it’s paying dividends. Wood likes the approach because it enables the company to recruit by presenting the company in a positive light, rather than poaching employees from other companies.

To cover all the bases, the company still uses popular job-posting websites such as www.monster.com and www.indeed.com. But the bottom line is that contractors no longer can rely on the same old recruiting methods and expect to succeed, he says.



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