Contractor Solves the Plumbing Puzzle

Mongiovi & Son expands into new markets and new services on the strength of its staff.
Contractor Solves the Plumbing Puzzle
Plumber Mark Kramer tests the rotation on one of several new fixtures in a public bathroom.

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For more than three decades, Mongiovi & Son Enterprises has fashioned a simple formula for success: offer customers a diverse range of services, emphasize professionalism, and provide top-notch customer service.

So far the results speak for themselves. The Pittsburgh-based company’s service area has expanded from the city into western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia. In addition, the company opened an office in Bonita Springs, Florida, in 2009 to service the Naples and Fort Myers metro area.

Mongiovi & Son now employs over 100 people, generates about $10 million in gross annual revenues and owns a multi-million-dollar fleet of equipment and machines. And the key to it all? Providing customers with all the services they need, says Vince Sorco, the company’s director of business development.

When owner and master plumber Rick Mongiovi opened up shop in 1982, the company focused primarily on service work and new-construction plumbing — mostly commercial jobs for developers, real estate companies and restaurants. Today the company’s services also include excavating and fire sprinkler installations and inspections.

About 40 percent of the company’s revenues come from new-construction plumbing, 35 percent from fire-sprinkler system installations, 20 percent from plumbing service, and the remainder from excavation services.

“Rick always envisioned the business as a one-stop shop for plumbing,” Sorco says. “We always say it’s better because there’s only one throat to choke — only one person to communicate with. Customers prefer it because it’s less hassle for them. We take care of everything internally, which makes for more seamless projects.”

Substantial growth can cripple a company if not managed well. But Mongiovi avoided any potential pitfalls by surrounding himself with good employees who were more knowledgeable about things he knew little about, then empowering them to do their jobs. When the company decided to branch out into excavating, for instance, he hired an experienced excavator to manage that part of the business. The same holds true for sprinkler systems, Sorco says.

“We find the right people to manage projects,” he adds. “We like to solve problems … do things right up front. We prefer design-build projects where we can advise clients.

We have experts in place who can come up with ideas that can make projects more efficient and cost-effective.”

Professionalism matters

Many plumbing companies view professionalism through the prism of clean service vehicles, uniformed and bootie-clad technicians and prompt service. But at Mongiovi & Son, it’s more than that — it’s a state of mind embedded in the company’s culture, Sorco notes.

“To us, professionalism is basically keeping our clients’ best interests in mind … having employees that treat every job like it was their own home or business,” he explains.

“We also make a point of doing a walk-around on each job, then making recommendations if we see something else that needs to be done as opposed to just doing what we came for and leaving. That saves the customer from having to make another call later and also eliminates additional travel charges. We call it a peace-of-mind inspection.”

Sorco concedes that some customers could see these recommendations as self-serving grabs for additional revenue, but he says technicians are careful to point out that the recommendations are just that — and customers can choose to do the work right away or plan to do it later. “It’s just a better way of doing business — a way of treating your customers right,” he says. “If you have a good relationship and communicate with the right person, they respond well to it.”

To enhance customer service, a company employee always answers the phone when customers call — no answering machines allowed. Sorco says that’s important because it never leaves customers in limbo, wondering if someone will respond. “It eliminates the unknown. … It’s 3 a.m. and they’ve got a leak and they’re wondering if they’re going to get a return call,” Sorco says. In addition, the company always has two technicians on call in western Pennsylvania and two in the Florida office.

“We also have access to our suppliers for parts after normal business hours — even on holidays — because we have good relationships with them,” he adds. “They don’t do that for just anybody. We also carry a large inventory of commonly used parts on our trucks and in our warehouses. It’s more expensive to do that, but it creates customers for life because we keep their businesses up and running, which saves them money.”

Providing good service also requires good equipment. To that end, the company’s large inventory of equipment includes two trailer-mounted water jetters and two cart-mounted jetters made by US Jetting; a Harben jetter for large-diameter pipe; 14 Chevrolet service vans; generators made by Atlas Copco; manhole and trenching shields made by Griswold Machine & Engineering; drain cleaning machines, pipe threaders and See Snake pipeline inspection systems from RIDGID; and hydraulic hammers built by Maverick Equipment & Manufacturing.

In addition, the company has invested in excavating and site preparation equipment such as skid-steers, bulldozers, wheel loaders, backhoes and rollers built by a wide range of companies, including Bobcat, Case, Komatsu America, Deere & Co., Kobe Construction Machinery and Ingersoll Rand.

Diversification strategy

Customer needs played a big role in the company’s diversification efforts. A good example is excavation services, which the firm started providing about 20 years ago. “We got tired of on-the-job delays — waiting for excavators to come and dig holes or backfill or whatever was needed,” Sorco says. “We determined that doing it ourselves would be more cost-effective in the long run, as well as more efficient for our customers because we can finish jobs faster.”

The company entered the market for fire-protection sprinkler systems about 13 years ago when customers started asking for the service. Adding the service made sense for several reasons: It dovetails with the company’s existing plumbing expertise, opens up a niche market with good profit margins and allows the company to leverage its existing customer relationships. Moreover, it provides a convenience for customers by bidding plumbing and sprinkler system jobs together. “In most cases we can do it cheaper that way, but the biggest attraction to customers is the convenience,” Sorco points out.

Like any entry into a new market, the move posed a risk because it entailed additional costs for more employees and service vehicles. But Mongiovi hired someone with industry experience to manage the new division, and the move paid dividends. Today the company installs sprinkler systems in new buildings and retrofits existing buildings.

The move also provided an additional revenue stream generated by sprinkler system repairs, as well as inspections, which are required annually, Sorco adds. “It turned into a full-fledged business within a business,” he says. “We also do backflow inspections (on the sprinkler systems) and fire extinguisher inspections. The inspection piece of the puzzle provides consistent business and cash flow … and customers like to have their systems inspected by the company that installed it.”

Better yet, the market for sprinkler systems continues to grow. As older buildings are sold or remodeled, they’re no longer grandfathered under laws that require sprinkler systems. The result? A booming business for retrofitting those buildings with sprinkler systems. “An installation can run anywhere from $20,000 to a couple hundred thousand dollars, depending on the size of the building, how many floors it has, whether it needs a fire pump to get enough pressure at the top of the building, whether sprinkler heads are recessed or not, and so forth,” Sorco says.

Despite the company’s success, it’s still sometimes difficult to land new customers. Sorco has a good solution, however. “I always ask them if by any chance they have a trouble area that’s a recurring issue,” he says. “And usually, they do. So I ask them to just give us a shot at it. It’s a very effective strategy to get your foot in the door.”

A look ahead

The business outlook for Mongiovi & Son during the next three to five years looks very good. Sorco points out that increased construction of hotels, motels, apartment buildings and restaurants, spurred by oil and natural gas fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale region, are driving up demand for the company’s services.

“The region is flourishing,” he says. “And we’re also looking at expanding into new regions, so we don’t have all our eggs in one geographic basket. We’re already doing more out-of-town work, installing fire sprinklers for customers with whom we’ve worked before.”

The company has a lofty goal going forward: 10 percent annual revenue growth. And getting there will demand a continued emphasis on professionalism and consistent customer service, Sorco emphasizes.

“We don’t want to be one-hit wonders. We want customers for life. We want to do jobs the right way. Then if a customer has another job, they’ll think about calling Mongiovi first.”


Education resolves employment woes

The Marcellus Shale oil and natural gas boom in Pennsylvania has been a boon to the region’s skilled labor workforce, with plentiful high-
paying jobs. But the end result is a much smaller labor pool that makes it tough for other companies that also rely on skilled labor, such as Mongiovi & Son Enterprises, a plumbing company based in Pittsburgh.

To face this challenge, the business has begun to visit area high schools and technical schools and talk to guidance counselors and students. The message: Come on board as a general laborer, and the company will send you to plumbing school to become a master plumber — and foot the bill, too.

“College is expensive and not everyone is cut out for it,” says Vince Sorco, the company’s director of business development. “We want to show kids there’s an alternative — that they can learn a good trade and make a nice living.”

The company currently has three employees enrolled in the plumbing education program, run by the Associated Master Plumbers of Allegheny County. They attend night school two nights a week. After two years, students become third-year apprentices. After four years, they become journeyman plumbers upon passing an exam. And after two years of working full time, they’re eligible to take the master plumber’s exam.

Putting one employee through plumbing school costs the company about $15,000, but Sorco says it’s a worthwhile investment. “If they’re trained properly and are willing to do it, then they’re totally committed to the company, plus we have qualified people who know the company rules and the industry,” he notes.

Sorco concedes that there is always the risk of employees leaving to start their own businesses after earning a master plumber’s license, but it’s a chance worth taking. “Hey, it’s America — God bless them if they go off on their own,” he says. “More power to them.”

To mitigate that risk, Sorco says the company pays competitive wages and offers a comprehensive fringe benefit package. In addition, the company cross-trains employees so they can work in different divisions as needed. This benefits the company in two ways: Doing different things minimizes employee burn-out, and it allows the flexibility to allocate manpower where needed — an important consideration for a company that’s having a hard time finding qualified candidates to fill open positions, he says.

“We recently had a large fire-sprinkler system installation job and had some people in excavation available, so we moved them over as general laborers to help the fire sprinkler crews,” he continues. “It helped us meet a project deadline. Without that cross-training, we would have had to either work our regular people longer or maybe ask for an extended deadline, which we don’t want to do.”



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