Baethke Plumbing's Success Built on Service

Third-generation plumber carries on family name and takes business to new heights
Baethke Plumbing's Success Built on Service
John Baethke, owner of John Baethke & Son Plumbing, stands in the company’s warehouse in Chicago, Ill. Photography by Rob Hart

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At 46, John Baethke is a young man but a bit of an old soul when it comes to plumbing. He is, after all, the third generation in his family’s Midwest business. And even though he inherited the name shared by his father and grandfather, he is well on his way to making his own name John Baethke & Son Plumbing in Chicago.

“I never really thought plumbing was the way I was going to go, even though I helped my dad out in summers and on weekends,” he says. But now, “I love plumbing,” he admits. “I didn’t know that when I got into it. I was getting into it as a job; it made sense financially.”

Today, two decades after taking over the business, which serves the northwest side of Chicago, Baethke is truly dedicated to the career he chose.


It’s a long way from being an English teacher, which is what Baethke initially set his sights on. But after one year of community college, the Chicago area native realized the pay prospects would be better if he helped his father with his plumbing business.

While he did initially help out his father, Baethke apprenticed not with his father but with another local plumbing firm.

“I chose to work with a company closer to where I lived in the suburbs,” he says. “The company I went to work for also did new construction, which initially I thought I would really like. It wasn’t until several years later that I decided I much preferred the service end of the business, which was where my family focused.

“I think I probably would have loved anything I did, but I really like mechanical things and working with my hands,” he says. “I think I might be wired for this kind of work.”

Building the business
By Baethke’s own admission, he built his business all wrong — jumping in without a business plan. But that hasn’t stopped him from growing his company to a $1.8 million business — one that has been growing by about $100,000 each year, he says.

The company — which includes 11 full-time employees and four to five service trucks (he’s a staunch devotee of Chevy trucks with Spartan beds) — does everything from major repiping and water heater installation and service to smaller and more routine sink and toilet repairs. But building his business has taken a lot of hard work and learning along the way.

When Baethke apprenticed, he honed his trade but not necessarily his entrepreneurial acumen. Soon he felt he wanted to be in business for himself. “You get the entrepreneurial bug,” he says.

Eager to become his own boss, though, Baethke says he launched his own business without a clear plan. “I didn’t go about it the right way,” he admits. “Luckily, my wife had a well-paying job as an accountant.” It wasn’t until a few years later that he began doing more research into running a business.
About four years after he started, Baethke started making money and paying himself a decent salary. And he’s always prided himself on treating his employees very well.

“I pay top wage, I have top benefits and we have the best tools you can have,” says Baethke, who dubs his business more of a “boutique service shop.” The minimum charge on most of his jobs is $200 to $300.

“We’re not inexpensive, but everything we have is the best,” he says. “Naturally, that costs more.” He insists on having his employees uniformed and tattoo-free, drug tested and bonded.

Challenges appear
While those tenets have served his company well, about eight years ago he faced a challenge that he found almost insurmountable. In a word: unions.

For the first 13 years in business, Baethke was, happily, a nonunion shop. But the plumbers’ union had other ideas — constantly urging him to join, especially after having some of their union workers answer Baethke’s employment ads — a practice Baethke called “salting.”  


Once he hired the workers, not realizing they were union members, the union used strong-arm tactics and insisted he join. “I didn’t really have a choice,” he recalls. “I was literally in tears.”

Baethke ended up firing the union workers, but in due time, the union filed what Baethke called a “bogus” unfair labor practice lawsuit. Realizing it would cost him tens of thousands of dollars to fight, he gave in.

Being a union shop has had some major impacts on his business — one of the biggest is that as owner, Baethke is no longer allowed to work in the field. That was a tough hurdle to accept, he says.

“I really like doing the hands-on work,” he says, but he has come to focus more on growing his business in his new role. “You’re better off working on your business, not in it. It forced me away from the tools and into the office … making it a better business.”

Baethke has had several knee surgeries over the years, so being in the office is not the worst thing, he admits. He is now able to manage his staff and field technical questions as well as oversee sales training and marketing.

And even though he has an office manager, Baethke personally reviews all of the company’s invoices daily. His wife, Rebecca, also works several days a week as the company accountant.

“It works really well,” he says. “[Having her onboard] gave us so much more flexibility and time with the kids.” Baethke and his wife have three children: Simon, 10; Lily, 9; and Graham, 5.

While Baethke couldn’t have foreseen all the changes his company has undergone in the past 20 years, he seems clear about what his vision for his business is now. For him, that means staying just where he is.

“I feel like I’m kind of in a sweet spot size wise,” he says. “That’s very comfortable.”


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