What are the Keys to Successful Hydronics?

Fixing improperly installed hydronic heating systems keeps third-generation plumbing business in high demand.
What are the Keys to Successful Hydronics?
Roger (left) and Hunter Botto are third-generation owners of Botto Brothers Plumbing & Heating in Hicksville, New York. Founded in 1937, hydronic heating accounts for about 45 percent of the company’s revenue.

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Hunter Botto and his brother, Roger, know what it takes to run a successful plumbing and hydronic heating business.

“I’ve been in plumbing since I was 11 years old, so I’ve picked up a few things along the way,” says Hunter, 58, co-owner of Botto Brothers Plumbing & Heating. “I also worked on steam and propulsion systems while I was in the Navy.”

Hunter joined the business in 1980 after serving a four-year tour; Roger came on board in 1984 after earning a college degree in occupational studies.

The company’s primary services are plumbing and heating — installing, repairing and updating hydronic heating systems for both commercial and residential customers, along with service installations and bathroom and kitchen remodeling.

Hydronic heating has been an important part of the company’s business for almost 80 years and accounts for about 45 percent of its revenues.

“Today’s (hydronic) heating equipment requires highly technical knowledge of electronics,” says Hunter, who designs the systems. “We are very fortunate to have a widely diverse group of employees who possess many
specialties … technicians who are very familiar with many different products.”

For plumbers who might consider adding hydronics to their service menu, he suggests taking classes offered by various manufacturers and making use of resources such as local colleges and even other contractors who are willing to provide advice.

Training is ongoing at Botto Brothers, and is especially useful in undoing damage done by less skilled technicians that require complete system makeovers.

“I think we did four last month alone,” Hunter says. “Our techs are always sending in photos of badly installed systems. … If I had the time, I could cover a wall with photos of crazy, improperly installed systems. It’s pretty scary out there in the field.”

Hunter calls them “rescue” jobs.

One of the toughest the company handled last year involved replacing a modular steam system in a commercial building.

“Controlling the water levels in five steam boilers was a challenge,” Hunter says. “But after discussions with outside professional resources, manufacturers’ reps and a lot of reading on the internet, the system really works. Another challenging job involved converting a two-pipe steam system to hot-water heat in a large residential home.

“We zoned every room and retained the old recessed, cast iron radiators,” he says. “We also installed two condensing wall-hung boilers and two indirect water heaters for domestic hot-water use.”

Adhering to professional standards goes beyond product knowledge at Botto Brothers, which strongly believes in taking a customer-centric approach to business. And with about 16,000 clients, the strategy appears to be paying dividends for the third-generation company based in Hicksville on Long Island, New York.

“We want to ensure every employee understands that we’re professionals, which means we maintain the highest standards possible by being neat and clean and operating our business honestly,” Hunter says. “We always want to respect our clients, since they’re the ones who pay our salaries. When we show up at a job, we arrive on time, drive clean and properly lettered trucks and respect our clients’ property.”

Even the current size of the company, established in 1937 by brothers Irwin and Bob Botto (Hunter and Roger’s grandfather and great-uncle, respectively), is the result of a customer-first philosophy.

In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, when the second generation of Bottos — Richard (Hunter and Roger’s father) and his cousin, Irv, ran the business, they had about 25 plumbers.

But as the business got larger, efficiency and profitability took a hit. By adopting a less-is-more approach, the company was able to refocus on service and grow its list of repeat customers.

“When my dad and Irv split up the business in 1963, my father went down to about 15 employees,” Hunter says. “And by the time we took over in 1993 after he retired, we were down to about 10 plumbers, and we’ve stayed between eight and 10 throughout the years.

“Bigger is definitely not always better,” he says. “It became more than we could handle in terms of supervision and hours invested — trying to keep a finger on everything. Everything suffered, from our efficiency to our ability to supervise employees, which led to dissatisfied customers and lower profitability. Overtime starts to run away on you and you start losing your ability to make smart purchasing decisions and bids. It took a couple of years of working long, hard hours and not making a lot of money to realize the problems.”

Image is everything

To create a professional image, technicians wear green uniforms with the company name and logo. Uniforms consist of T-shirts and polo shirts in summer and hoodies in winter. Technicians
can choose their own pants and shoes/work boots.

“We’ve always had uniforms as far back as I can remember,” Hunter says. “Plus, being a Navy guy, I think uniforms are the way to fly. It shows that we’re professional and not just some butt-crack plumber guys. We want a clean, neat and professional appearance. Whether we’re doing remodeling work or boiler work or service work, everyone has to be clean-shaven and in uniform.”

The company buys the uniforms and technicians are responsible for laundering them. Each technician receives eight sets of clothes. Total cost? Roughly a couple thousand dollars a year. Money well spent? Absolutely, he says.

“Image is everything in this business. Whether the public sees you getting a piece of pizza for lunch or working at a home or walking down the street, uniforms set us apart from other slobs out there. It’s just how good companies operate.”

Another benefit: A professional image allows Botto Brothers to charge more for its services. The company also keeps a close eye on finances.

“We monitor our numbers — things such as profit and loss statements, our payables and receivables, health insurance costs and taxes — on a regular basis, so we know for sure that we’re charging enough and bidding properly. We prefer to make money around here,” Hunter says.

A fit fleet

The company runs five Ford F-350 walk-in box trucks, with 12- and 14-foot bodies made by Utilimaster.

“Box trucks are a little more user-friendly for our guys because they can stand up inside them,” Hunter says.

A full-time carpenter, whose primary job is remodeling projects, builds wooden storage bins for parts and tools.

“It’s slightly more expensive than buying a (prefabricated) storage system, but this way we can custom outfit each van to fit the needs of the guy driving it,” he says. “We feel like we build a better mousetrap.”

Each truck carries between $4,000 and $6,000 worth of inventory, except for those dedicated to remodeling projects. Equipment includes a RIDGID hand-held drain cleaning machine for up to 2-inch lines. The company hires subcontractors for larger drains.

“We used to do mainline rooting, but too many times, a technician would get pretty dirty cleaning a sewer in the morning, then have to go and work inside, say, a million-dollar home after that,” Hunter says.

Technicians have the freedom to modify the interior to their liking.

“We like to let them have some input into how to set up their trucks.”

Inventory management

Inventory control is essential to the company’s success, improving efficiency and keeping costs down for customers. To maximize productivity, Botto Brothers warehouses pipe fittings, toilets, sinks and water heaters in a facility Richard Botto purchased in 1963.

“The building includes a showroom and offices with a warehouse in back, plus there’s an equipment yard outside,” Hunter says. “The warehouse allows our guys to reload most of their inventory from here, rather than wasting all kinds of hours driving to suppliers and distributors.

“When you do that, you can easily lose a guy for an hour — and that’s on a good day,” he says. “It’s a nightmare. The last place we want to go every day is a supply house. And in those instances when we do have to go, we call ahead and pick up things at a will-call window, so we get in and out in a timely fashion.”

Richard Botto also established a full-service showroom as a convenience for customers and as a marketing tool, creating exposure for the company, courtesy of the building’s location along a major highway. Since then, the emergence of big-box retailers and competition from suppliers has diminished the showroom’s economic importance.

“We don’t depend on it for a significant revenue stream,” Hunter says. “It’s more of a selling tool now. … Plus we own the building, so it kind of works for us – gives us exposure. And we still can bring in remodeling customers and keep them from going to suppliers and big-box retailers. We can’t compete price-wise with them; in fact, we buy from them, so I have to mark up the cost. Customers still buy from us, but not as much as they used to. But there still are people out there who just don’t like big-box stores or feel intimidated by big suppliers.”

As for the future of the business, Hunter says he and his brother aren’t interested in dramatic growth, especially given the company’s previous experience with operating as a larger company. Besides, a dearth of qualified workers would make expansion difficult even if that was the goal.

“We think that staying smaller and operating more efficiently is more important than exponential growth,” he says. “We always want to provide our customers with the best possible service.”

Employee retention 101: Education and equipment

Finding skilled employees with a good work ethic is a struggle for many businesses these days, and the plumbing industry is no exception. Botto Brothers Plumbing & Heating has found a partial solution to that problem: Keep turnover so low that searching for new employees rarely becomes an issue.

To accomplish that, the Hicksville, New York-based company, owned by brothers Hunter and Roger Botto, provide employees with more than just a standard slate of benefits. Beyond competitive salaries, dental, health and life insurance and a 401(k) retirement plan, Botto Brothers also offers continuing education that keeps employees — which Hunter Botto calls the company’s most important asset — motivated and strengthens their loyalty.

“There absolutely are benefits to providing continuing education,” Hunter says. “The guys always get excited when we try new things. … Sometimes we all go to school together to learn about specific new products, like high-efficiency boilers, for example — things that are more technically advanced in terms of controls and piping arrangements.”

Attending manufacturer-sponsored classes and seminars also demonstrates the company is willing to invest in its employees. Moreover, embracing new technologies and processes keep the business competitive and looking forward — and bolster its chances of remaining a strong, viable firm.

“Making employees a part of that process is exciting to them … and trying new and innovative products is one thing that separates us from our competition,” he says.

As one of two master plumbers in the company (the other one is Roger), Hunter is out on job sites every day.

“I want to be sure that things don’t get away from us,” he says. “Our customers appreciate that.”

But that doesn’t mean he micromanages employees, which is another surefire way to drive away good employees.

“I still let them make decisions,” he says. “They’re the ones with the boots on the ground. The only thing I micromanage is getting materials where they need to go or getting subs lined up.”

There’s one more weapon in Botto’s employee-retention arsenal: providing quality tools, equipment and vehicles. This strategy not only reduces work downtime and improves efficiency, it also helps promote employee pride.

“When they see we give a hoot about how the company is run, they give a hoot, too,” Hunter says. Running nice-looking service vehicles is all part of creating a more professional image, which creates a ripple effect of benefits, including greater customer loyalty and repeat business, which in turn improves job security for employees.

“That’s how we guarantee our guys at least a 40-hour week,” he says. “We don’t jerk them around and put them in bad situations with poor-quality tools and equipment.”


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