The past few years have been good for contracting businesses, barring component availability and skilled labor woes. For anyone in the trades, operating a plumbing and mechanical company profitably looks different today than it did 20 years ago, but there are still plenty of similarities.
Joe Tull, 36, founded Straight Plumbing, LLC seven years ago, and feels as though he’s settled into a sweet spot. Right now, that includes running two trucks and focusing on Maryland’s Hartford County and northern Baltimore County. The company used to be bigger, but not necessarily better, according to Tull.
“I’ve always preferred quality over quantity,” he explained. “When I had more employees, I spent a lot of time going behind them and fixing their mistakes or shortcuts. Right now I have a fantastic apprentice, Robert Howard, who’s been with me four years. He’s always respected me and done things my way, which simply means not cutting corners. I’d hire 20 like him, if I could find them.”
Joe grew up working for his father’s plumbing company, but after a while, the two Tulls couldn’t see eye to eye. So Joe left and spent several years on the plumbing service crew for a large company before hanging out his own shingle in Jarrettsville, Md.
“Specialization gives the people . . . the opportunity to go further in any direction of study than any other human has gone before.” – Ryan North
“Service is what I knew best, and what I could build a reputation on most rapidly,” said Tull. “Service work also provides the greatest opportunity to solve people’s problems. The new construction side of the business is more volatile. So I specialized in plumbing service, and as soon as I was up and running, I dug into hydronics to expand our offering.”
Today, 30 percent of Straight P&H’s work is hydronic heat. The rest is plumbing service, both residential and commercial. Due to the rural nature of his territory and the presence of hard and harsh water, many of their service calls involve well pumps and water conditioning. A deep understanding of water quality has infinity improved Tull’s hydronic and plumbing work.
“Technology does not run an enterprise, relationships do.” – Patricia Fripp
Tull learned early in his career that relationships are critical to the success of a business. In addition to learning from his father, he had mentors at supply houses, rep firms and within his social circle.
“I had a lot to learn when I first started installing boilers” said Tull. “Jim Bull, at Thomas Somerville became a mentor. He has a wide range of heating knowledge and was always generous with that information. He’d even stop at my jobs in the evening and set me straight if I was in a bind.”
Relationships are as important to Tull today as they were then, when he was still building his portfolio of experience.
“I try to be an information sponge and do my best to become an asset to the people who add value to my life,” said Tull. “Over the past three years, I’ve worked closely with the reps at ROI Marketing, specifically Dan Byrne, district manager, and Dave Raabe, sales manager. Those guys are never more than a phone call away.”
Byrne has known Tull for more than 20 years, but has only been his hydronic rep for about three years, after helping Straight P&H sort out some technical issues on a particularly challenging project. Tull installs their line of U.S. Boiler Company condensing and cast iron boilers, ComfortPro PEX, State water heaters and Webstone valves. Some of that equipment comes through Jordan Mitchell, at Northeastern Supply, while some is sourced at other supply houses throughout the area.
“Dave and Dan rock,” said Tull. “Their support, and the help I’ve received from the factory tech support at U.S. Boiler has been outstanding. I’ve used other boiler brands with less success and non-existent customer service.”
Byrne and Raabe visit Tull’s jobsites a dozen times or so each year, often on the front end, to provide sizing assistance, system concepts, etc.
“What I observed when I first met Joe was a young guy that wanted to install stuff properly,” said Raabe. “He’s very talented and his work is extremely professional, yet he’s humble and not afraid to ask for help.”
“I wish all our customers were like Joe,” added Byrne. “He takes real pride in his work.”
“Courteous treatment will make a customer a walking advertisement.”
– James Cash Penney
“I left my previous job because I saw customers being taken advantage of,” Tull said. “I don’t hard-sell anyone. I present their options along with fair pricing and let them decide what they prefer. I want customers for life. If I’m fair and I do the job to the best of my ability, my customers become my salesforce.”
Tull doesn’t just talk the talk. His 38 five-star reviews on Facebook are proof enough. One review states, “Joe came to my house and fixed me up. After I got estimates from other plumbers that were way too expensive, Joe fixed my old water treatment system without pushing me to buy a new one. He simply stated ‘Please think of me when you decide to upgrade.’ And you bet your butt I will.”
“You don’t get paid for the hour. You get paid for the value you bring to the hour.” – Jim Rohn
Straight Plumbing and Heating creates value as well as anyone in the business. Homeowner Steve Shelley learned this when he first hired Tull to solve some minor plumbing issues. Years later, when it came time to replace the home’s oil-fired boiler, Joe was his first and only call.
“Joe is very responsive, knowledgeable and thorough,” said Shelley. “He doesn’t try to oversell, he’s happy to answer questions, and he’s never in a rush to get things done. I didn’t have to think twice about hiring him to convert our home from oil to propane, which we did mainly for the energy savings.”
The home is heated by hot water fan coils, and the existing boiler used to provide DHW through a 40-gallon indirect tank. Shelley estimates that the unit burned 800 gallons of oil each year, or roughly $3,200.
Tull buried a large propane tank in the yard, replaced the existing unit with a 200 MBH Alta Combi boiler, and sidewall vented the new unit.
The retrofit took place in June last year, giving Shelley nearly a year to calculate the energy savings that Straight Plumbing and Heating had provided.
“We used 400 gallons of propane over the winter, and I’m sure we’ve consumed a little more through the fall and spring for hot water,” he Shelley. “With LP at $2.00 per gallon, we’re saving somewhere around $2,000 per year.”
Shelley also noted that the family used to run out of DHW quickly. Now they can shower as long as they want and run multiple taps.
“We have all the hot water we need,” Shelley explained. “We can’t smell oil in the basement anymore, and we don’t hear the boiler start up like we used to.”
“We have about a dozen Alta boilers in the field,” said Tull. “They work very well on LP. Most of the installations in Hartford County are on propane. The Alta is also easy to clean, and access is fantastic because the side panels are removable.”
There’s another reason that Tull installs the Alta. Much like other models in the U.S. Boiler Company lineup, the Alta is available at a variety of local supply houses, including Northeastern Supply, Thomas Somerville and R.E. Michel.
“When it’s cold and a customer needs heat, I can’t come up empty-handed on parts and product,” said Tull. “Having equipment that’s readily available is extremely important.”
“A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it.” – Ray Davis.
Last heating season, Straight Plumbing and Heating installed 35 boilers. This year, only 20. He suspects the economy has something to do with that, but he’s certain there’s another reason.
According to Tull, many big HVAC companies are pushing homeowners toward inexpensive heat pumps. There are lots of “house flippers” in his territory, as well. Typically, flippers install the cheapest heat pump on the market.
“I’m not talking about high-efficiency, low-ambient temperature systems,” he said. “I mean the cheap, undersized unitary systems. I’ve had homeowners call me after buying a house with a new heat pump, asking if I can install ‘a real heating system.’ Once winter hits, they’re uncomfortable and their electric bill spikes because the units constantly run on emergency heat.”
It’s hard to sell a premium system against a budget option when the customer doesn’t know the difference before signing the contract.
“I know it will all come full circle,” said Tull. “You only make that mistake once. If I was trying to grow rapidly, I’d be concerned about it, but I’m happy with where the company is. It’ll grow gradually. We’ll continue solving harsh water problems and creating extremely comfortable heating systems. If we do that and remain transparent with our customers, the company will continue to do well.”