This year, General Pipe Cleaners, a division of General Wire Spring Co., located in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, celebrates its 90th anniversary. Company beginnings date back to 1930 when Abe Silverman stepped away from one venture in order to found General Wire Spring Co. Originally in the business of manufacturing springs, Silverman expanded his customer base by making drain-cleaning cables for local plumbers. Soon, the company’s first-ever patent was born; the Flexicore cable. Flexicore was made by wrapping spring wire tightly around a braided wire core — vastly boosting strength, kinking resistance and flexibility. This 1940s patent catapulted General into decades of new product innovations and expansions — all under family leadership.
“It’s always fun for me to follow the evolution of how one name became what it is today. The machine that was groundbreaking back in the 40s is still around in the newer form today with a variable-speed motor and an automatic feed on it; essentially it’s the most popular machine for clearing clogged sinks,” states Marty Silverman, vice president of marketing at General, and Abe Silverman’s grandson.
Silverman says the company is proud of the two corporate rarities: celebrating 90 years and getting into the fourth generation of family ownership.
“Initially, (my grandfather’s) brothers-in-laws were in the business, and then his sons; my father and uncle who were the second generation. The third generation includes my brother and me along with our five cousins. Now, the fourth generation is just getting started. We’re 90 years strong with four generations, and that’s something you don’t see every day,” he explains.
Silverman, who has held various roles within the company throughout the years, explains that relationships, internal and external, are what has kept the company strong for so long. “How close-knit this family is and how well we work together is a huge factor to our success,” he explains. “We grew up next to each other (my father and my uncle), so the closeness within the family is inherent.
“I don’t think my grandfather would’ve thought that there was enough room for each of us in the business, but we’ve all found our niche and work well together.”
Aside from a great family chemistry, General has built strong relationships within its workforce, leading to many employees sticking around for 30, 40 or even 50 years.
“I’m currently working with someone who’s grandfather worked with my grandfather, so it’s kind of cool to have that connection,” Silverman notes.
General also takes pride in having multigenerational partnerships with its manufacturers reps.
“It’s all about that trust and rapport; they know we will treat them right and provide them a product they can have confidence in selling and using,” Silverman notes.
Durability and trust
With plumbing contractors continuing to age, Silverman explains that developing products that are both lightweight and durable is a main concern.
“We have to make equipment that is lightweight and easy to use, but it can’t be made of plastic. It has to be durable and long-lasting,” he says.
Providing attachments that make it easier for contractors to reach and get under sinks is another important factor. For example, General’s Uni-Stand attachment for hand-held drain cleaners offers support for the contractors’ arms, making it easier to work in small spaces.
Silverman explains that simply listening to contractors needs is what drives General in its product development.
“For example, we were the first to provide an automatic feed device back in the 1960’s. Now, everyone uses automatic feeds,” he notes. “Constantly thinking about what is going to make the plumbers’ jobs easier is key.”
When asked about the pandemic’s effects on the drain-cleaning industry, Silverman explains that many contractors are busier than ever. “We really are in a recession-proof business. Drains will clog no matter the economy, and are clogging even more during COVID,” he notes.
Throughout the PHCP industry, health and cleanliness are top concerns for new product development, but Silverman notes that the drain-cleaning professionals have always been concerned with preventing disease and contamination, so the industry was already set up to tackle these concerns.
Silverman says reps and distributors like carrying General products because of the durability and ability to trust the brand. “Distributors like dealing with us, because we’re easy to deal with and carry good products at a good price,” he says. “In brand surveys, we’re the preferred brand of drain-cleaning machinery by plumbing wholesale-distributors, which has been the case for many years.
“I look at warranty cards often and see people saying, ‘I replaced this machine after 10, 20 or even 30 years.’ It’s rewarding to know that people are getting that kind of life out of our tools.”
Looking towards the next 90 years
General has rolled out quite a few new products this year, and Silverman says more exciting thigs are coming soon.
The company wasn’t able to hold a formal celebration for its 90th anniversary, so it celebrated via social media and focused on continuing to help customers.
“All the contractors I’ve talked to have been very busy this year, so we’re doing our best to support them by providing equipment, parts and posting operational tips for them on social media,” Silverman says. “And in terms of a celebration, it could end up being 90-plus-one next year, we’ll have to see how things go.”
As the drain-cleaning industry faces the challenge to draw younger generations in, General is working to spread the word that it’s a great field to be in.
“Our goal is to show young people that this is a fantastic way to make a living, and with the right tools and equipment, it’s not as back-breaking as they may think,” Silverman says.