Dirk Payne, owner and president of Sunshine Plumbing & Backflow Prevention in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is no stranger to comeback stories — he lived one after losing his home and business during the 2016 flood that devastated parts of southern Louisiana. Dirk Payne is living proof that with hard work and determination, you can overcome any challenge that arises.
Today, Sunshine Plumbing & Backflow Prevention is better than ever. The company is known in the Baton Rouge market for going above and beyond to find innovative, effective and long-lasting solutions to every plumbing problem. Sunshine Plumbing strives to go the extra mile to create long-lasting relationships with its community, which is why it was chosen to be Plumbing & Mechanical’s 2023 Residential Plumbing Contractor of the Year.
Perseverance and grit
If you ask Dirk Payne how he got his start in the industry, the fourth-generation plumber replies, “My blood cells are shaped like pipe wrenches.” In a family filled with plumbers, he began holding the flashlight for his father at age 12, and followed him into the family business after high school.
After his father sold that business, Dirk Payne decided to move on and start his own company. In April 2008, Sunshine Plumbing was born.
“I’m always aspiring to be at the top — I had to break away and do my own thing. It wasn’t about money because I was making great money. I wanted the freedom to do it the way I wanted,” he explains.
After eight years in business, Sunshine Plumbing was thriving. But then, disaster hit. In August 2016, a slow-moving storm system dumped more than 30 inches of rain, leaving much of Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes under feet of muddy, putrid water. A dozen people died and more than 50,000 homes, businesses, churches and other structures were flooded, including Sunshine Plumbing and the Payne home.
“We lost everything,” Dirk Payne says. “We were homeless — our house was totally devastated, it was just unbelievably bad. We took eight feet of water inside the house and 12 feet inside our garage. We were homeless — my wife, kids and I moved into my old plumbing shop, which had taken in three feet of water and had no walls. That’s where we lived for two years. We had to recreate our life. We lost 18 vehicles. It was a nightmare. After that, we really struggled for a few years, trying to find our way before we got up and working again.”
Then COVID hit a few years later, which really opened Dirk Payne’s eyes. “Everyone was going bankrupt, and something clicked inside me. Being the dad of two autistic kids, itwas like, ‘OK, who’s going to care for my kids?’ It was like we dropped the hammer and we dropped it big time. It was just me and my oldest son at that point. So, we went to work — I dumped everything I had into advertising. And we have just exploded since then. I think advertising is the key to growing your business in this economy. I hear all these people talking about pulling back right now, and we are full steam ahead. We're taking a big gamble, yes, but we are on everything from billboards, TV ads, social media marketing, our truck wraps and magazines. We even relocated our business to a property along the I-12 corridor to increase visibility. You look around, and we're everywhere. I think that's the key to our growth right now.”
Today, the company has grown to 13 employees — 9 plumbers and apprentices in the field and four office personnel — with seven fleet vehicles and number eight on the way. Dirk Payne notes that it has been hard work, but even through his success, he is very humble.
The Duck Truck
One way Sunshine Plumbing advertises its business is through its colorful truck wraps which feature a giant rubber ducky wearing sunglasses and holding a pipe wrench.
“When I was a kid, I saw a plumbing van go by in Washington, D.C., and it had this little rubber duck on it,” Dirk Payne says. “For some reason, that stuck with me all my life. When I started my own business, I knew I had to separate myself from all the other companies — I needed something different. So I decided I was going to put a giant rubber duck on my truck. My wife looked at it — and I’m always in sunglasses because it’s bright here in Louisiana — so she put my Oakley sunglasses on the duck. Back then, I also had spiked hair, so she added that as well. She personalized it, and it’s been a great hit.”
Dirk Payne notes the rubber ducky is the best thing he did because he gets told all the time his trucks make people smile. It has made such an impact on the community, that Sunshine Plumbing has become known as The Duck Truck around town.
As a small business, Sunshine Plumbing sometimes flies under the radar in serving its community, whether it's supporting local at-risk youth, providing hundreds of hats, gloves and socks for the homeless or just quietly serving the community.
Additionally, as part of going above and beyond for its customers, Sunshine Plumbing will change the batteries in smoke alarms for its elderly and disabled customers.
Though Dirk Payne is the boss, his favorite days are when his employees call in sick or take a vacation so he can get back in a service truck and visit his customers. “I absolutely love my customers. My wife says I have little old lady disease — I’m happy to sit there and drink coffee with them and talk to them for hours.
“We’re extremely passionate about service,” Dirk Payne adds. “We brag on being the cleanest and best-dressed plumbers in town. When we come in, we're going to leave your place cleaner than you found it. Our guys are going to do you the best job they can do. That's really what separates us apart, I think, is the cleanliness. We're going to care for your house. We're going to give you your best options to fix your problems.”
Cody Payne, Dirk Payne’s son and the service manager of Sunshine Plumbing, also points out that the company cares deeply about the product that’s put out. “One of the ways that we do differ from most is the quality of product we install. We're not putting in something that has a cheap shelf life, we’re installing something that's going to last for a long time. For example, Wolverine Brass — they have a fantastic, high-quality, well-made product. It comes with a 100-year warranty on the cartridges and the finish on it. We stock a lot of their products, and every time they come out with something new, we try to test it out to see if it’s something we would use in our market.”
Cody Payne is also certified backflow prevention and handles all of those calls for Sunshine Plumbing.
“It adds a niche for us,” he explains. “Baton Rouge in itself is starting to get real serious about backflow prevention. It's something that helps protect people's health, and keeps you from accidentally contaminating the water. It just adds a safety niche that we can fit into.”
Thinking outside the box
The Baton Rouge area has not escaped the skilled trades labor shortages most of the nation is facing. So Dirk Payne has had to get creative.
“We started doing in-house training so we can build our own staff,” he says. “And it’s really working. We’ve had two apprentices that I picked up that were second and third-year apprentices almost ready to take their plumbing exam. We put them in the second seat for a while, and now, they’re running their own trucks.”
Additionally, Baton Rouge has a large Spanish-speaking population, Dirk Payne notes. “We’re working with a Spanish church in getting an English program over there so we can start teaching them English so we can train them to become plumbers in-house. We’re trying to get a little trade school going over there. We’re just trying to be creative in coming up with ideas to get new people to take these jobs.”
Sam Lato, Sunshine Plumbing’s sewer and cable guy and No. 1 closer in selling options, also did not come from the trades. Lato was formerly a firefighter before blowing out his knee and jumping over to work with the Boy Scouts nonprofit association.
“Dirk was one of my volunteers at the Boy Scouts and we became good friends,” Lato says. “One day, almost three years ago, Dirk was looking to hire somebody and start expanding his company. We talked about it and he said, ‘Come work for me.’ So here I am.”
Lato notes that Sunshine Plumbing is a great place to work. “Dirk is a very understanding employer — he recognizes hard work. I’ve worked for some really lousy people before. The more money the company makes, the more he wants to help his people out as much as possible. It’s a very good culture — I don’t wake up in the morning and go, ‘Ugh, I have to go to work.’ I wake up in the morning, and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m going to work.’ There’s a huge difference in that. It’s a very team-oriented environment, it’s not every man for themselves. And we try and do right by our customers.”
Training and technology
Sunshine Plumbing is very focused on training, usually hosts two short 30 minute training sessions a week for its employees — one that is technology-based and one general business meeting. Additionally, at least one of its manufacturer’s reps will come out and do in-house training with the staff once a month. The topics vary from tankless water heaters to inverted pipelining.
“We have a lot of tankless water heater installs now,” Dirk Payne says. “We just started offering inverted pipelining — there’s nobody else doing it on the residential side. You see it in commercial and industrial plants, and in municipalities for the city. We have these 200-300 old beautiful oak trees that would normally involving digging trenches. There’s never been a really good way to solve that problem. This technology allows us to put a new line inside of the pipe without ever hurting the oak tree.”
Though Sunshine Plumbing has overcome much adversity, Dirk Payne isn’t done yet. His long-term goal is to become the premier plumbing company in Louisiana, where Sunshine Plumbing is a household name.
“Growth is a major thing for me,” he says. “We’re going to add different divisions to the company, but stay in the residential space. I just want to run my business and be the premiere company in this area, which I already feel we are.”
At 54 years old, Dirk Payne is also working on his succession plan for the business.
“I care about this,” Cody Payne says. “I want a brand that people will look at, see the duck, and think of plumbing at all times. I want to be the biggest and best out there.”
Other than his business, Dirk Payne is most proud of his three children and the newest addition to the family, his 4-month-old granddaughter. Other than Cody Payne, he has one son who is a cross-fit world champion, and his youngest son just graduated massage therapy school.
“I have three phenomenal kids,” he says. “All three of them are unique, creative and independent — what more could a dad want? And just going from being homeless, living in the tool room to dig out to where we are now, that’s just a major accomplishment. It allowed me to teach my kids that just because you get knocked all the way down, you can stand back up and rise.”