Women In Plumbing: 'Believe You Can Do It'
How two women saved a New York City plumbing company.
Mac Felder Inc., a union plumbing contractor located in densely populated New York City, has been in the plumbing business since 1936. Once a family-owned business, it is now owned and operated by two women: Chief Executive Officer Amy Breslaw and Chief Financial Officer Natalya Shifrina.
Mac Felder Inc. Chief Executive Officer Amy Breslaw and Chief Financial Officer Natalya Shifrina.
In the nearly six years since they bought the company from Maurice Schnakenberg (a licensed plumber who is still a part of the company), profitability has risen 30 percent and revenue has almost tripled.
In 2002, accounts receivable was less than accounts payable. Breslaw and Shifrina reduced the company’s insurance premium by 30 percent. They established a line of credit with the bank, and now the company pays for its big purchases within 10 days, which allows it to receive better discounts from its suppliers.
The company focuses on alterations, repair and maintenance (80 percent commercial and 20 percent residential). It landed a very lucrative plumbing contract with Rudin Management, one of the largest commercial and residential apartment building owners in Manhattan. The firm did plumbing work at Macy’s buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and is currently working on renovations at 41 Madison Ave.
With an increase in work, field employees jumped from 10 to 22. Jobsite accidents decreased after a safety program was established. A 401(k) and profit-sharing plan were created for office employees.
Neither woman has worked as a plumber, but they have used their business educations to change the way the company operates.
“To be in business you need to know your craft, but to succeed and stay in business you must understand and apply the rules of finance and economy,” Shifrina says, who came to this country from Russia when she was a young woman to raise her son.
Shifrina has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an MBA in finance and information systems. While earning her degrees, she worked at 78-year-old plumbing company George Breslaw & Sons in various areas of the company: accounts receivable, accounts payable, estimating, etc. She was the controller, ran the real estate division, and was in charge of the pension and profit-sharing investments.
Breslaw worked for a not-for-profit agency for the mentally disabled after she graduated from college, eventually running the group’s summer camp program. She then intended to join her father’s business, but her path changed when the opportunity to purchase Mac Felder arose. In addition to her bachelor’s degree in family and community services, Breslaw has taken several business courses.
To transform Mac Felder, the women “combined Fortune 500 methods with small company advantages,” Shifrina notes. These include:
- There are enough customers for everyone. Don’t waste time “killing” the competition; use your energy and resources on growth-enhancing activities.
- Understand the proceeds of your labor. How does the customer feel about working with you?
- Your customers are your marketing department. Mac Felder does not advertise; its business comes by referrals.
“Each job is unique, at least from the customer’s standpoint,” Shifrina says. “We look and estimate each job differently. We talk to customers, architects and designers and give them a complete picture instead of a bottom-line number.”
Becoming A WBE
One of the decisions Breslaw and Shifrina made soon after purchasing Mac Felder was to get the company certified as a women’s business enterprise (WBE). A WBE must be at least 51 percent owned and controlled by one or more women, with management and daily operation controlled by one or more of the women owners. And one of the United States’ largest third-party certifiers of businesses owned and operated by women is the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. WBENC provides programs and policies designed to expand opportunities and eliminate barriers in the marketplace for women business owners.
“It’s a hard process,” Breslaw acknowledges. “The application, finding missing paperwork, explaining how you own the company, the site visit - it’s a long, drawn-out process. Then you cross your fingers and hope you get certified.”
Now the company’s motto is this: The first and only certified women-owned, union-affiliated licensed plumbing contractor in New York City.
She adds that the average wait to get certified is about one year; one certification she has been waiting for is about three years now.
Certification was necessary, Shifrina says, to get more work, as different jobs in the NYC area require different certifications. Mac Felder now has WBE certifications through other agencies besides WBENC, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. One of the jobs Mac Felder got through its WBE certification was the plumbing work in the Jet Blue terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is owned by the Port Authority.
While Breslaw has jumped through hoops to get her company WBE-certified, she acknowledges that the work the company receives because of it is a bonus.
“We’re not depending on it,” she says. “Natalya and I bought an existing company with existing clients. But a lot of women who are starting out their companies may be depending on WBE certification to get work, and that’s the scary part.”
More Women, More Power
Breslaw had trouble in the beginning getting NYC general contractors to take her company’s WBE certification seriously. But attitudes have changed somewhat in the last few years. “I guess sometimes you have to prove to them that you’re not going to quit, that you can get the work done, especially in a male-dominated industry like this.”
When she attends PHCC meetings or other industry events, she’s proud to show off the many jobs her company has completed, proud to show others in the plumbing industry how she and Shifrina turned around a company on the verge of going out of business.
One of the biggest challenges business owners have in the construction industry, and the plumbing and heating industry in particular, is recruiting new workers - whether they come from traditional channels or other avenues.
Reaching out to young men and women in middle school and high school who have an aptitude for plumbing or heating, encouraging a career in the trades instead of pushing them toward college, is something the industry as a whole needs to focus on to prepare for the very near future as older workers leave the industry.
What advice does Breslaw have for women interested in entering the plumbing industry? “Go for it. Believe you can do it. The more women that come into the industry, the more power we can have.”
She would even encourage her own daughter to be a plumber, if it becomes something 1-year-old Rylee is interested in. But for now, that’s many years down the road. And that road can take her anywhere.
The WBENC Certification Process
The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council describes its certification process on its Web site (www.wbenc.org):
A business entity submits an application, along with the necessary supporting documentation and nonrefundable processing fee.
Each regional partner organization (there are 14 across the country) has a trained Certification Committee that meets on a monthly basis.
Once the applicant’s file is complete (meaning all documentation pertinent to the business and legal structure has been received), it will go to the committee for review.
An on-site visit is conducted, generally during the 30-day window between committee meetings.
At the meeting following the site visit, a final recommendation is made regarding the applicant’s eligibility.
If certification is granted, the company’s assigned contact will receive an e-mail telling her that the business has been certified; a formal letter is also mailed.