The latest trend is company mergers.

It’s a faint rumble heard in the distance — a clap of thunder in the Plains. The 1998 Pipe Trades Giants, our annual listing of the 100 largest plumbing and piping contractors, reveals the year’s most obvious industry trend has penetrated the cream of the crop — companies buying other companies.

Our 1998 list has two consolidators — Group Maintenance America Corp. (No. 20) and American Residential Services (No. 33) — and four companies recently purchased by utilities. No. 17 Limbach Constructors Inc., No. 32 McClure Co., No. 43 Colonial Mechanical Corp. and No. 92 Northern Peabody Inc. have all been acquired by utility parent companies within the calendar year.

In addition, another Giant from last year’s list — S.I. Goldman Co. (1997, No. 69), with a pipe trades volume of $27.17 million, was gobbled up by Comfort Systems. Expect to see other consolidators on next year’s list. It’s getting tougher to keep up with the latest industry purchases and movements.

Anyway you paint it, 6 percent of this year’s list consists of a consolidator or utility. What does it spell for the PHC industry? The other giants? Your small and medium size shops? It means you better watch the competition even closer than before because you don’t know who’s buying them tomorrow.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say our industry is as healthy as ever — with the top 100 covering $6.06 billion worth of PHC work. And there’s even more money in the pipeline! According to our survey, the largest 100 have more than $10.57 billion worth of work in progress, and $4.60 billion in backlog. We’ll go out on a limb and say we’ll be back with an even bigger and better list in 1999.

As for our current list, PM explores what four companies — Ancoma Inc. (No. 83), Berg Inc. (No. 68), J.F. Ahern Co. (No. 16) and Shambaugh & Sons Inc. (No. 8) — have done to land themselves on our list. The four companies, all east of the Mississippi River, show unique characteristics and qualities that repeatedly deliver success. We report on drug, training and productivity programs, and a company that loves handing out surveys.