My bosses asked me to turn futurist in this beginning-of-year column and predict what this industry will look like a few years down the road.

My bosses — editorial director Jim Olsztynski and editor Steve Smith — asked me to turn futurist in this beginning-of-year column and predict what this industry will look like a few years down the road. Never one to shirk a challenge, I am happy to do so.

But wouldn’t you know it, my crystal ball turned out to be two-sided. One side foretells the future, while the other looks back at almost two generations (38 years) as a businessman to show me how different the world looked back then.

Who would have predicted that lead pipe, which was used for water distribution both outside and inside of buildings, would be replaced completely by copper and then plastic materials? Who would have predicted that 5–foot lengths of extra-heavy cast-iron soil pipe would be replaced by lightweight non-metallic materials?

Who would ever think that the 7.5 gpf flushers of when I was learning the trade would now do the job with only 1.5 gallons of water? I also remember when 100 percent of the bathtubs that my company installed in the bad old days of new construction work were made of back-breaking cast iron. Now for the most part they are of fiberglass.

I remember the days of the 30–gallon non-insulated, non-glass-lined galvanized tank with a “side arm” gas-fired water heating device to make hot water. I replaced those contraptions with modern energy-efficient water heaters that come in various sizes and with different fuel options.

Taming The Monster: I remember as a youngster shoveling coal into a monster of a furnace that left the home constantly too hot or too cold. I remember my father hiring the local plumber (Hank Sipowski, God rest his soul) to replace that monster with a gas-fired hydronic boiler. I remember several occasions when I, as a young contractor, did the same thing that Hank Sipowski did.

I remember the days when a person who was not a plumbing-heating professional would try to purchase an item from a wholesale establishment and be politely turned away. Who could have predicted that “wholetailing” would become the industry norm, and that most manufacturers would bypass their distributors selling direct to the “big box” entities?

Who could have predicted that I would be pounding out this column on a computer, then print it on a laser printer and fax it off to the “Word Wizard” (Jim Olsztynski) for final editing?

I remember the first adding machine I used in business—they didn’t call them calculators back then. It wasn’t even electronic. I had to turn a hand-crank to get it working, and it took up a big chunk of my desk.

How could I have known when I first started writing this column 10 years ago that it would serve as my platform to try to turn the world’s best mechanics into capable business people? How could I have known that I, along with 15 of my colleagues, would form an organization, Contractors 2000, that would become international in scope?

Predicting The Future: Now for those predictions.

Closest to home, I believe Blau Plumbing Inc. will be around under the astute leadership of Frank Blau’s kids and grandkids long after I’m gone. They will not become a consolidator-owned company because they want to be in control of their own destiny. They’ve learned from the “old man” to become solid business and marketing professionals, and as such will be able to compete against any and all types of competitors, just as we have over the past 38 years.

Among those consolidators making such a big splash in the industry, I predict a shakeout. In fact, I believe they may even disappear from the scene, just as the likes of past franchisers such as Mr. Build, Dial One and others have done. I remember being approached by them 20 years ago and told that “if you don’t sign on, we’ll eat your lunch.” We’re still here and making handsome profits. They’re not.

The consolidators succeeded in industries with low-skilled workers. It’s one thing to consolidate a bunch of refuse collectors. It’s another to do it in an industry with shortages of skilled technicians and business managers.

I predict that Yellow Pages advertising will be completely replaced by cyberspace web pages in 10 years. Consumers will place orders for PHC service through home computers linked to an automated attendant, just like I currently purchase airline tickets.

In the not too distant future, file cabinets will become a thing of the past. Paper documents will be electronically scanned and stored. If there is a need for a hard copy, you can print it off, but otherwise why kill all those trees just to have paper taking up space?

Service contractors will have to join together in some kind of organization — maybe even a union — to train technicians specifically for service work. This organization will require service techs with legally binding agreements to pay for their training if they depart an employer to work for one outside the group. That is unlike what unions do with union apprenticeship currently.

I see utilities becoming the major players in purchasing or partnering with PHC companies. I see service contractors forming co-operatives under one brand name very similar to franchises.

What do you see in the future, my friends? I would like very much to hear your predictions of where our industry is heading. Fax me some letters.