More Than Meets The TV Camera's Eye
OK, maybe with a few added licks of vengeance, which few of us would have resisted had we been in the beleaguered cops’ shoes. Had the fateful home video recorded the whole scene, it’s almost certain that the public would have reacted more sympathetically to the L.A.P.D. and less kindly to the thug who morphed into America’s favorite victim.
Such is the power of television.
Tom Warner knows it all too well. His life has been in shambles ever since a local TV station used a disgruntled former employee to rake his Washington, D.C. company through the coals in the fall of 1995. A few months later the CBS network, having not yet discovered Monica Lewinsky, needed a hot number for its “48 Hours” program. So they followed up their affiliate’s report with a sting operation that caught a Warner service technician recommending the replacement of a furnace motor that was more than 10 years old. A CBS hired hand said it could have been repaired at far less cost. Notoriety and lawsuits followed. Warner Corp.’s $27 million business shrank to about a third of its former size.
Such is the power of television.
Now, the Maryland Attorney General has resurrected Warner as the fall guy in a lawsuit for sending out unlicensed service technicians. So do many other plumbing firms in Maryland and everywhere else in the country. It’s a dirty little secret of the industry that a lot of contractors wink at licensing laws for residential service work, and so do licensing boards and inspectors. That’s because there is a severe shortage of licensed plumbers, and in any case most licensing exams fail to deal with service work. In fact, the Maryland A.G. has assured some worried PHCC leaders that this will not turn into a statewide “witch hunt” for unlicensed plumbers.
In other words, there’s no public service being rendered here. It’s all about getting Warner. He’s high profile. He’s the L.A.P.D. He can boost the A.G.’s chance of reelection or higher office, which is why Tom Warner never knew Maryland would be filing suit against him until it was announced on TV.
Such is the power of television.
Behind The Boob Tube: Had I no more evidence to go on than that presented on the boob tube, I, too, would think Tom Warner a crummy person. But I’ve known Tom for about a decade and written articles about his innovative company. I’ve met his family and many of his employees, as well as some competitors who speak well of him. I am not so naive as to think that our industry doesn’t have its share of scumbags. I am thoroughly convinced this is not one of them.
As with the Rodney King beating, there is more to this story than meets the camera’s eye. Here I’d like to share with you a perspective of Tom Warner and his company that the hyperventilating news readers don’t deem relevant, because it doesn’t square with their caricature of a bad guy.
Warner’s pedigree in the plumbing industry dates all the way back to the 1870s when his great-great grandfather helped install some of the underground water and sewer lines that still undergird our nation’s capital. The current business traces back to an uncle who started it in 1938. Tom’s worked in it since 1965 and took over stewardship of the company to 1977.
Does this sound like a fly-by-night operation?
At a peak, Warner Corp. was serving over 75,000 satisfied customers a year in the vicinity of our nation’s capital, including many of the area’s top property management firms. Under Tom’s management, probably close to a million people have willingly paid for PHC services from Warner Corp., many of them repeatedly. Is this the track record of a rip-off artist? One legal document produced by Warner in response to the initial TV exposé counted 22 complaints with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, out of more than 50,000 calls handled. That’s one out of every 2,272 calls, and every complaint was resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.
Is this how crooks do business?
Pillar Of The Community: Warner Corp. operates out of an antiquated building in the Northeast sector of Washington, a place where you won’t find glorious monuments and tourists. People who visit from other parts of the country marvel at how they can function in this ghetto, much less staff the company from a labor pool drawn in large measure from one of the most poorly educated, crime-ridden populations in the country.
Warner Corp. has made a concerted effort to do just that in this godforsaken business environment. Over the years they have provided meaningful jobs for scores of Afro-American residents from the surrounding community. Warner has invested considerable money and effort putting together both management and technical training programs that are some of the best of any PHC service company in the country. They also have one of the most stringent drug-testing policies.
Is this the mark of a disreputable company?
Tom was educated as an accountant and years ago pulled a stint working for the IRS (OK, we all have skeletons in our closet!). He graduated from a management program for small business owners at the Harvard Business School, and has worked hard to convert Warner Corp. from a typical seat-of-the-pants plumbing firm to one based on sound management principles. He started an imaginative program to foster entrepreneurial skills in which he gave qualified managers almost total authority to run their own branch operations.
Does this biography reek of sleaze?
Not everyone agrees with my favorable assessment of Tom Warner and his business. You see, because Tom is armed with far more business acumen than the industry norm, he has become one of those flat raters that are so objectionable to the industry’s greatest minds of the 19th century. He refuses to hop on the below-cost “going rate” bandwagon that they hold to be the only honorable way to do business. He also understands that PHC contractors have as much right to consumer disposable income as anyone else, and tries to tap into it with policies that encourage upselling and add-ons. In almost every other business this is a mark of distinction, but it makes him a bad guy in the minds of those PHC colleagues who equate honor with poverty.
The licensing issue is a trickier one to navigate. The PHCC of Maryland has declined to come to Tom’s defense, standing by their position that consumers ought to use only licensed plumbers. I don’t condemn them for this. Licensing is a central issue for most PHCC affiliates, and it would undermine their political message to argue for exceptions. Yet, it ought to be obvious that licensing is being used as merely a convenient excuse for going after Warner. The Maryland A.G. has all but acknowledged this. He’s simply mugging for the camera.
Titillating The Masses: I can’t defend every service call ever made by Warner Corp. Personally, I’m not a big fan of technician compensation plans that rely heavily on sales incentives. Aggressive sales policies have to be carefully managed to make sure employees don’t step over the ethical boundary line. It may be that some of Warner’s people have done that from time to time.
But I know enough about this company to sense that the missteps are aberrations more than the rule, and that a thousand stumblebum companies get away with more outrageous consumer pluckings. It’s just that once the TV folks latch on to something that gives their audience a buzz, they never want to let up. Consider how they sucked every last ounce of titillation from the O. J. trial, Di’s death and Monica Lewinsky’s sex life. Tom Warner’s dilemma differs only in degree.
While I’ve mentioned his detractors, Tom Warner also has a sizable group of supporters who believe, as I do, that he’s been made a fall guy by people whose motives are as questionable as those they attribute to him. One of his allies is William Baumbach, a former president of the Northern Virginia PHCC Association, who has created a web page devoted to the Warner issue at: http://www.phcc.org/warner.