A Diversified Crop
French winemakers use the word “terroir” to sum up the effect of a vineyard’s soil, slope, orientation to the sun, plus every nuance of climate such as rain and fog and wind, on the business of winemaking. It’s what gives the finished product its originality, personality and distinct character. No one word exists in English.
American plumbers like Tom LeDuc use words like “hard work,” “perseverance,” “learning for others,” “roll with the punches,” and “teamwork” as just a few voices in the chorus to sum up the business of plumbing. All these words and then some are also what gives the contractors we profile in these pages that same originality, personality and distinct character as a great glass of wine.
LeDuc’s business, LeDuc & Dexter, Santa Rosa, Calif., sits in the heart of California wine country. As a result, he and partner Art Dexter have done plumbing and piping work for many of the region’s winemakers.
But that’s just one aspect of a very diversified business that includes residential construction, residential service and repair, commercial construction, fire protection, and design/build. Along the way, the company has also developed a number of interesting training opportunities for its workforce. (You can read more about the diversification and training in sidebars to this article.)
It’s A StartLeDuc started out on his own by losing his job in what had been the burgeoning solar heating market during the recession of 1981.
“Plenty of contractors do what I did back then — go into business for yourself just to get a ‘job,’ ” LeDuc remembers. At first, he stuck with the solar heat business and also the hot tub business.
“It was difficult that first summer,” he says. “I’d sell a job, buy the material, install it and collect, then go out and start all over again.”
His fortunes picked up by 1982 when Dexter, an old business colleague, joined him and formed LeDuc & Dexter in 1983.
“Arty had moved to Washington. When he came down for a visit,” LeDuc explains, “I talked him into helping me for a couple of days. We’ve been partners ever since.”
In the beginning, the business focused on new construction and also some commercial construction, mostly building schools. Things started slow, but before long the new business was busy with two condo projects, an apartment complex and several custom homes.
A big turning point for the company came in 1987 when LeDuc, Dexter and two other friends in the construction industry entered into a partnership to build an office to house their businesses.
“We had space to move and grow,” LeDuc adds. Soon the company grew to 50 employees. “We never looked back until the recession of 1991.”
That downturn kicked the company on its you-know-what. The company payroll dropped to 20 people.
“It was tough, but we owned everything outright and survived,” LeDuc says. “It certainly was a change in attitude, however. Arty and I decided that when the economy did come back, we were going to take advantage of other opportunities as they came along and diversify our work.”
And so another point was turned. LeDuc started Super Service Plumbing, a residential service/repair department. In 1994, a “friendly competitor,” Bill Zeeb, decided to join LeDuc & Dexter. Zeeb’s reputation as a design/build expert helped add a commercial department. LeDuc also expanded into commercial fire protection. Through much of the 1990s, the company diversified into these new areas as well as continued in the residential market (see sidebar “More Than Just Wine”).
“I feel like the company was born in one recession, and reborn in another,” LeDuc says. “We are now not only extremely diversified, but also extremely flexible.” Last year, the company’s workforce of 75 did about $10 million in business.
Grape ExpectationsOne of the biggest increases in business over the last several years has been the work done for wineries throughout the Napa and Sonoma valleys. LeDuc & Dexter has juggled as many as 16 different winery projects at one time, and has a client list of almost 35 wineries. You name it, and you’ve probably drank it.
There’s plenty of plumbing and piping associated with making wine. Water, hot and not, is constantly in demand.
“Wineries use an incredible amount of water and they use a lot of hot water for cleaning,” says Zeeb, commercial department manager at LeDuc & Dexter. “Typically, they need water at around 180 degrees F at a pressure of 90 psi.” Hot water is used to clean barrels, tanks, pumps, filters, bottling lines, and equipment and floors.
Hot water is especially important in making white wine where cleanliness and sterilization are essential to stop bacteria that can ruin a high-priced Chardonnay at any stage of the process from the fermentation tank to the bottle.
One winery we visited, for example, had four boilers — the two largest were used to produce industrial hot water, another to heat domestic water, and the smallest boiler was reserved for hydronic heating.
In addition, common elements of LeDuc & Dexter’s winery work include: compressed air and CO2 piping to help push the wine from one tank to another; underground floor drainage; stainless-steel transfer lines; and waste piping that can withstand the highly acidic left-behind grape skins, seeds and stems. Add to this the requisite bathroom facilities, wash-up sinks and emergency eye-wash/shower stations and you begin to realize why wine costs so much.
The design/build process takes on its own personality when performing the service for wineries. Typically in a design/build capacity, the contractor would meet with the owner, find out what needs to be done, and determine a realistic budget for the project. By and large, there are similarities in certain types of projects that help contractors from one to the next.
In the case of wine, the winemaker determines the project and every project can be very different from the last. “Every winemaker operates in a different fashion, with different requirements, different winemaking methods and different systems,” Zeeb says.
Often times, a winemaker doesn’t want to reveal all his operations, and -- being more artist than the owner -- may not know what’s going to happen in the near future for the business.
“You have to save the winemaker from him- or herself,” Zeeb says. “Some may say they want to stay a small operation -- and just a couple of years later an extra good crop will happen and either they’ll want to double their capacity or a new winemaker will.”
Zeeb’s knowledge and his diplomatic skills save everyone time and money down the road to make expansion feasible.
Wineries also differ in one other aspect from other commercial design/build projects. Since it’s ultimately a business tied to agriculture, much of the timeframe for new work is tied to the all-important fall harvest.
“Any construction deadline can be tight, but wineries are brutal,” Zeeb says. As a result of the seasons, much of the work is packed into the summer months.
With more than 40 years of plumbing construction know-how, Zeeb even filled in for the winemaker on one project. Stryker Sonoma, Geyersville, Calif., was still so much a work-in-progress that a winemaker hadn’t even been hired yet.
In addition to its own design/build venture, LeDuc & Dexter has formed a productive relationship with engineer Rob Main, P.E., The Engineering Partnership, Santa Rosa, Calif.
“We don’t have to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ on the design drawings we do for LeDuc & Dexter,” Main says. “We know the details and so do they.”
Clients benefit from other design/build characteristics, such as a shortened design phase and no change orders from incomplete or incorrect plans. Such a streamlined schedule can be especially helpful for wineries with their crushing deadlines.
We took a tour last May of just some of this recent handiwork. Let’s take a closer look at just two:
Sonoma-Cutrer does still use its original earthen floor cellars built underground, but its Grand Cru Cellar is a little different. Rather than tunneling into a hill, the entire hill was excavated and a 20,000 sq. ft. “cave” constructed. Afterward the space was buried with about 10 feet of earth.
The winery built the cellar primarily to age its two premium lines, Cutrer and Les Pierres. Sonoma-Cutrer makes nothing but Chardonnay, a white wine known for its “oaky” flavor imparted by, you guessed it, spending 18 months in oak barrels imported from France.
The most crucial aspect of this extended aging process is the radiant cooling system installed both in the floor and ceiling of the cellar. The ambient temperature of the earth at the vineyard ranges from 56 to 58 degrees F. That’s fine to ferment the wine, but in order to age the wine for such an extended length, the temperature must be maintained at 46 degrees F — without the slightest fluctuation.
The challenge facing the vineyard was how to cool the cave without disrupting the air as a fan coil unit would. While the barrel may give the wine its distinct taste and aroma, wood is a porous substance. As little as one degree temperature change can cause oxidation and evaporation in the barrel.
In other words, enough of the precious wine, ultimately valued in millions of dollars in retail sales, would evaporate straight out of the barrel and what remains could turn to vinegar.
Radiant cooling was the answer. The cave has 30 miles of tubing in the ceiling and floors of the 20,000-sq.-ft. cellar. The piping carries chilled water and glycol throughout the building maintaining the temperature at 46 degrees F on the nose without creating air movement.
The Grand Cru Cellar is also divided into three chambers and 12 separate zones — each of which is capable of maintaining a different constant temperature, according to the needs of the winemaker. The setup helps the winemaker age wine from the previous harvest at 46 degrees F in one chamber of the cellar, while fermenting wines from the current harvest at 58 degrees F in another.
But you’d need X-ray vision to see LeDuc & Dexter’s hard work since so much of it was purposely buried from sight.
“Above all, the winemakers wanted to build, as the director put it, ‘a cathedral to wine,’ ” Zeeb says.
“Single-minded” is a good way to describe Nickel & Nickel. The business is devoted exclusively to producing a variety of red and white wines, each grape harvested, however, from a single vineyard from select growers throughout the Napa and Sonoma valleys. To play by those rules is a supreme challenge to the winemakers since they can’t blend in grapes of a different type or from a different vineyard to enhance the final wine.
“Our goal is not to interfere with the vineyards to make the wine taste the way we want them to,” says winemaker Darice Spinelli. “Rather, we consider it our job to accentuate the vineyard and play up the special characteristics of each site, whether we’re dealing with 10 rows or 10 acres.”
Such creativity needs to be expressed through, in part, the plumbing and piping done by LeDuc & Dexter.
The winery is built on a 19th century farmstead of a prospector who struck it rich in the Gold Rush, and still includes the original home and barns built in the 1880s.
A new 5,800-sq.-ft. fermentation timber-frame barn was built using post and beam construction common in the 1880s. To blend in with the rest of the building, the barn is constructed of century-old timbers recycled from old bridges, warehouses and other structures from throughout the country.
Twenty-six tanks are capable of heating and/or cooling simultaneously, depending on the vineyard’s fermentation needs. The winemaker can check and adjust temperatures from a remote computer, allowing for instant temperature changes. The technology allows the winemaker to handcraft the wine in each tank.
To hide as many traces of this modernity as possible, the process plumbing lines are hidden from view, behind walls, under tank pads, below floors and above ceilings. (The same applies to the electrical and other mechanical work.)
That’s a lot to hide considering LeDuc & Dexter installed more than three miles of copper piping and 10 miles of radiant cooling PEX lines, plus numerous manifolds with circuit setters, gas, glycol and air lines.
The 30,000-sq.-ft. barrel room, large enough for 3,200 French oak barrels, located below the barn, must be the most artistic basement we’ve ever been in (our cover shot of Tom LeDuc was taken there).
“Cathedral-like” would be the best way to describe the cellar’s 10-ft. vaulted ceilings finished in plaster with columns concealing copper piping, along with its expansion loops coming off the boiler and chiller pack cooling lines and return lines that disappear behind a wall to their source valves and meters.
While there’s more to the company than just wine, LeDuc believes no matter what the company is building, expanding or remodeling, taking care of the customers is what it all comes down to.
“You’d be surprised how few businesses in the construction trades like ours actually ask the customer what it is that they want,” LeDuc says. “‘Customer service’ should mean asking the customers exactly what it is that they want and listening to what was said.”
LeDuc thinks that such customer service needs to be carried through three phases: 1) “Before,” which consists of all the customer’s needs for a project in order to develop a bid or undertake design/build; 2) “During,” when the company works closely with a general contractor or owner to make sure the desired results happen; and 3) “After,” which may be the longest period of time after a project is completed — when the last impression of your work is just as important as the first impression you made.
“We ask customers what they want, make sure we do just that and make sure it continues to be what they wanted,” Le Duc sums up.
Sidebar: Promoting Careers In ConstructionTom LeDuc wanted to be a plumber since he was 18 years old. LeDuc grew up in the industry since his father owned a plumbing company in Santa Rosa, Calif. After high school, LeDuc joined his father, learned the trade and, after his share of hard knocks, eventually went on to build the company we’re writing about today.
To help other like-minded teenagers have a similar opportunity, LeDuc helps organize the Careers in Construction Expo, an annual event sponsored in part by the North Coast Builders Exchange, a local trade group.
LeDuc served as chairman of the event this past March and worked with 10 local high schools. He’s also the chairman of the Exchange’s Workforce Development Program, a committee within the NCBE dedicated to educating prospective entry-level tradespeople.
As a result of what he learned while volunteering, LeDuc set up his company’s Boot Camp (see “Training & Education” sidebar). It also got him more involved in the PHCC of California’s apprentice program.
“Like so many other facets of construction in the 21st century, plumbing is high-tech and complicated,” LeDuc says. “I think pipe dope is now a collector’s item!”
The apprentice program is sponsored by the Sonoma County school district, which pays for the teachers and classrooms. John Zachenski, a journeyman at LeDuc & Dexter, has taught in the apprentice program for the past four years. Two years ago, one of his students scored second at the PHCC of California apprenticeship contest. And last year, Barbara Nguyen, a LeDuc & Dexter apprentice, finished fourth in the competition.
Sidebar: Training & EducationAlmost 25 percent of LeDuc & Dexter’s employees in the field are Latinos. To help these employees develop, the company started an “English as a Second Language” program last year.
Along with the Sonoma County Adult Literacy League, which provides English instructors, LeDuc & Dexter put together a six-month course that meets twice a week.
The emphasis is on better communication skills on the job. Participants cover such subjects as safety procedures, how to ask questions, how to respond on the job with fellow employees and how to refer customers to the office for more assistance. Each student is tested before the first class to help establish the levels of the curriculum.
“It was really amazing to see how much the employees’ English had improved after our first class of 10 employees had finished,” says Tom LeDuc. “There was a definite improvement in conversation and a change in morale and self-confidence.”
Shortly after the first class graduated last January, the program was featured as part of the “Education Spotlight” program at last February’s Construction Contractors Alliance meeting.
“We see the Latino population as a big part of the future of the company,” LeDuc adds. “We’ve already hired many friends and relatives of our current employees.”
The company also will be offering an advanced English class for graduates of the ESL Program, and is considering offering a Spanish class for English-speaking employees.
Training all employees is important at the company. A special “Boot Camp” was designed several years ago for new employees.
“Think about how dangerous it is to walk onto a construction site for the first time with no training,” LeDuc explains. “There are all kinds of things going on overhead and power lines to deal with. You’re not sure where it’s safe to walk -- plus you have to learn your own job and do it right.”
The 11-week course is divided into the following segments:
- Plumbing & Construction Materials
- Plumbing & Construction Products
- Plumbing & Construction Nomenclature
- Plumbing & Construction Safety
“On the job, it’s a rush-rush situation -- not a great learning environment for a new employee,” says Kevin Delong, the company’s residential field superintendent and Boot Camp instructor. “Employees can get the basics in the classroom, and then become more refined in their knowledge with on-the-job experience.”
Boot Camp coincides with other on-the-job training for rookies, and meets for three hours once a week.
The company also offers other training for the seasoned pro:
- Field personnel have opportunities for foreman training and code update classes.
- The warehouse staff is trained in safety, forklift certification, and many also have received flexible gas pipe and PEX certification.
- The office staff takes on-going computer software courses.
- Managers attend computer classes and seminars that cover the gambit from new products and services to human resource topics.
- LeDuc and partner Art Dexter also stay sharp by networking at local trade groups, such as the North Coast Builders Exchange, as well as national PHCC-affiliated groups.
Sidebar: More Than Just WineSuper Service: As we note in the main feature, Tom LeDuc began diversifying his company in the early 1990s. To learn more about what others were doing, he became active in local PHCC activities, and attended his first PHCC of California meeting in 1990.
He took part of a roundtable discussion and sat down next to a guy named “George” who appeared to have plenty to say about residential service and repair.
“I didn’t know who he was, but we hit it off pretty well,” LeDuc remembers. Turns out “George” was George Brazil and three weeks later LeDuc and partner Art Dexter visited Brazil’s operation. Six months later, Super Service Plumbing was on the road. The LeDuc department offers 24-hour emergency service to customers in Sonoma County.
“Our work is 50 percent residential and 50 percent commercial,” says John Schutz, manager of Super Service. He oversees 10 employees, including five techs and six service trucks.
Super Service performs the typical array of plumbing repairs, but also was successfully involved in a water conservation program set up by the city of Santa Rosa, Calif., the company’s home base.
The “Go Low” program originally provided homeowners a rebate for purchasing a 1.6-gpf toilet. Later, the city introduced a direct install program. Super Service contracted with the city to install more than 2,000 water-saving toilets. In 1999, Schutz was presented with a special award from the mayor of Santa Rose for his contribution to the project.
Residential Department: Jim Kempers heads up the residential department, which includes construction, purchasing and estimating for an array of residential work from single-family to multifamily structures tailored to the first-time home buyer to million-dollar custom homes. (Super Service is also part of the department.)
Scheduling work is critical to make a profit in this market. “We’re known for scheduling and staffing,” Kempers says. “We give customers what they want, when they want it.”
To make sure this happens, Kevin Delong, residential field superintendent, logs a daily schedule for all his activity. Sometimes this schedule can extend out three or four days in advance. This advanced planning helps in the goodwill department.
“If we do reach a critical point where we have to tell the customer we need an extra day to meet the deadline,” says Delong, “then we are able to get it since we’ve been responding to their needs and schedule up to that point.”
Beyond home construction, Kempers also uses a showroom at LeDuc & Dexter’s office to help out in home design, too.
“We do a lot of hand-holding when it comes to working with our customers,” Kempers explains. “The homeowner can definitely benefit from a professional plumber’s expertise when it comes time to picking fixtures and faucets.”
For that matter, the showroom also works out for remodeling jobs.
“Some people go to the DIY box stores to get fixtures, hoping to save some money,” Kempers says. “But then they find out the sink they bought on sale won’t work properly with the plumbing they have or the valve in the faucet they bought isn’t the complete valve that they need.”
While customers may call Super Service directly -- its fleet of fire engine red trucks is hard to miss -- Kempers’ department also offers residential service particularly geared for when a plumbing problem needs attention in a newly constructed home still under warranty.
Finally, the residential department also includes a residential fire sprinkler component. It’s the remnant of a bit of diversification in the overall fire sprinkler market that didn’t exactly work out after LeDuc & Dexter bought a fire protection contractor who, as LeDuc puts it, “was tired of the hassles of being a small contractor and wanted a job.”
At first the company did expand into commercial fire protection, but found it to be a very tough, competitive market.
The company dropped out of the commercial fire protection market in 2001, but stuck with residential sprinklers. “Most homebuilders want us to do that work since we’re already doing the plumbing,” LeDuc says. “That works out for us since we want to negotiate the residential work we do as best we can and not simply be the lowest bidder.”
This past May, a “zero tolerance” ordinance went into effect in unincorporated parts of Sonoma County. In addition to the already existing NFPA 13 D regulations, the new ordinance makes sprinklers mandatory for all new home construction, plus remodeling projects that affect 75 percent of the existing exterior walls.
Commercial Department: Bill Zeeb is in charge of the commercial department. The heading includes the wineries mentioned in our main article as well as a versatile client list that includes hi-tech companies, manufacturing plants, hotels and office buildings.
Zeeb’s expertise in design/build has also helped him grow his department. While wineries are the focal point for his department’s reputation, he was putting the finishing touches on a design/build project beyond the vineyards during our visit last spring.
LeDuc & Dexter’s crew was racing just as fast as the drivers do at Infineon Raceway, completing the plumbing and piping work done as part of a $50 million expansion.
About 100,000 spectators were expected in mid-June to kick off a new racing season for a raceway that has events 340 days a year. LeDuc & Dexter handled the design/build chores in and around the raceway’s grandstands, hospitality suites, concession buildings, souvenir shops, main food prep center and related concession stands.
“The owner of the track believes that tickets and toilets are the most important elements of his success,” Zeeb says. “Obviously, the tickets are where the money begins from, but unless there are enough modern toilet facilities, people won’t come back. We’re not talking about a bunch of portable toilets on a hillside anymore.”
Warehouse: While not necessarily a “customer service” in the typical sense of the word, Steve Garner takes care of LeDuc & Dexter’s crew. Garner manages the company’s warehouse, and is ultimately responsible for lining up all the pipe, fixtures, valves and whatever else is needed for the construction crews on a daily basis.
“It’s more like a staging area for construction than a supply house,” says Garner, who has a staff of five people to help him.
Garner coordinates material orders from LeDuc & Dexter’s residential and commercial department. Since any type of construction typically runs on “we need it yesterday” deadlines, Garner’s team prefabs as much as they can for the field crews.
For example, a residential subdivision usually has a number of floor plans that are repeated throughout the project. After the company plumbs the model homes, the rough plumbing fittings are pulled from the warehouse and pre-bagged. The warehouse staff may cut and thread gas pipe from the master plan, for example, so it’s ready to be installed ASAP. Tub/shower valves are also soldered in advance.
While Garner ideally provides the field crews with what they need first thing in the morning, he’s also responsible for getting material to them on demand during the day.
A few years ago, LeDuc & Dexter computerized its warehouse inventory, and integrated it throughout the purchasing department and receiving department.
“We don’t have to spend time counting parts,” Garner says, “and we can use the computer for job costing.”