Jim Olsztynski reflects on the industry's progress in the past 20 years.

Remember the good old days when making money was easy and everyone put plumbers on a pedestal? If you do, you're hallucinating.

Twenty years ago, March 1984, PM published its first edition. I was editor at the time and recall a PHC industry landscape even more troubled than nowadays. Two years later, PM published the first installment of our “History of Plumbing” series that would span 10 years and involve extensive research into not only plumbing history, but that of our industry's trade associations and other institutions.

What I found out after reading thousands of pages of historical documents is that contractors and other industry citizens never lived in a time without its own set of crises, and for the most part the difficulties of bygone eras were greater than the ones we face today.

By way of example, let's take a look at some snapshots of the issues that preoccupied our readers 20 years ago and how they stack up today.

Union Construction's Crisis

The years 1981-82 brought our nation's worst economic recession since the Great Depression. A lagging impact brought terrible blows to commercial-industrial construction in 1983-84. This brought to a head a festering problem in the union sector of the industry.

Union mechanical contractors circa 1984 were in panic over the transition to a predominantly nonunion marketplace. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the unionized share of the market had declined by most accounts from around 60 percent to 40 percent and continued to head south.

The Business Roundtable had recently published its landmark “Construction Industry Cost Effectiveness” study filled with horror stories of union misbehavior. Owners were desperate not only to cut skyrocketing labor costs, but get out from under the debilitating strikes, work stoppages, jurisdictional disputes and other stupidities that characterized so many union jobsites at the time.

I attended my first ever MCAA convention in February 1984 and had never encountered a mood so bleak among conventioneers. One of the best attended seminars at that 1984 convention offered legal advice on how to go about “double-breasting,” i.e., setting up a nonunion subsidiary.

Although they never really regained lost market share, coming years would see union fortunes stabilize. This was due in part to attitudinal changes by desperate construction unions, along with a market recovery that provided more work for union and nonunion contractors alike.

There seems to be a well-defined cleavage in today's marketplace between union and nonunion jobs. The more complex the project, the greater the probability it will be a union shop handling it, and both sides seem resigned to this status quo.

Nowadays, strikes and work stoppages are rare, and the construction unions have become much more restrained in their compensation demands than was the case two decades ago. Most assuredly for union contractors, those were far from the good old days.

Who Sells What To Whom

Twenty years ago virtually every conversation with a plumbing contractor included a rant against those damned wholesalers and manufacturers who sold to the public or to retail stores.

Home Depot was merely three years old at the time, and just warming up for the blitzkrieg that would drive so many competitors out of business. But there were plenty of independent home centers and hardware stores around with sizable plumbing departments, and the presence of a homeowner at a supply house city counter marked that firm as Benedict Arnold Supply Co. in the eyes of the trade.

Contractors of the era all seemed to recall a time when they enjoyed a virtual monopoly on plumbing product sales. But the more I researched the history of this industry, the more it became apparent they were falling victim to the human tendency to romanticize “good old days” that never were.

Leaks in our industry's channel were present from the time the industry began to coalesce in the 1880s. So worrisome was extracurricular selling that the forerunners of PHCC and MCAA both were formed in that decade with the primary purpose of keeping vendors and suppliers “in line.”

In decades to come, some of our industry's forefathers would spend time in jail for antitrust violations.

True, contractors as a group used to be more united than now and wielded considerably more influence. There were many more vendors who sold only to the trade. But contractors back then never seemed to think they had it good. Everywhere they looked they could see plumbing products being sold by someone else.

Now, it's a more wide-open marketplace than ever before. Trade-sales-only policies are far more the exception than the rule among PHC vendors and supply houses. Some plumbing manufacturers move more merchandise through the big boxes than through the trade.

The main difference from 20 years ago is that contractors don't complain about it nearly as much. Call it resignation, or maybe it's a sign of business maturity. In any case, contractors seem to have accepted that their fortunes are determined more by how they run their own business than how their suppliers and vendors run theirs. That's progress, in my opinion.

The Plumbing Trade's Trade Show

The ISH North America trade show has its roots in PHCP Expo '84, the first edition of which was held that year in Atlanta. It marked the first time the American Supply Association joined forces with PHCC to co-sponsor the only national exposition aimed primarily at PHC trade professionals.

In truth, it amounted to ASA coming to the rescue of a PHCC event that dated back to the early 20th century. As recently as the mid-1950s, the annual PHCC convention used to draw as many as 5,000 attendees.

It had been by far the most important marketing event of the year for plumbing manufacturers. But by the 1980s you could roll a bowling ball down the aisles at the PHCC show confident of not hitting anyone.

Participation by wholesalers momentarily reinvigorated the trade show. PHCP Expo had a respectable run for a few years but - get ready for some déjà vu - declining attendance and the proliferation of trade shows made exhibitors clamor to hold it every other year. That came to pass with the renamed NEX Show in 1994.

NEX did OK in its first couple of editions, then petered out. ASA and PHCC joined forces with the Canadian Institute of Plumbing & Heating in recruiting Germany's Messe Frankfurt organization to revamp the event as ISH North America. They set an ambitious goal of trade show consolidation that would ultimately rival the fabled every-other-year ISH Fair in Frankfurt, the world's largest plumbing-heating exposition.

Consolidation proved trickier than anticipated. Exhibitor rebellion led to the recent announcement of an every-other-year schedule for ISH North America quicker than Messe Frankfurt had intended. Yet, if you step back and look at the big picture, the prospect for an all-industry trade show certainly looks a lot better now than it did 20 years ago.

Show sponsorship has grown beyond PHCC and ASA to include CIPH and RPA. Plus, ISH North America has been endorsed and promoted by about a dozen other industry organizations. Exhibitors got their way and are now more enthused about participating in ISH North America. They still crave trade show consolidation, and ISH North America is the only plumbing-related exposition seeking to accommodate that wish.

For those inclined to look at a trade show as a bellwether of industry health, the patient is still weak but much on the mend from 20 years ago.

Radiant Invigorates Hydronic Heating

PM has always been positioned as a plumbing magazine, which incorporates hydronic heating along with sanitation, but not warm air HVAC. Although some of our readers do that work as well, it's always been part of our editorial mission to promote the considerable virtues of hydronic heat over air-based systems.

In the early years of PM, that was a forlorn task - kind of like rooting for the Chicago Cubs. Being from Chicago, we were used to doing exactly that. So we did our best to support the home team, even though we knew it was a hopeless cause.

Hydronic heating circa mid-1980s existed almost entirely as a replacement market, and a dying one. Every time a homeowner pulled out a boiler and put in a furnace, it was one more nail in the hydronics coffin. One could foresee an unceremonious burial not too many decades in the future.

Then, starting around the late-1980s, came a surge of renewed interest in radiant heat, the favored heating M.O. of Europe. Suddenly, it was not a man-bites-dog story for home buyers to opt for a form of hydronic heating in new homes. New products started coming out that were more than museum pieces.

Radiant continues to grow in popularity, and it's been a tremendous shot in the arm to everyone associated with hydronic heating. This sector of the industry indisputably has much more to cheer about than it did 20 years ago.

Resources For Professionalism

Twenty years ago, plumbing contractors had limited resources to enhance their professionalism. A smattering of business education was available through PHCC, but nothing systematic. Most of what was available was generic and did not address the distinctions between HVAC vs. plumbing, service work vs. construction, residential vs. commercial, small vs. large firms, etc.

PHCC made a big leap forward with the formation of its Educational Foundation in 1986. MCAA, which has always offered an abundance of management education to its members, got even better at it with the start of its Mechanical Contracting Foundation a few years later.

As the years went by, numerous organizations arose to cater to the needs of special interests within the industry. In addition to the traditional trade associations, contractors now have the option of belonging to the likes of Nexstar Network (formerly Contractors 2000), PSI, The Service Roundtable, Excellence Alliance and several other affinity groups.

PHCC responded with its own special interest sections: Quality Service Contractors, Construction Contractor Alliance and the Union Affiliated Task Force. MCAA formed autonomous subsidiaries for plumbing contractor members (Plumbing Contractors of America) and commercial service firms (Mechanical Service Contractors of America).

None of these organizations existed 20 years ago. Some of them have created business education programs and management tools that are absolutely dazzling. Collectively, thousands more PHC contractors are exposed to best practices networks than was the case 20 years ago.

Are you better off now than then? By many miles.

An Immodest Proposal

Please forgive this display of immodesty, but I propose that PM also deserves credit for significantly boosting the stature of this industry over the last 20 years. I submit that no trade magazine in the history of this industry has identified and given voice to such a vast array of targeted expertise as we have.

Our lineup of regular contributors over the years reads like a Hall of Fame roster of industry notables present and past: Julius Ballanco, Frank Blau, the late Pat Higgins, Dan Holohan, Maurice Maio, Paul Ridilla, Ellen Rohr, John Siegenthaler, Rich Trethewey and the late Jack Thompson.

(I left off names of our newer columnists in deference to those who have graced our pages over a period of many years. I'm confident that a few years down the road the likes of Randall Hilton, Al Levi and Carol Fey will earn their place in this Hall of Fame through acclamation.)

What's behind this track record of attracting the best and the brightest? Three criteria explain it.

First, we have always been biased toward people who have gotten their hands soiled in this down and dirty industry of ours. Many management consultants with MBAs have tried to talk their way into writing columns for this magazine over the years. But we think our readers deserve better than textbook advice that may or may not be relevant to the peculiarities of PHC contracting.

The people named here all have worked in the fields they write about and have a track record of success.

Second, the people named here have done more than work in the field. To a person, they are passionate about their work. None of them is in it for the money alone, and that comes out in their writing and seminars.

Finally, none of them hangs his or her head in embarrassment about the hardscrabble industry in which they earn their living. They exude pride in being part of a field so many outsiders snicker at.

Expertise, passion and pride is a winning formula. For the last 20 years, PM has tried to transmit those virtues to the people who read our magazine. We thank you for listening to the message. And we admire all of you who have taken it to heart and helped make the industry a much better place than it was 20 years ago.

Reader Testimonials

Turned A Career Around
I first read PM in the early 1990s, and saw an ad for a Frank Blau seminar that I attended in Seattle in 1993. I met the Mr. Rooter representative there, and when Frank did an irrefutable job illustrating what our prices should be, he didn't address how to earn these prices. That's when I started talking to Mr. Rooter and eventually bought one of its franchises here in southern Oregon.

I continued to read Frank's column and bought his book. I can say now that PM was the first introduction into the new world of service plumbing (I'd always been in construction), and into my very rewarding franchise. I don't know that it would have happened without PM.

I'm grateful for the professional tone of the magazine. Thanks for the great effort.
-- Paul Cheirichetti, Mr. Rooter, Grant's Pass, Ore.

Provides Critical Input
I've found PM to be a “must” read for over 10 years. The magazine's in-depth coverage of plumbing, business and especially the hydronics articles, are first rate.

The wisdom shared by columnists such as Blau, Holohan, Rohr, Siegenthaler, Ridilla, Olsztynski, Levi, etc., have provided critical input to my business and technical education. I've enjoyed getting to know the PM staff over the years, and look forward to the continued success of the magazine. Happy Anniversary!
-- Paul Pollets, Advanced Radiant Technology, Seattle, Wash.

Tribute From A Former Staffer
I only had the pleasure to work in this industry for a little over eight years as a member of the Plumbing & Mechanical staff. (It took me that long to learn to spell Olsztynski!)

The day I started I knew that it was something special because of the people that made it work and the tradition of quality that had been handed down from the original team of Charlie Horton, George Zebrowski and Jim Olsztynski. The day I left, I knew that quality and tradition would continue.

Congratulations, PM magazine, on your first 20 years. I know the next 20 will offer more of the same to those that count on you to deliver their messages with professionalism and excellence.
-- John Schrei, President, Midwest Diagnostic Management(John was formerly publisher of Supply House Times magazine, and an advertising sales representative for PM. He left the staff in 2003 to become an executive in the healthcare industry.)

Source Of Knowledge
Have a question about the plumbing world and don't have an answer? I have always found that the easiest way to get the answer or be put on the right track is to call Jim Olsztynski. His knowledge of our industry is second to none and he has always been willing to help!
-- Georgiana Kipp, Executive Director, Plumbing & Mechanical Contractors Assn. of Northern Illinois

'Helping Hundreds Of Thousands'
I don't remember how I happened to discover PM, but I do recall that “The History of Plumbing” was the initial attraction.

At the time, I was a small contractor trying to figure out how to stay afloat. It seems so obvious now but back then, with absolutely no business training, I didn't understand that “the going rate” was not a universal cap on pricing.

Through PM, I met Frank Blau, who assured me that it was OK to charge enough to make a profit. Armed with that message, I not only sorted out my business problems, but I helped hundreds of individuals find a better way.

I would figure that PM has been improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals by helping business owners improve their businesses, making life better for their employees and families. Thank you, Plumbing & Mechanical, for your contributions to the industry!
-- Randall Hilton (now a PM columnist)

Most Useful Of All
PM is a great, practical magazine covering issues and topics important to the mechanical contracting industry. The fact that it will soon be celebrating its 20-year anniversary illustrates the value it is providing to our industry.

I have been reading the magazine for about 10 years. Frank Blau had some good nuts and bolts columns about operating a mechanical business. All of the current contributors are all-stars in this industry and provide useful information. I enjoy getting it every month and find it the most useful of all publications that I receive.

Congrats on 20 years!
-- Joe Green, P.E., CIPE, CEO, Greenco of Augusta Inc.

A Fan Since 1985
I started reading PM magazine in 1985 and have been a subscriber ever since. Back in those days my favorite articles were written by Jack Thompson. I was just learning to estimate and his articles on estimating were invaluable to me at the time.

But over the years the articles by Frank Blau, Paul Ridilla and Dan Holohan have given me much more insight to this industry along with a laugh now and then.

Sometimes Mr. Ballanco's columns seem more like an editorial than an informative column on plumbing technology, but even at that, his columns keep me in tune with the winds blowing in the world of plumbing code politics.

I enjoy Ellen Rohr's columns, too. Her columns sometimes bring a softer side to the plumbing industry and make a person think about how his or her actions can affect others.

And I always look at all the ads in the magazine. I have found so many new products that I have been able to put to use. I wish I had a dollar for every reader information card I have sent in over the years.

Keep up the good work. I hope you're around another 20 years from now.
-- J. Burk

A 900-lb. Gorilla
I consider PM the 900-pound benevolent gorilla of the trade journals. It is a must-read each month!

Attempting to select a favorite columnist would be difficult - paramount to being a mosquito in a nudist colony.
-- Jack Summey, Summey Plumbing & Heating Inc., Hendersonville, N.C.

'Showed Me The Light'
I credit PM with showing me the light - flat rate pricing. I was not a believer until I read an article about a plumber in my area that changed.

When I called the guy, he turned on the light. Haven't ever looked back.

Thanks PM, glad you are there.
-- Charlie Pankow, Floridian Plumbing, Fort Myers, Fla.

PM Is 'Kept On The Desk'
Some magazines are glanced over, and some are devoured cover to cover. I can truly say that Plumbing & Mechanical is a publication “kept on the desk” for a few weeks.

Although Dan Holohan's “wet heat” articles do not really affect the West Coast industry, his technical articles are very interesting. Frank Blau probably saved a few thousand contractors from certain doom with his no-nonsense overhead and profit ratio formulas.

One of my favorite contributors over the years was Mr. Patrick Higgins. Now there was a man that truly earned the term industry participant and activist. His passing was truly a sad day in our industry.

Finally, my favorite person of Polish heritage, Jim Olsztynski, who has dazzled the industry from the printed word to the televised medium to today's electronic distribution. Who could forget the “History of Plumbing” series or the “Things That Go Bump In The Night” stories?

The “word wizard” has been a major part of this industry, and his editorials over the years have made us laugh out loud when the words he had written hit home. My best to all.
-- Bob Purzycki, BAVCO, Los Angeles, Calif.