Let's get right to the point: C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co. is unique in this business.

Not only has it survived - and thrived - to reach its 100th anniversary, it has done so serving a city that is known for its “windy” politics and projects. Add to those accomplishments the fact that the company hasn't diverted its focus to HVAC, piping or fire protection, but continues to be a union plumbing shop, just as Carl Joseph “Joe” Erickson intended back in 1906. Topping off its uniqueness, the company has reached year 100 with an Erickson at the helm each year, and is now into its fourth generation.

When only three percent of all family businesses operate past the third generation, one can definitely say that C.J. Erickson Plumbing and its family are doing something right, and their secrets to success are ones we can all learn from.

“The industry is constantly changing,” says current CEO Bill Erickson on the company's longevity. “We don't let opportunities pass us up.”

But first, some history, because everyone knows you can't know where you're going until you've seen where you've been.

Starting Off Right

Joe Erickson came from Sweden to Chicago in 1906. His dream, as an accomplished plumber, was to open his own plumbing shop, which he did soon after signing with Plumbers Local 130. C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co. grew rapidly through World War I and on to the 1920s. Joe had a commitment to quality and innovation during a time when, let's face it, indoor plumbing itself was an innovation.

Joe took things to the next level of service. His “plumbing shop on wheels” concept helped get the company through the tough times of the Depression. These service vehicles were Erickson's fleet of modified pie delivery trucks that carried plumbing tools, product and equipment, and helped keep the Erickson name in front of customers. You could always count on seeing an Erickson service truck on the road.

Even from these early years, C.J. Erickson Plumbing insisted that innovation, skill and the latest technology be a part of its operating philosophy.

Fast forward to the end of World War II. Norman Erickson joined his father in the business in 1946 after his service in the military. By this time the company had outgrown its original location and moved to more spacious accommodations, which was good because the housing boom hit around the same time, and the Chicago bungalow neighborhoods were popping up everywhere.

Like modifying pie trucks, Norm continued his father's commitment to innovative business practices and fulfilled a need for the city by initiating the use of movable bucket backhoes to assist in restricted area excavations. This gave the company an edge and built long-lasting relationships with the city.

The Erickson headquarters moved again to south suburban Alsip, Ill., in 1975, where it remains today with the third and fourth generations managing the business. Bill Erickson, along with son Matt Erickson, continue Joe's legacy of business innovation, and sustain a company that's a pleasure to work with, as well as work for.

PM recently asked the current Erickson family - and its extended family of executives - what it feels like to be involved in a century-old plumbing business.

“It's a dream come true, actually,” Bill tells us. “In this city, the Erickson name stands for quality and dependability. And I'm just glad I haven't screwed it up.”

A definite perk of business longevity is name recognition, and Matt agrees that when people know your 100-year-old name - in a good way - it certainly helps when dealing with customers and city officials.

“Erickson Plumbing Co. has a team of competent managers that have developed relationships in the right places, ones that have spanned decades. That helps, especially in the permit process,” Matt says. The company's “brand” name gives it instant access to decision-makers; gets their foot in the door.

“Then the hard part starts,” Bill notes.

City Projects

Working in Chicago and its surrounding area can be tough. Chicago is an exciting city. A dynamic city. It experiences highs and lows economically, but you can always count on fun and interesting projects to mix things up. Chicago is an old city, too. But not that old architecturally, since most of the city was rebuilt following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

In the early years it was an industrial town, and still is in many parts. But it switched gears to booming big business and grew into its famous skyline within a few decades. Filled with renowned hospitals, universities and museums, the city is vibrant. Most recently, a rebirth of residential high-rises along the Chicago River, and neighborhood renovations, have spawned an influx of people to the downtown area. Parkland and convention space have been revamped - and it all needs plumbing and piping, which is where Erickson comes in.

Go down the list of buildings and projects the company has worked, Erickson's President Jim Smith tells us, and you'll get the feeling of how Erickson is tied to the city's history as it worked to build its own.

And what goes around comes around. The company worked in the original Chicago Sun-Times printing building back in the mid-1950s. It has since been torn down to make room for Trump Towers, which Erickson will have a hand in as it's constructed. Remember the bungalows? It helped build them back in the 1940s; now Erickson is part of their renovation.

Bill recounts a story of one of Erickson's customers, the University of Chicago, where in the early 1970s the company provided ultra-pure water to wash moon rocks. Being in the right place at the right time, he was invited to touch the specimens - through industrial latex, of course.

“How many people can say they touched the moon?” he says with pride that his company was involved in such history-making events.

But it's an unseen contribution, the nature of the plumbing business. “It may be cliché,” Bill says, “but plumbers protect the health of the nation, and that's a noble cause.”

Expand Your Mind

So what is the secret to success at C.J. Erickson Plumbing Co.? Well, it is no secret, actually; it is a legacy.

Like Joe, the current Erickson generations don't let opportunities pass them by, especially when it involves new technology and education. As a union shop, the company makes a conscious decision to devote time and funds to education in particular, whether at outside venues or in-house at the headquarters' recently renovated training room. The Erickson training room fits more than 50 people, and is well-lit with wireless hook-ups for computer visuals, as well as old-fashioned dry-erase boards and easels.

Creating this room for his employees is “a proactive step to our company's continued education,” Bill says.

Erickson cross-trains its personnel and promotes from within. The union guys in the field start as apprentices, but they're introduced to multiple things, explains Smith. “We train them to be well-rounded. Continuing education is very important.”

Seminars and training programs from affiliates like MCAA and PHCC's Construction Contractor's Alliance are also paid for or subsidized by the company.

“Erickson invests in education,” Smith emphasizes, and the company makes it accessible. Sometimes training is done on the clock, but if it's not practical, due to project schedules, it's offered at night. The company encourages people to attend courses on their own, too, with some employees going back to college and being reimbursed by Erickson. “Education is addressed almost weekly,” Smith says.

The company also takes advantage of its long-term employees by using its elder tradesmen as teachers and mentors to the younger workers. Oppositely, the elders learn from the younger ones on newer innovative projects and procedures. “We draw from experiences on all levels,” Bill says.

Erickson also prides itself on its safe and secure working environment, especially for women and younger workers. Pre-employment screening has been instituted. The company also made the decision to drug test new hires and works closely with the Local 130 Plumbing Industry Drug-Free Alliance Program. It's proud to say it has a drug-free workforce. “Creating this safe environment allows and encourages employees to exceed and excel when those types of issues are off the table,” explains Bill.

And while finding the help it needs is always a problem, even for a company as established as Erickson, the company's name and track record help attract a quality workforce. “People want to come to work here,” Bill notes, adding that, as availability nationwide is dwindling, the quality of workers becomes more important.

Erickson's key to a healthy stream of workers? Keep your employees happy in order to keep them away from the competition. “Do the right thing in the field and in the office,” Bill advises. “Not because it's mandated by insurance, but because it's the right thing to do.”

Leading Edge

Another area where Erickson differentiates itself from competition is in applying new business practices, tools and procedures. New ideas in general are not discouraged by any means. “We've never said we couldn't try something just because it's new,” says Bill.

The management teams and the powers that be try their best to address each issue. They meet by committee and discuss whether a new technology will help or hinder their company. “We don't have any patents on anything,” Bill says about the updates the company has made to the way it's done business, “but we've always been on the leading edge of new business practices.” Some recent business/technology innovations in use by the company include computer-aided estimating and project management systems, lean construction models, safety training, prefabrication, new piping methods, a "paperless" office, and more.

Smith marvels at the younger generation especially, who “get” computers and are comfortable with new technology from the word go. He remembers when it was difficult just getting used to the fax machine and copiers. Now managers carry BlackBerry® or two-way radios for instant access as their customers expect a quicker rate of exchange.

The very culture of the company is reflected in its approach to new technology. It's what it does relentlessly, what it's always done: pursue things that change, whether it's tools, products or systems - from Norm's backhoes in the 1950s to taking advantage of new compressors on the market today.

“If you don't pursue the things that make your business faster, easier, better, safer, you get left in the dust,” Bill tells us. “I'm proud to say - as an 'old guy' - that I've embraced change … or at least kept my mouth shut about it. You can't have a fear of innovation or trying something new. You have to be excited about change and always look to the next idea.”

All In The Family

Here is another company “secret.” Reaching 100 years wouldn't have been possible for C.J. Erickson Plumbing without its family. We're not talking just the namesakes, though; the generational portion of the company doesn't end with the Ericksons.

Smith is a 32-year veteran himself and had three daughters work in the business. On the executive management team, George Seline and his father have been involved for more than 50 years. Siblings and children of employees return again and again for a chance to work for Erickson, and it has been a major contribution to the extended-family feel of the work environment.

“There are advantages to working with family,” says Matt, regarding the way he and his father get along on the job. “We're lucky. We have a good relationship to start with. There's a pride in the generational aspect of the job.” Matt's wife Shawn also works for the company on its executive management team as a vice president. He notes that family has a built-in trust and loyalty position. There is also a healthy dose of self-motivation to see the business succeed and work through the hard times to see new developments grow the company.

The size of Erickson and the volume it produces is unusual for a family plumbing business. But while it has more than 120 employees and posts nearly $25 million in revenue, it still has, at its heart, a smaller-sized family involved. Larger families with children with a stock in the business can become fragmented - the pyramid effect, or too many cooks spoiling the stew.

Experts on family business will tell you that clearly defined roles among family members within a company help make it viable into future generations, whether passed down to one child or multiple children. And it's crucial, but not always practical, to leave the office out of private life.

“We see each other every day,” says Bill about his professional and private relationships with Matt and Shawn. They try to make it a priority to treat each other differently. “You have to leave business at the office.” But he admits it's still hard not to talk about the big projects off company time.

Looking back through Erickson history, Matt has learned much from his ancestors' approach to business. Specifically, the value placed on relationship-building, which he will take with him through the next decades.

“Throughout the whole customer process, it all comes down to establishing relationships with a client,” Matt says. “Maybe 10-15 years ago the industry got away from relationships and was more concerned with bottom-line price and not quality. But the big reason Erickson is still around is its developed relationships and continued commitment to quality and service.”

Matt also has watched the way his father treats and manages his employees. Bill is willing to delegate, he says. He's willing to trust and take chances.

“Don't be afraid to hire someone smarter than you,” Bill interjects.

He learned from his father as well.

“Dad was an expert at customer relations,” Bill tells us. And while it's hard to build your business on a barstool these days, that was the way Norm Erickson connected to his customers. “Now we're in a transition: somewhere between barstool and computer screen.” The higher speed of exchange is a necessity nowadays, and you can't go back. Customers require and expect it, and are helped by computers and e-mail and instant access devices, Bill says, but it doesn't leave a lot of time to sit and create relationships.

“But that's the fun part, and the lasting part, and shouldn't be overlooked. It's just finding a way to juggle your company's priorities with the customer's expectations.”

Next 100

What's in store for C.J. Erickson as it turns the century corner? In the immediate future, the company will give back to the community that has welcomed it for 100 years. More than job security has been passed down through the generations. A sense of stewardship is embedded in the culture of C.J. Erickson, and it has a year-long centennial anniversary celebration planned, which involves participation in the St. Patrick's Day Parade with employees and their families; a Mother's Day charitable event; company picnics and local business charity collaborations; as well as community-building efforts that offer volunteer assistance to those in need.

As for the future, Bill believes the industry is limitless. “Don't be complacent: go where the opportunities are.” He predicts the next decade should be fun. And since “fun” for Ericksons means embracing change and shaking things up, the industry's movement toward conservation, sustainable construction, fortified construction, fire protection, etc., will keep the company on its toes.

“A switch to a total building system will be exciting,” he offers. “Cross-training of trades and jurisdictions, such as in wiring for systems; a bigger emphasis on affiliations and trade journals and shows for informational networking.” There's a light in his eye as he speaks about the possibilities.

Matt reflects on his father's predictions, perhaps thinking of the future with regard to his own young son and daughter at home. “As long as there's a willingness to be involved in the business and industry, the Erickson family will continue to be a part of it,” he says.