What Contractors Are Like

I read with great interest Jim Olsztynki’s editorial “What Are Contractors Like?” (September 2007). I have been in the contracting business since 1957 and spent 10 years with a wholesale company before that.

I felt then as I do now that three very important things in this business of contracting are “relationships, relationships and relationships.”

We did share information with other contractors at local association meetings, but not until after we gave one of the low bidders in the group the usual, “I don’t know how he can do it for that price” - unless, of course, we were the low bidder. Sometimes this was the case and sometimes it was not. But nonetheless, we did talk about problems and did get some suggestions.

I made it a point to pick up and return plans to the architect and engineer to get better acquainted and also find out what else they were working on. It was very common when I picked up plans from general contractors that one of their guys would say, “As long as you’re here, take a look at this.” I could have sent our truck driver, but this seemed like a great opportunity to meet and greet important people.

Before the term “profit center” was invented, the only profit center we had was the bottom line for the company at the end of the year. Relationships with the bank and bonding company were extremely important, and we kept it as personal as possible.

The best bonding agent I ever knew said the financials were important, but he put a lot of emphasis on knowing the contractor and his company. As a result, he issued some bonds when the financials didn’t justify it, but never to his regret. I still know him well and never hesitate to send referrals.

On the other hand, we went to our bank one year after more than 25 years of doing business there. After some small talk, our bank officer said the bank had a new computer program to profile its customers. Our “grade” said we would now have to sign personally for our line of credit. The bank had grown into a larger regional bank and lost the personal touch we had enjoyed.

Within a matter of days, we moved our account to a locally owned bank and it’s been there for the past 20 years.

I’ve watched contractor personnel argue for weeks and months over a change order that wasn’t really justified and then finally give up after alienating an architect, engineer or customer. It helped us tremendously if we discussed the change order with the engineer ahead of time so that he wasn’t blindsided and could help us work things out.

I gave up on many justified change orders rather than jeopardize a relationship. Many times another opportunity would arise that would help cover my first request.

We had great relationships with suppliers, manufacturers reps and subs because we treated them fairly, and they knew it. We did not abuse “back charges” and used them to cover our costs rather than serve as a profit center. We talked it out ahead of time.

When blessed with the opportunity to negotiate a contract, I was very selective with whom I got involved. One greedy guy in the mix could ruin it for the rest of us. Someone once said, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” The hell you can’t.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think we were fairly typical of the contractors in our area. I know a little bit about a lot of things, a lot about a few things, but consider myself an expert when it comes to knowing what contractors are like.
Jack Ryan
Omaha, Neb.

I enjoyed reading “What Are Contractors Like.” While reading through it, I couldn’t help but think that about 95 percent of all the plumbing contractors, mechanical contractors and service contractors who I have met over the years have one other thing in common - they are fair!

Show a contractor real value, and he’ll treat you fairly. Appreciate the value they provide, and they’ll treat you fairly. Show them that you understand their goals and objectives, and they’ll treat you fairly. Finally, listen when they have issues, problems or need support, and they’ll treat you fairly.
Dana Severs
Delta Faucet Co.
Indianapolis, Ind.

Women In Plumbing

It was nice to hear about women in the plumbing industry while reading Ellen Rohr’s column “Something Old, Someone New” (September 2007). When I was 13, my parents bought the local Roto-Rooter from their friends. That summer, my dad survived a series of strokes, but was left unable to personally service customers’ homes.

I started out answering phones and scheduling calls, and through the years I helped with the accounting and day-to-day office work.

The biggest hurdle we face has been finding servicemen. Back in 2005, we were struggling with our one and only full-time serviceman. We couldn’t get rid of him since we didn’t have anyone else to do the work. I didn’t have the strength (so I thought), but I did know customer service and how to diagnose plumbing problems.

Luckily, we had an older, part-time serviceman who was willing to train me, at the very least to be a helper on the truck. After about six months, I was confident about being able to do the work; however, the 250-pound sewer machine was a bit much to handle. Ninety-eight percent of our work is drain cleaning and most of that is sewer cleaning. So we bought a full-sized sewer machine that breaks down into two pieces.

Now, I’m the full-time service“man.” Never before have we ever had so many requests and compliments for one particular serviceman. I love what I do. Most of my customers are surprised when they see me. I love when I get a macho, male chauvinist who wonders whether I can do the job. The greatest feeling in the world is either showing that guy I can do my job or going to a house after a big, strong guy couldn’t fix the problem - and fixing it for him.
Stephanie Suzor
Twin Lakes, Minn.

Time Waits For No One

I could not have said it better myself than Ellen Rohr did in her column “Crafting Your Calendar” (August 2007). I have been a Daytimer, Palm Pilot and Outlook fan for years, and I use them methodically. Her advice is very sound, and it’s necessary for the retention of sanity.

Here is one tip I have learned, and I encourage my managers to use it: Schedule at least two hours per week, at the beginning of the week, for “strategic time.” That is time used to think from 10,000 feet about your work and the business. I tell them to close their doors and get mentally disconnected from the day-to-day activities. I encourage them to treat it as seriously as a doctor’s appointment. Don’t cancel or miss the appointment unless you would cancel a doctor’s appointment for the same reason.
Brad Martin
Scottco Mechanical Contractors Inc.
Amarillo, Texas

No More Potty Humor

While I have enjoyed both the humor and education in Dan Holohan’s numerous books and articles over the years, I must take exception to his recently penned missive in PM (“Side-Wipers Unite!” July 2007).

His expertise in heating is renowned; however, this article is contrary to his continued promotion of improvements in technology. Electronics in plumbing are growing significantly every year. Their use is not designed to confound the public, but rather to provide a clean, safe and vandal-resistant facility.

There are several factors driving the growth of the product. Because of the fear of disease, the public no longer uses the manual products. They either leave the bowl unflushed or activate the valve with their foot. Dan’s many articles on heating mishaps could never compare with the damage I have seen as a result of the valve being kicked too hard, even to the extent of breaking a supply pipe.

With regard to electronic faucets, the water savings over a manual valve is significant. The chances of flooding is nonexistent compared to people leaving the manual valves on

Dan has been a strong supporter of contractor education within the heating field. May I suggest the same research within the plumbing field? We, as a company, have conducted many seminars for the contractor in both the installation and setup of the product. Most of the product issues are not with the function of the product, but rather with the programming of the electronics after installation.

Dan would have been better served by learning about the hydraulics of a plumbing system and promoting to your readers the same need for education in plumbing electronics as you do for radiant heating.
Stephen F. Deely
Edwards, Platt & Deely
North Babylon, N.Y.

I am a retired plumbing and heating contractor who is well aware of toilets, urinals and bidets, as well as their functions. I also have heard all the jokes that go along with these devices. But I take offense when I am subjected to base, raw humor such as Mr. Holohan exhibited in his article of July 2007 (“Side-Wipers Unite!”). I would probably expect to see that in Hustler or some other rag of that caliber if I did read these periodicals, but not in what is supposed to be a professional magazine designed to lift the standards of the plumbing and heating industry.

You keep telling us to raise our standards and to raise the bar, and then this. The story is so vulgar that it doesn’t have any humor attached, in my opinion. In no way am I a prude; in fact, probably quite the opposite.
Just one reader’s opinion.
Chuck Garot
Naples, Fla.