Gene Love Plumbing & Air’s Tammy Ferris sees opportunities for women in a male-dominated industry. 

Gene Love Plumbing & Air’s management team (L-R): President Tammy Ferris, Sales Manager John Peevey, Marketing Manager Ashley Bryant and Service Manager Bobby Elvington. Photo credit: Scott Krause

WhenTammy Ferrismoved to Columbia, S.C., she needed a job. She was searching for the right opportunity to use her business degree and start her career. That’s when she came across a part-time job at Gene Love Plumbing as a night dispatcher.

That was in 1986, and Ferris never left the company to pursue a career elsewhere. In fact, she’s been there almost from the beginning. Company foundersKathyandGene Lovestarted their residential plumbing business in 1981 in West Columbia. Because of Ferris’ accounting background, Kathy Love began moving Ferris up the company ladder, first as office manager, then service manager, and then general manager and vice president.

Twenty years later, Ferris became the president and sole owner ofGene Love Plumbing, “retiring” the Loves by buying the company from them. “I didn’t really choose the plumbing industry,” she confides, “it chose me. I didn’t grow up in the industry. I had no family in it. But it’s been a very rewarding career for me.”

Tammy Ferris advises women who are considering plumbing and heating careers to get out into the field or work in the warehouse - whatever is necessary for them to advance in the industry.

Not surprisingly, she did encounter some prejudice against her gender during those early years, especially in her role as service manager. One of the Gene Love technicians didn’t like working with her, but she wasn’t offended by it. She knew that would be a possibility working in a male-dominated field.

“It was unusual for a woman to be active in the plumbing industry,” Ferris explains. “I don’t look like your typical technician. I’m a redhead, and I like to wear nice clothes and high-heeled shoes. But I didn’t let it bother me; I just stayed focused and determined to keep our customers satisfied. We contain and control water in people’s homes; I believe that is important work.”

Rarely does she come across that attitude today, but when she does, she has the same reaction - focus on solving the customer’s problem.

To help gain credibility with her techs and her customers, Ferris obtained her journeyman’s plumbing license in the late 1980s. While most of her time has been spent in the office working on the business, she also has spent time in the field alongside her plumbers. Ferris believes her license has helped her run the company and manage her team of service techs. She understands the issues they have to deal with every day because she’s been out in the trucks with them.

“I tell people that I could have gone out and sold shoes or something girly like that, but I get to be in an industry that helps protect the health and safety of our nation, something important,” she notes. “That’s pretty gratifying for me.”

The company’s ‘culture of accountability’ includes sales goals and incentive programs to keep plumbers and HVAC technicians focused. Sales Manager John Peevey reviews these sales goals with owner Tammy Ferris.

Focus on continued growth

Covering the greater Richland and Lexington counties of South Carolina, Gene Love Plumbing & Air not only has managed to maintain its profitability during the recent economic crisis, but it has grown.

“The biggest thing we’ve noticed is our customers’ buying habits have a changed a bit,” Ferris notes. “We’re fortunate, and thankful, that we’ve grown during the recession.”

Residential plumbing comprises 70 percent of the business, with HVAC services (which Ferris added after buying the company) taking up the remaining 30 percent. The company also added a sewer sales division; it can now offer its customers trenchless sewer and drain repair. And a recent addition, just in the last year, is geothermal heating and cooling.

“We’re always looking for new technology,” she says. These new services, plus flat-rate pricing, have set the company apart from area competition and helped it find new customers.

Finding out who those customers are and how to market to them is another key driver of Gene Love Plumbing’s growth.

“We know that our target customers are mostly women, so we market to women,” Ferris explains. “We know that women are time-starved today and that they’re doing many things with work and family. Our job is to help them consolidate their time and be there when they need us to be there.”

Gene Love Plumbing & Air has won 19 readers’ choice awards in the community for being the best plumbing company in the greater Columbia, S.C., area. Creating a fun work environment - with Worf from “Star Trek: Next Generation” looking on - helps.

Guidance from industry groups and professional associations helps Ferris and her management team - Sales ManagerJohn Peevey, Service ManagerBobby Elvingtonand Marketing ManagerAshley Bryant- find out what systems really work to reach the company’s target customers. Putting Ferris’ image on the company’s 14 trucks was part of a marketing idea by the company’s media team that seems to resonate with customers.

The company’s service plan program gets Gene Love techs in customers’ homes several times a year checking various plumbing and heating systems. “This helps our customers be proactive so they don’t have to react to problems when they happen,” Ferris notes. “It saves them time and stress.”

Ferris credits the company’s 15-year membership in Nexstar with keeping profitability up. The peer connections, the coaches and the systems keep her and her management team focused.

“In the early days when Kathy and I attended Nexstar meetings, we’d be the only women there,” she laughs. “Back then, she and I ran the business. We supported each other, in the business and at industry meetings. A woman who was a sole owner attending such events may have experienced more prejudice than we did.”

Attend any of those meetings today and you will see plenty of women. They may not be turning pipe wrenches, but they are keen to learn more about keeping their plumbing and heating businesses at the top of their markets.

Not only are more women turning up at Nexstar meetings, they are turning up on the board. Ferris is the first female to chair the best practices group’s board of directors. “That’s a source of pride for me,” she says. “I think it’s important to have women on the board.”

Marketing Manager Ashley Bryant helps target the company’s marketing campaign to the largest part of its customer base - women.

A culture of community

The employees at Gene Love Plumbing & Air like to give back to their community, often donating time and expertise to people in need. Technicians may identify a customer in need while on a service call, and the company will donate the time and materials to complete the repair. This includes plumbing upgrades and repairs, sewer cleaning, and furnace and air-conditioning installations.

“We love to keep people comfortable in their homes; I think that’s a great accomplishment,” Ferris says. “We’ve won 19 readers’ choice awards in our community for being the best plumbing company.”

The company partners up with a local charity, Pets Inc., which rescues and finds homes for stray animals or pets that have been abandoned, by contributing money as well as helping in its fund-raising efforts.

“Our vision is to have a positive impact on our customers, our environment and our employees, and I think that resonates with people,” Ferris says.

That vision helps Ferris keep her employees. The “culture of accountability” is necessary to keep the company focused on keeping customers satisfied and increasing company profits, but the “culture of fun” is also a part of the company. Monetary incentives to meet or exceed sales goals and company social events help in creating both sides of Gene Love’s company culture.

While Ferris doesn’t see hurdles in running her business, she does admit that the “fading workforce” can be a challenge. Attracting young people into the plumbing and HVAC fields is an industry priority, even with the slump in construction. As more people stay in their older homes, service techs are needed to maintain and replace older equipment and systems.

Recruiting good workers is an ongoing endeavor, so the Gene Love Plumbing trucks usually have a blurb on the back telling prospective employees that if they want to work in a fun, positive culture, they can apply for a job at the company website, Company employees also are good ambassadors for anyone looking for work, and many employees were brought in by other employees.

Does Ferris have any advice to women entering the plumbing and heating industry?

“Be patient, be diligent, be willing to get in a truck or the warehouse,” she says. “Be willing to do what you have to do to get ahead in the industry. There are some good opportunities in this industry. It’s not boring, and it’s not just for men. I absolutely have no regrets getting into this industry.

“We are good stewards of our environment, we help protect the health of our nation by working with water, air and energy. That makes me feel good, and it’s a great benefit for my customers.”