Women In Plumbing: 'You Still Have To Prove Yourself'
“I’ve always enjoyed getting my hands dirty; it felt natural,” explains Susan Perlstein Tavares, third-generation owner of Trenton, N.J.-based plumbing contracting firm Frank Perlstein & Son. “I’m the third of three girls, but I felt like my father’s son. I loved working with my dad.”
Tavares left college in 1974 to help her father, Lester Perlstein, with the business after his heart attack. Following him through two floors of cluttered rooms filled with old and obsolete plumbing parts, she learned how each part of each fixture worked. Thirty-five years later, she still surprises people who walk into the retail counter of the business with her knowledge of these vintage items.
“People ask me, ‘How do you know this stuff?’ and I tell them it’s genetic,” she says.
The company has long had a reputation for stocking those hard-to-find items. Even the local big-box retailers send customers to Perlstein for 100-year-old faucet parts or toilet seats and sinks in discontinued colors. PM’s own Jim Olsztynski wrote about Perlstein and the company’s repair parts business back in July 1985 (“The Many Parts Of Perlstein”).
After the article was published, Tavares says, the company received calls from all over the country - it even shipped toilet parts to Alaska. Today, the Internet has helped Perlstein’s repair parts business continue to flourish. And parts are being added to the inventory continuously.
“That’s really our specialty, the retail part of the business,” she states. “If somebody needs it, they need it now, and we’re very knowledgable about these old parts.”
When her father died in 1986, Tavares was faced with the loss of her mentor - and, possibly, the loss of the business he had helped grow.
New Jersey state law requires that owners of plumbing contracting firms be licensed as a master plumber. Tavares wasn’t, and neither was anyone else in the company. She had all the business qualifications needed and was able to get an extension on her dad’s license for six months. However, the company’s creditors, believing that a woman could neither pass the master plumber test nor run a plumbing firm, began demanding immediate payment.
Unable to get a second license extension, she recalls her dad’s PHCC friends encouraging her to take the exam and committing themselves to help her study. She urged Carl Mathews, who had started at Perlstein the same time Tavares did, to also take the exam, in case she didn’t pass the first time.
As has happened to other readers of this magazine, Tavares failed the master plumber’s exam on her first try. A few months later, Mathews failed on his first try. But the second time was the charm as both of them scored passing grades.
'Isn't There Anyone Else Here?'When Tavares began working with her dad full time in 1974, people would walk up to the repair parts counter and ask to speak to someone about a specific part or fixture. When she tried to help, some people insisted on talking to someone else.
Her gender can still be an issue with some people, older men in particular. And she recalls talking to telemarketers who want to talk to Frank or his son. When told that neither is available, the telemarketers ask to speak to the owner. “You’re speaking to her.” Then she hears a dial tone as they hang up.
Despite this, Tavares says the attitudes of most Perlstein customers have changed.
“I’ve been in people’s faces for 35 years,” she notes. “Now I’m the one they want to talk to. It’s my name on the door. But I’ve also learned a lot over the years.” One recent customer, amazed at how she could tell what was wrong with a faucet part just by taking a look at an image on his cell phone, told her she should have her own TV show.
“It’s a game a lot of my customers like to play,” she laughs. “They’ll flash a part at me, put it back in their hand, ask me what it is and see if I can figure it out.”
As for her employees, only one had a problem with her taking over the company. “He started working here before I was born,” she notes. “My dad died the end of December and this guy had a problem with the fact that I was now his boss. By February he was gone.”
Despite her plumber’s license, Tavares doesn’t work in the field. She employs two journeyman plumbers for fieldwork and has one project manager. She and Mathews work together overseeing the company’s management and growth. (Mathews is semi-retired now but is in the office three days a week.)
As frequently is the case with plumbing contractors, Tavares wears many hats. As a merchandising contractor, she spends a portion of her time at the parts counter, surprising customers as she comes up with just the right part for that vintage bathroom lav. But she also looks at blueprints, bids work, pulls permits and gathers items together for invoicing as well as visits the jobsites.
“It’s good for morale, the fact that I care what my guys do,” she explains. “Most of my guys have been with me for a pretty long time. I know that if I go out to the jobsite, if somebody’s got an issue, he’ll talk with me about it.”
The service segment of the business is about 70 percent of Perlstein’s revenue and includes many of the high-rise apartment buildings in and around the city, with second- and third-generation customers.
Perlstein has landed some large industrial jobs (local sewer and water treatment plants), as well as the fire sprinkler system in the New Jersey State House during restoration of its gold dome.
Tavares says that some of the state jobs the company bids require certain certifications. Frank Perlstein & Son has a New Jersey classification as a small business enterprise as well as a women business enterprise. The company has bid on small business enterprise opportunities, but Tavares has not yet seen a women business enterprise opportunity.
However, she always lists both certifications in her bid package. “If the results are close, you never know what might tip the scale,” she explains.
She believes the primary reason the company has stayed in business for 101 years is the Perlstein name. “I have good guys that work for me and we deliver quality service,” she says. “Being a union shop, they have access to many different training courses, and we encourage them to attend.
“But the majority of people in the city of Trenton know the name Perlstein and the fact that we do quality work.”
A Changing IndustryFrank Perlstein & Son has seen changes in the industry in the last century, and Tavares has witnessed many changes in the past 35 years. The big-box stores that are so prevalent today didn’t exist on the East Coast back then; now there are 10 to 12 in her area.
Inventory has also shifted over the years. Where once PVC pipe and fittings were squirreled away in the back because they didn’t sell, now those items are moved up in front. Copper pipe makes way for PEX tubing, black pipe makes way for flexible gas piping.
Of course, the Internet has changed the way we buy and sell items, or research contractors and schedule service. Perlstein’s repair parts business owes much of its growth to the World Wide Web.
“My dad would have loved the Internet,” Tavares muses. “He was a gadget guy.”
One of the changes in the industry he wouldn’t like, she notes, is how simplified some of the products have become.
“It’s getting to where you don’t have to solder anything now, you just crimp it together,” she says. “When my guys go out on a job, I don’t want to see flexible supplies unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you bend it, it’s a much neater, more professional-looking job. It’s sort of job security; homeowners are going to look at flexible supplies and think they can replace it themselves. But if it’s a chrome tube that’s bent, they’ll want to call you back. If people see a nice-looking job, they want to keep it that way.”
Tavares also is concerned about code compliance and health issues. How do you know homeowners, or your local handyman, are installing things correctly? And what about insurance if something goes wrong?
“My guys can go out on a job and, God forbid, they mess up,” she says. “There’s a leak somewhere and there’s damage. My business insurance is going to take care of it. But if an uninsured handyman does the work and you have a leak, your ceiling falls down and it ruins your carpeting, it’s your home-owner’s insurance that’s going to pay for it. People don’t think about that.”
One positive change in the industry for Tavares is that more women are entering the plumbing and heating trades. But she cautions women hoping to help “protect the health of the nation.”
“You still have to prove yourself,” she explains. “It’s definitely still a man’s industry. It’s tough work; you have to really want to do it. But if you enjoy it, I’d say go for it.”
More On Frank Perlstein & Son:Susan
is the granddaughter of Frank Perlstein,
who established Frank Perlstein &
Son back in 1908 when Trenton was a bustling manufacturing city filled with
steel, tile and ceramics factories, hundreds of commercial operations, and many
apartments and homes - all needing the services of a good plumber and gas
Building A Company To Last
Frank filled the bill. He started out by sending his employees to jobsites by horse-drawn cart and later by trolley car. Since trolley lines crisscrossed the city, it was a good way to get to the job. But in order to bring pipe along, Frank used some ingenuity. He had two employees board the trolley, sit several feet apart and extend their arms out the window to cradle a section of pipe that other employees would lift up to them.
When Frank established the business - and its name - he hoped his son Sam would join him and eventually carry on the tradition. Sam proved unsuited to the work, but his younger brother, Lester, was a natural. When World War II ended, Lester, who had served as an Army supply sergeant, began working as the “and son” in the business. At the same time, he pursued an engineering degree at Rutgers. When Frank died in 1950, Lester succeeded his father as owner.
Lester expanded the service side of the business and also developed its retail store by continuing his father’s practice of stocking up on the plumbing fixtures and parts he knew people would need to keep all the sinks, tubs, showers and toilets operating in Trenton’s factories, businesses and homes. He was a good businessman and a good plumber - one who strongly advocated education, training and professionalism for the trade.
The Lester Perlstein Outstanding Service Award is given out in his memory to honor the plumber who demonstrates these qualities. He became active at the local level in the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors association and rose in its ranks, eventually serving on the association’s national board of directors in Washington, D.C. His wife, Jean, was a moral support to the business. She became very active in the PHCC Auxiliary, serving many times as an officer.
Although Lester had no son to assume his role, his daughter Susan took up the family tradition. One of three girls, she left college in 1974 to help out in the business when Lester suffered a mild heart attack. She worked side-by-side with her father, learning the functions of all the parts and fixtures that filled the boxes and shelves throughout numerous rooms (and a second floor) of the business at 815 South Broad St.
Susan has followed her parent’s example and has been very active in local and national PHCC associations, serving on many committees. In fact, she was the New Jersey PHCC’s first woman president.
Teen Town: Entertaining The Kids At PHCCSusan Perlstein Tavares has been attending PHCC conventions since 1969. She’s missed a few, she admits, but always had fun when she did attend.
“When I was kid, part of the national convention was called Teen Town. At Teen Town they had professional people - basically babysitters - that entertained us, and took us on trips while our parents were at conventions and meetings.
“My sisters had no interest in going to the conventions. But I was always busy - I’d leave notes in my parents’ room saying where I was going or that I needed money. They’d have to make an appointment with me or I’d never see them!
“I have friends from all over the country - a good friend of mine is still in Arkansas; I’ve got friends in Las Vegas and two New Jersey guys who are still in the association - and we grew up together in Teen Town.
“We talk about how much fun we always had at PHCC conventions.”