A natural fit at Thompson Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & Electric.

Rick Robinson, who heads up Thompson’s plumbing operation, stands with water treatment equipment the contractor keeps in inventory. Photo credit: Bob Miodonski/Plumbing & Mechanical

Thompson Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & ElectricPresidentWesley Holmviews water treatment as a natural extension of his residential service business. His HVAC company, founded in the 1920s in Cincinnati, added plumbing and drain cleaning eight years ago, water treatment two years ago and opened an electrical division in July 2012.

“We’re in the client service business. We just happen to do plumbing, heating, cooling, drain cleaning and now electrical as our business,” Holm says. “When we have more than one client ask us for a service, which was the case with water treatment, we need to fulfill their requests. Our vision statement says, ‘We improve people’s lives through the services we provide.’ We need to live up to that and educate our clients about what’s in their water.”

By Holm’s estimate, his company’s service specialists visit 30,000 homes per year. Thompson keeps 75 trucks on the road and has more than 100 employees in the field and office. The number of plumbers employed by the contractor will rise from 16 to 20 by the end of the year.

Thompson Plumbing, which started eight years ago, has revenue (not including HVAC) of $7.8 million and $2 million from sewer lining and replacement. Water treatment sales are included in the plumbing figure and will bring in about $600,000 this year.

Despite his background as an HVAC contractor, Holm has discovered an interesting phenomenon about his clients’ views on air and water.

“People are more attuned to clean water than to clean air,” he says. “They’re more concerned about what they drink than what they breathe.”

Rick Robinson, who heads up the plumbing department, says his plumbers can perform a physical test in clients’ homes so they can see what’s in their water.

“People can relate to what’s in their water,” he says. “They breathe air, but they don’t see it.”

Thompson’s five-year-old headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Water worries

Young mothers are particularly concerned about the hazards in the water entering their home, Robinson says. Contaminants in municipal water supplies include prescription drugs that have been flushed down a toilet, bacteria, ammonia, chloramines and other chemicals.

Chlorine, which utilities add to disinfect the water, can affect the taste and smell of the water. The chemical also can dry people’s skin and hair when they shower in treated water.

That’s why Thompson recommends that its clients take a whole-house approach to treat their water rather than a point-of-use filter at the kitchen sink. A whole-house system offers additional benefits such as extended life of plumbing products and appliances, streak-free dishes and whiter laundry.

“‘What does water treatment do for my health?’ That’s a big issue,” Holm says. “We ask our clients, ‘What do you want to take out of the water and what do you want left in?’ We also recognize that every house has a limited budget. With the systems we keep in stock, we will fulfill their needs.”

Thompson installs products from ProSystems, which manufactures its whole-house systems for plumbing contractors under the Harmony label. The Soft Harmony system addresses hard water caused by minerals while Whole Harmony removes chlorine. Complete Harmony takes care of hard water and chlorine. Treating water inside the home offers an added benefit to people who want to lead a green lifestyle, Holm says.

“We drink cases and cases of bottled water, and our landfills are full of water bottles,” he says. “We’re providing simple solutions for reusable water that are environmentally intelligent. Petrochemicals are used to make the water bottles so there are repercussions for our dependence on foreign oil as well.”

Pat Linhardt, hydronics manager for Corken Steel Products Co., makes use of Thompson’s large training room during a class for Thompson’s service specialists.

Taking the plunge

Robinson came to Thompson from another Cincinnati contractor eight years ago when Holm decided to expand his business into plumbing. Both men see water treatment as a natural fit for plumbing contractors, and also a missed opportunity for many companies.

“When water treatment was first introduced, plumbers resisted it because they didn’t understand it,” Robinson says. “That created the opportunity for other companies to come in and allowed people who know nothing about plumbing to work on our own systems.

“Plumbers today are resisting water treatment because they tell homeowners they don’t need to worry about their water.”

Holm adds: “Plumbers and water treatment go together. It’s a wonderful fit. The challenge is that most plumbers are not marketing savvy. They are out to fix a client’s problem in the cheapest way possible. We do what is in the best interest of our clients who want to know, ‘What are my options?’”

When Thompson went into the water treatment business, the initial monetary outlay was minimal, Holm says. Today, unlike most of its plumbing and HVAC products that are delivered daily to Thompson by local suppliers, the contractor keeps a quantity of water treatment systems in inventory to save on shipping charges. 

“The bigger investment has come in training and holding our people accountable to make sure they’re informing the client about water treatment,” Holm says. Training plumbers to install the systems takes one day, Robinson says. The most frequent question from them at the end of the day is how they can get a system in their own house.

Rick Robinson (left) stands with Mission Control Manager Sue Gullette and President Wesley Holm. P

“I’ve strongly encouraged them to do that because it makes it easier for them to explain the benefits of water treatment when they are enjoying cleaner, fresher, healthier water themselves,” Holm says. Trainers from ProSystems visit the contractor twice a year. Thompson rewrote the script for these sessions, Holm says, so the training’s focus is on client benefits rather than the technical aspects of the water-quality systems.

Thompson is a contractor that takes training seriously. The company’s new headquarters, built five years ago, is equipped with a large training room and a separate lab where service specialists can work on equipment.

Under the leadership of training directorAmanda Adams, all new service specialists take a course during their first week and must receive a passing grade on a video-recorded test on Friday before they are hired, Holm says. The video reveals how the service specialist interacts with the client at the front door and in the home.

Thompson tests all its field team members every 90 days, regardless of their experience level. Additional training may be prescribed if a service specialist has an encounter that leaves a client dissatisfied. “We do a written follow-up on everything,” Holm says. “If there’s an issue, we list what’s working, what’s not working yet and what the service specialist could have done differently. The action plan is the most important part, and it could involve training.

“We identify what’s going on and then execute an action plan so we don’t do the same thing again.” Clockwork Home Services named Thompson its Training Company of the Year five times. The contractor uses training materials from Plumbers’ Success International as well as the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association, being a member of both organizations.

A Jumbotron towers above Thompson’s HQs to inform motorists on I-75 of promotions and other specials. 

Brand marketing

Thompson uses radio, TV, billboards, social media, direct mail, its own YouTube channel, itswebsiteand a Jumbotron that towers over its headquarters just off I-75, the busiest highway in Cincinnati. Still, Holm insists his company uses none of these advertising vehicles to market his company’s water treatment business.

“If we market water treatment, most people don’t know what that is,” he says. “We don’t market water treatment per se just as we don’t market equipment sales in HVAC or any one thing. We market our services. That’s the key. If we do a fantastic job, clients will call us back regardless of whether it’s an HVAC, plumbing or water treatment job.

“A lot of our marketing is for brand awareness. Thompson is the only brand we market.”

Most of its water treatment systems are sold at point of sale in a client’s home. Along with the water-quality test that resembles what swimming pool owners use to test for chlorine and pH levels, the plumbers can use their iPads to show homeowners the Thompson-produced video “How Safe is the Water in Your Home?” featuring home-improvement expertGary Sullivanon itsYouTube channel.

“It’s a fairly simple presentation,” Holm says. “We’re informing them and showing them what is available. We offer them options and give them the ability to choose a basic water treatment system or something better. It’s their choice and, whatever they choose, we’ll do a wonderful job for our clients.”