We often hear from contractor professionals in the plumbing and heating industry how difficult it is to find good skilled workers. Older workers are retiring and most young people are not flocking to the trades. As the construction industry shed jobs during the recession, many workers left the industry to find jobs elsewhere.

Progressive contractors such as Jim Steinle, president of Virginia Beach, Va.-based Atomic Plumbing, believe the best way to combat the labor shortage problem is to “grow” their own technicians through apprenticeship programs. Steinle, who started as an apprentice at Atomic Plumbing, is a firm believer in recruiting and teaching the next generation of plumbers.

A member of Nexstar Network and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association, Steinle uses their apprentice, technician and sales training classes to keep his technicians well-versed in cutting-edge technology as well as the latest sales and communication techniques.

With professional, knowledgable and personable technicians as the faces of the company, customer satisfaction can’t be far behind. And Atomic Plumbing’s customers are very vocal about their favorite Atomic tech — via social media, review sites and personal correspondence.

It’s for these reasons that Plumbing & Mechanical selected Jim Steinle and Atomic Plumbing as our inaugural Plumbing Contractor of the Year.


Teaching the plumbing trade

Atomic Plumbing has 11 service trucks and 22 employees — 11 plumbing technicians (Atomic also calls them plumbing mechanics), four plumbing apprentices, a warehouse manager, a service manager, an office manager, a dispatch specialist and two additional office personnel. The company focuses on residential and light commercial plumbing and drain-cleaning service and repair, as well as gas line work and backflow prevention.

While Steinle has hired some terrific techs — mostly from his competition — he believes the best way to get good technicians is to “grow his own.” His membership in PHCC gives Atomic Plumbing access to its apprentice and journeyman training materials. This includes online training as well as plumbing textbooks. Seven of the 11 plumbers went through PHCC’s apprenticeship training, including Service Manager Paul Keane, who Steinle is grooming to take over the business. Keane has been with Atomic for 21 years.

Warehouse Manager Rad Mitchellis a former plumbing inspector and apprentice instructor. “He really helps out with the younger apprentices,” Steinle says. “Rad spent 20 years as a Virginia Beach plumbing inspector, so he knows the codes in and out. He’s very good at answering questions for any of my techs or my helpers.”

Steinle is passionate about teaching the next generation in the plumbing trade because that’s what Atomic’s original owner, Jim Lane, did for him. He came to Atomic by way of the Virginia Beach Vo-Tech Center and the drain-cleaning business of his instructor, Paul Kunchman. Loaned out to Lane for a ditch-digging job, he began to go on service calls with one of Atomic’s techs.

After some uncertainty about who his true employer was, Steinle settled in at Atomic. Lane paid for him to attend PHCC’s apprenticeship training. Steinle worked his way up the company until, at 25 years old, Lane sold him 25% of the company.

“I felt super about it because now I felt like a piece of it was mine,” he recalls. “Now the nights, the weekends, the long hours I was working would pay off and eventually one day this would be mine.”

Lane died a year later, in 1986, and Steinle bought the rest of the company from his widow. But he didn’t know much about running a business. Steinle credits his father with helping him keep Atomic on course. Bill Steinlehad attended business school after retiring from the Navy and a civil service job. For the first dozen or so years, he came into the office every day and took care of the financial end of the business. When Jim wanted to spend money, Bill reminded he had supply house bills and taxes to pay.

“I went from being a mechanic one day to being a business owner the next,” he says. “I was and still am a good mechanic; I’m still working on being a good business owner.”

Steinle’s membership in Nexstar has taught him to be a better business owner through various systems and processes, as well as a peer group that keeps him accountable. But his dad still comes in a few times a week to help out when needed.

Lane’s example is something Steinle took to the heart; Atomic Plumbing keeps four apprentice plumbers on staff. Steinle pays for the training needed for apprentices to get through school and become journeyman plumbers as long as they pass the course, Keane says. Steinle intends to always have two techs in the first-year apprenticeship program so that when others finish school and move into a service truck, Atomic has at least one, if not two, apprentices available to continue.

Atomic is an employer of choice in the Virginia Beach area, known for its professionalism, high pay scale, and benefits such as health insurance and profit sharing. Apprentices Aron Gill Jr., Javier Gonzalezand Justin Rickerwere aware of Atomic’s reputation as being a great place to work, as well as its high reputation among homeowners.

Atomic Plumbing apprentices get a detailed career path. “After the first year of the apprenticeship program, they’re guaranteed to make a certain amount of money; after the second year, this amount; third year, this amount; and the fourth year, they’re guaranteed to top out at $18 an hour,” Steinle explains. “Most of my technicians and all my apprentices are above the pay scale that the apprenticeship sets.”

Apprentices are treated just like technicians, he adds. The first two days of employment are spent with him going through the operations manual and employee manual. Each apprentice and tech gets a job description and responsibilities so he knows what is expected of him.

 “When you teach them the right way to do the trade first, and then you teach them good customer service skills and just a little bit of work ethic, you get great employees,” Steinle says. “It makes it so much easier for us to grow to get better, not just bigger. We will get bigger from being better because of word of mouth. And because people want and are willing to pay for quality service. If we continue to provide that, people will continue to call us back and tell their friends.”

Atomic has increased its pool of technicians as the business has grown over the last 2 1/2 years, due in part to increased marketing such as TV and radio ads — as well as wrapping its service vans with the company’s distinctive logo. Business did slow during the recession but call count has been increasing steadily. In 2013, company revenues were $2.6 million. 2014 revenue estimates are just over $3 million.

Something Steinle has learned from Nexstar is how to recruit properly. He now understands it’s a year-long process; he can’t just look for people when his business needs extra help or when someone leaves. Asking the right interview questions and understanding what a prospect is looking for are just as important as what the company is looking for. Atomic is looking for people who want a career, Keane notes, not just something to do during the day.

“It’s tough to run your own business,” Steinle says. “And that’s the biggest mistake most good technicians make when they try to go into business for themselves. Most are truly excellent technicians, but they are terrible business people. They don’t understand what it takes and that’s what held me back for as long as it did. Nexstar and PHCC propelled me forward once I figured it out. You have to be able to step back, take a look at the processes and what’s going on, and that’s hard to do from a truck serving customers.”


Business of choice

Each Tuesday morning, Steinle, Keane and all Atomic’s techs and apprentices meet to discuss ongoing jobs, training issues and product questions — as well as customer letters, testimonials and reviews (Facebook and Yelp) from the previous week. Steinle reads each letter and review, and compliments the tech on a job well-done. The day I sat in on the meeting, he read 14 or 15 customer letters and reviews praising the work of Atomic’s technicians.

Nearly every week he has several to read, he says, and it’s important his techs know how they are doing — not only with the technical aspects of the job, but in communicating with customers and properly explaining the plumbing problem and solution.

Atomic receives many five-star and four-star reviews on its pages on Facebook and Yelp. Comments include phrases such as “thorough, completely knowledgeable, meticulous and professional,” “explained all our options and cleaned up after the work,” “quick response time,” “pricing was reasonable,” “plumber of choice,” “stand by their word,” “prompt and courteous when making appointment” and “pretty freaking awesome!”

The office staff has a key role in keeping customers satisified. Each morning at 10, dispatcher Tiffany Hansoncalls every customer on the call board and gives them an update — even if the appointment isn’t until 4 that afternoon. If customers provide an email address, she sends them a photo and bio of the technician.

“Customers are thrilled with the fact we’re staying in touch with them,” Steinle says. “It makes them think their problem is the only problem we have to deal with. And all our plumbing techs have business cards. My techs won’t walk into your house without putting on booties and handing you a business card.”

Of course, not every customer is happy with the service received from one of the company’s plumbers. But Atomic guarantees 100% customer satisfaction, so Steinle will call those customers and do whatever he can to make them happy — even if it means giving money back.

“If we’ve made a mistake or a tech failed to follow our procedures, we need to learn from it,” he explains. “I’m a fair guy; I always put myself in the customer’s position and make my decision based on that.”

 It all comes back to training. Steinle makes sure his apprentices have the requisite technical and sales skills before moving them into a truck as a technician.

“We don’t try to put somebody in a position where he doesn’t feel comfortable because that comes across to the customer,” he says. “He has to be confident in himself, the products and the services he’s selling.”

Every one of Atomic Plumbing’s technicians knows exactly why it charges $292 an hour. The labor rate is high compared to its competitors, but Steinle makes sure the staff understands that the $292 an hour pays for insurance, marketing, truck maintenance, tools, etc.

Again, marketing has helped Atomic grow. Before the TV and radio spots, Steinle says the company was getting about four to six calls a month from people who saw Atomic’s trucks. That number jumped to between 20 and 28 calls per month.

Steinle’s sister, Deanna Davis, is a customer service representative for Atomic. She worked in the health-care field for 19 years before joining her brother’s company. What she enjoys most is getting those letters and calls from customers and knowing she is helping make people’s lives better.

Service discounts are available for military personnel and senior citizens. And Atomic does not charge overtime for evening and weekend calls.

“We understand plumbing is not something that happens between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday,” Steinle explains. “We don’t want a customer to not call us or to not get something fixed because he wants to wait until the next day to save a few dollars. The only extra it costs me is the technician’s time, which is time and a half. If I’m running my business properly, I can eat that half a percent and still provide the same service to the customer for the same price and same quality.”

While Steinle mentors Keane on how to properly run a plumbing service business, he doesn’t plan on leaving the industry soon. Steinle still runs the national PHCC Apprenticeship Contest held during the annual convention, something he’s done for about a dozen years, and the state contest for almost 20 years. He enjoys talking to the apprentices, who are at the top of their class and the future of the industry.

“I love the area, I love the industry, I love what we do,” Steinle says. “My life is really good right now.”

View a video on Atomic Plumbing’s customer service philosophy (©Nexstar Network) at PMmag.com and in the January digital edition.