Like many people, Josh Savage had a different view of the world after Sept. 11, 2001. He joined the Minnesota Army National Guard as a heavy equipment operator after the horrific terrorist attacks. He met his wife, Sheree Savage, who was in the National Guard’s Engineering Unit, while both were attending officer training school.
At the time, owning Minneapolis-based Uptown Plumbing, Heating & Cooling was not in their plans.
While studying to become an engineering officer, 23-year-old Josh Savage served in Afghanistan and in Operation Iraqi Freedom, leading 42 soldiers in construction missions to build combat outposts for U.S. troops. In Baghdad, they built 100,000 sq. ft. of structure, installed 300 water heaters, 1 mile of plumbing pipe, 270 mini-split air-conditioning units, hundreds of plumbing fixtures and 18 miles of electrical wire.
“So imagine 140 guys, working 18 hours a day, with no air conditioning, no hot water and minimal electricity,” he says. “We show up and give them air conditioning and hot showers. We build out rooms and barracks facilities so they can get a good night’s sleep and a little privacy. For the individual soldier, having electricity to run his laptop is a big deal. That’s his entertainment, but also his connection to America and his family.”
Many of Josh Savage’s “citizen” soldiers had construction backgrounds — union plumbers, pipefitters, sheet metal workers, even cabinet makers — which made the process quicker and allowed his unit to build more shelters than active-duty units. “We worked hard and it was very rewarding,” he says. “We were in a highly visible role and received a lot of recognition for what we did. But we were just doing our jobs.”
Sheree Savage spent six years in the engineering unit (she joined at 17), designing and building living quarters for American service members in South Korea and other foreign outposts. “My grandfathers were both in the trades and my father was a mechanic, so I wanted to gain a practical, hands-on life skill,” she explains.
After completing officer training, she transferred to the Minnesota Air National Guard as a public affairs officer. She is now a public affairs officer with the rank of Major for the state’s 133rd Airlift Wing and the 148th Fighter Wing. As co-owner of Uptown Plumbing with an MBA in marketing, she is the company’s marketing and recruiting director.
The two married in 2004, and Josh Savage left the service in 2010. It was at this time that they bought Uptown Plumbing from Josh’s father, Pete Savage.
In 1914, engineer Harry C. Ridler started the company that would become Uptown Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in South Minneapolis, where he and his sons installed plumbing and heating systems. Pete Savage bought the company — Wm. F. Ridler Plumbing, Heating and Cooling — in 1982 from William F. Ridler. The company retained the Ridler name until 2010 when Josh and Sheree Savage changed the name to Uptown Plumbing, Heating & Cooling.
When Josh Savage came back from the Middle East, he had no intention of taking over the family business. He wanted to finish school, and he started classes again in 2004 after he and Sheree Savage moved to St. Paul, Minn. However, his father was short-handed and needed help, so he went back to the plumbing and heating company to help out on a temporary basis.
The turning point came while working on a project for his small-business class: an analysis of his father’s firm. “It was interesting what I learned in that business class and it got me excited about my father’s company,” he recalls. “I was able to see the enormous potential of it.”
About the same time Josh Savage also became aware of the Nexstar Network and its processes and systems. In 2004, Uptown had about $900,000 in revenue and four employees. In 2010, the company was pulling in $1.8 million; this year, Savage expects to end 2015 with $9.8 million.
The Savages credit the success of Uptown Plumbing, Heating & Cooling to their military service and their Nexstar membership. In fact, joining the best practices group was a condition of the Savages before buying the company. While Nexstar gave them the tools to make their business profitable, the military taught them leadership and discipline to keep it strong.
“Before the military, I was more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants guy,” Josh Savage notes. “I wasn’t into the details. A lot of small-business entrepreneurs are like that. In the military, I had many commanding officers who didn’t let me get away with much. I had to get my details right.”
Paying attention to details is how the Savages have grown Uptown over the last five years. For Josh Savage, accounting was the best skill he took with him from business school — he uses it every day. “In the military, you track everything,” he explains. “Everything is in a spreadsheet, and you must report back to your superiors on the progress of any project.”
Another military skill that transfers well to civilian life is learning to deal with people. Teamwork is vital to any military unit, as is keeping the team motivated and engaged. The same can be said for small businesses — make sure employees understand why a certain process is necessary to do the work, why it’s good for the organization and they will go along with it.
“The biggest takeaway of service in the military is you learn to always accomplish the mission, whatever the task is you’re given, regardless of any excuses,” Josh Savage says. “You absolutely have to get it done.”
That get-it-done attitude works well in residential service, as satisfied customers are repeat customers. And satisfied employees are more likely to create satisfied customers — Uptown Plumbing, Heating & Cooling recently was selected as a top workplace in Minnesota.
“We have a high morale here at Uptown and really good supporting systems,” Sharee Savage notes. “The management team Josh has created helps us provide a supportive environment for all our employees to give them what they need to do well in their jobs.”
Training is important to the Uptown culture. Each technician receives 90 min. of training each week; call center employees receive about an hour of training each week. Josh Savage carries HVAC licenses but employs four Master Plumbers. The leadership skills the Savages learned while in the military help them steer their employees and their company on the right path.
“Josh loves providing hands-on training to the technicians and seeing them personally grow,” she adds. “They will call him when they need help on a job and he coaches them through it. I believe that because he is sincere about their personal and professional development, it makes our team stronger.”
The Savages feel strongly about giving back to their military family by hiring veterans to work at Uptown. A union shop, the residential services company has about 50 employees; four are military veterans.
Bo Bransford is an Uptown plumber who spent eight years in the Army with the military police. He believes the communication skills he learned as an MP help him deal with customers on service calls. Mike Soderlund is a Master Plumber who spent six years in the Marine Corps in avionics. Integrity and attention to detail are the military skills he brought with him to the Uptown family.
“Knowing what they’ve gone through, I want to give them an opportunity and they deserve it,” Josh Savage says. “And military veterans are everything we’re looking for in attitude and professionalism in our industry. It’s tough to find people with technical skills who are able to talk to a customer professionally and carry themselves in a professional manner. But the military requires a level of professionalism that transfers well to the plumbing and heating service industry.”
Another important characteristic of military veterans is the understanding of structure — the chain of command — in an organization. Savage notes that young people today seem to be resistant to authority, so it can be a struggle to bring them into the company. For veterans, that authority is accepted and respected.
“Veterans have a deeper sense of serving,” Sheree Savage adds. “They have a concern for others and truly want to help, and that fits well with our culture, as well as their dependability, values and integrity. We are highly organized here, so someone with a military background fits in well.”
That sense of serving expands to areas outside of plumbing and heating. The company has a full-time community relations manager who administers Uptown’s Community of Care program for area charities. The company also built three Community Gathering Spaces — buildings that anyone in the Twin Cities can use for meetings, art space, private parties and other social gatherings.
Uptown Plumbing publicly highlights its love and respect for America in three ways: an American flag is flown in front of the building, the Pledge of Allegiance is recited at each weekly meeting, and each technician’s uniform bears the U.S. flag.
“We have a lot of pride in being Americans,” Josh Savage says.
Industry programs for veterans
For plumbing, heating, cooling and piping contracting firms looking to add technicians to their staff, the industry has several programs for military veterans to get the training they need to enter the PHCP industry:
• Troops to Trades.The Nexstar Legacy Foundation administers the Troops to Trades program, which provides veterans, National Guard and National Reserve members with career placement options through training grants and scholarships in the plumbing, HVAC and electrical contracting industry. Training includes programs such as plumbing service/repair, HVAC service/ repair, electrical service/repair, CSR/DSR training and sewer sales. Visit www.troopstotrades.org for more information.
• Veterans in Piping.The United Association manages the VIP program, which offers high-quality skills training and jobs in the pipe trades to active duty military personnel preparing to leave the service. Participants enroll in accelerated 18-week courses in welding, fire sprinkler fitting and/or HVACR service. Upon graduation, VIPs gain direct entry into UA apprenticeship. All training is paid for entirely by the UA and its industry partners. Visit www.uavip.org for more information.
• VetFran.The International Franchise Association oversees the VetFran program, which offers franchise opportunities for veterans seeking to transition into the civilian economy as franchise owners or employees. VetFran supports veterans’ ability to access franchise opportunities through education on the franchise industry, financial assistance and industry mentorship. Visit www.vetfran.com for more information.