Al Levi has been sharing his wisdom about running a business with you in the pages of this fine magazine for years, but I knew him as the Ace Troubleshooter.
Years ago, back when he was still making magic in his family’s business, I’d get together with Al and his brother Richie, The Man Who Can Fix Anything. We’d go into old houses and apartment buildings and look at problem jobs, especially those of the steam variety, of which there are many on Long Island. Once we figured out what was what on the job, we’d head to the diner for lunch.
These chrome palaces have enormous menus and the service is laser fast. The food arrives almost before you can finish saying what you want. The waitresses all look like they’ve touched life’s rough edges, and most will call you Hon, even though you’ve never met them before. It’s nice.
The three of us would sit in a booth, Al and Richie on one side, and me on the other. Richie always seemed to be on the open side of the booth, and his left leg stuck out into the aisle a bit, along with his left butt cheek. It was always half-on and half-off the bench, as if the next problem job was trying to suck him out of the place.
The food arrived and we’d start in on it. Al and Richie would keep talking while chewing. They’d go on about this job and that job, never mentioning a customer by name because it brought bad luck. I’d listen and laugh and eat my sandwich. What I noticed each time we were at the diner, though, was that we all began eating at the same moment, but Al and Richie would have clean plates before I was half finished with my sandwich. And they were doing most of the talking.
Richie would shove his plate to the side and his leg would move a few more inches out into the aisle. I’d lean over and look down at it. “Time to go?” I’d ask.
“No, no, take your time,” Richie would say.
“Yeah, no rush,” Al would say, and then glance at his watch.
I’d take another bite. Chew. Sip my coffee. Richie would shift his butt cheek a bit further into the aisle. Al would push his plate to the side. Stare at his watch.
“Well, that’s it for me,” I’d say.
“There’s no rush,” Richie would say, “Really, take your time.” And then he’d start getting up. Al would slide toward him.
“Yeah, Dan, take your time,” Al would say. “Really.”
I’d smile sadly at the other half of my sandwich and follow them out to the car.
It was about time.
Pride in the work
The New Jersey chapter of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association hired me to speak at their convention a bunch of years ago. They were having an apprentice competition as a part of the event. It was in a big tent out in the hotel’s parking lot.
They split the competition between plumbing and heating. They had built these two-story platforms to elevate the toilets and sinks for those doing the plumbing, and the radiators for the apprentices doing the heating. Manufacturers had donated all the equipment and the turnout for the show was great. They asked if I would be one of the judges for the heating apprentices; I said sure.
So first thing in the morning, all the young people are at their stations. They have tools and equipment and a set of plans. Someone blows a whistle and they all go to work. Most of the apprentices dive right in. They unwrap the boiler and start piping. They’re working at a furious pace. One of the rules is they have to finish the job by a certain time that afternoon. I walk back and forth and watch them all going at it. What’s odd, though, is even though they all have the same set of plans and the same equipment, the work doesn’t look the same. Each guy is giving his hydronic system its own personality.
But then there is this one young man who does things differently. When the whistle blows, the first thing he does is open the boiler’s installation manual. He sits down and reads through the whole booklet while his competition is screwing pipe and soldering fittings. Next, he puts a level on top of the boiler, and since we’re in a parking lot, he notices the bubble on the level is not centered, so he shims the boiler to make it right. Who would notice that slight pitch?
Meanwhile, the other guys are working like maniacs.
The young man lays out his tools and begins piping the boiler. He checks each pipe with a level. He wipes each joint. His job is looking exactly like the plan shows it should look. Each component is where it should be, and the dimensions between each part are as specified by the manufacturer. I can’t take my eyes off this guy. There’s concentration and joy on his face as he works. He doesn’t look at me; he looks only at the work.
One of the PHCC guys walks over. “That kid’s work is amazing, isn’t it?” he says.
“It’s superb,” I say. “And to think he’s an apprentice.”
“If I wanted someone to put a heating system in my own house, I’d hire that kid in a minute,” he says.
“So would I.”
“But he could never work for us,” he adds.
“He’d never make it in our shop. He takes too long. He’s never gonna get done by this afternoon’s deadline. It’s a shame.”
“So he’s good enough for you but not good enough for your customers?” I ask.
He laughs. “Yeah, I guess that’s right. He’s too slow.”
Get it? It’s about time. The best man loses the competition because he takes his time to make the work as good as it can be. But the boss is happy to settle for good enough. Unless it was going into his own house, that is. For his own house, he wants the very best.
And doesn’t that make you smile?
I once watched a master carpenter who did only finish work. This man was creating (I can’t say installing) a staircase and it was an absolute work of art. He took his sweet time to make it perfect, and the folks who had hired him wanted nothing less. He charged appropriately.
That young apprentice took the time to read the manual. It cost him the prize, but his work was the best of the bunch. I talked to him afterwards. He was happy with what he had done. He said the prize didn’t matter as much as the work did.
I never saw him again and I wonder how he made out with his career, whether he ever found a company that wanted to put into their customers’ homes the same quality of work they would want in their own homes.
Maybe he went to work for himself. I wish I knew, and I think about him from time to time.
He could have done well with Al and Richie Levi. The work they do for their customers is the same quality work they do in their own homes. That’s contagious, and it brings in the business.
After a while, I even figured out why they eat so fast. It’s about time. The faster you eat, the more time you have to get back to the job and do it right.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
This article was originally titled “It’s about time” in the June 2016 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.