The Proper Diagnosis

Oklahoma contractor sets high standards for locating and leak detection services while building his business from the ground up.
The Proper Diagnosis

Hi-Tech Plumbing & Leak Detect, Inc. was established with a focus and emphasis on leak detection and locating. Founder Jamey Mullin grew up in the plumbing industry. His father, Jim Mullin, owned a plumbing company in Tulsa and Jamey eventually opened his own subsidiary, Mullin Plumbing, in Oklahoma City in 1994. He sold that company in 2000 and launched his new venture a year later after noticing the emergence of new leak detection technology and a decided lack of companies serving the growing market.

For Mullin, this presented a wide berth for a shop willing to invest and expand into a specialty service that had been largely overlooked in the region.

From a humble start-up in 2001, Mullin has grown the business to 15 employees (nine service technicians) and 12 service vehicles covering the entire state of Oklahoma. Hi-Tech has also expanded into a full-service plumbing company, with 70 percent of business in residential services and 30 percent with commercial and industrial accounts.

Steppin' up

Mullin signed a non-compete agreement with the sale of Mullin Plumbing. So at the outset of the new business, he not only had to school himself, but secure new clients.

"I had to understand the unique nature of how Hi-Tech would develop as a specialty within the industry," he says. "And I needed to hire a helper and a journeyman. Within one year I had three employees."

Mullin wanted to learn all he could about leak detection so he could be both dependable and accurate. He was fortunate to learn of a California company that specialized in leak detection, but offered no other services.

"I connected with this owner, and he agreed to let me come to his area and ride around with him for a couple weeks. He did charge me by the day for this," recalls Mullin. "This was my first order of business, and I was blown away at the equipment and the technique that I saw in just two hours. I have family members in the plumbing industry, and nobody had stepped up to master leak detection. I learned the shortcuts. This gave me the missing ingredient to start Hi-Tech."

Mullin has respected the request of the contractor not to mention his company name, but he says the experience helped him look outside the box in evaluating equipment and technique.

"When I was able to put all my focus on Hi-Tech Plumbing and Leak Detect, the biggest thing I found is that leak detection and repair is a totally different business," he says. "In plumbing, you have your new construction specialist, and then repair specialist, and then drain cleaning specialist. And within each you learn to be better and faster."

Path to Growth

Jamey Mullin has positioned his company for expansion, operating on four lots (one acre) with a converted 2,500-square-foot home and a 1,500-square-foot building that serves as a warehouse. Mullin has purchased several adjoining properties that currently serve as rentals but are available for future growth.

Mullin attributes much of his business success to his ability to recruit the right people to the staff at Hi-Tech Plumbing & Leak Detect, Inc.

“I believe that I am blessed in that I have discernment with people, and that is as much a part as being a good plumber, marketer and manager,” says Mullin. “It all starts with the right people. I want someone who is honest, energetic and has a great attitude. This is part of the building block of a company. I believe I have the best people in the state – in the nation. I’d put them up against anyone. I hire people ­– technicians and office personnel – who are trained for our system and who believe in our company.

“We want our people to specialize in specific disciplines, but to be knowledgeable about every system,” he says, adding that it’s typical to interview 20 candidates before finding the right individual.

Prior to an interview, Mullin even has his secretary, Charlotte Meyer, evaluate candidates on a few key points such as courtesy, grooming, and cigarette or body odor. “This person will be representing us in the home or business of a customer. I make my own judgment based on the time I spend with the applicant, and we find great people.”

Mullin says the most rewarding aspect of his job is when he hears feedback from people in the community who comment about a job well done or the courtesy of one of his employees.

“We want the customer to be happy,” he says. “We like to hear how we are doing as a company. I love it when they say ‘Your price was fair. You did a good job.’ ”

BULLSEYE

"When we were looking for a customer base, we targeted everyone: residential, industrial, municipal," says Mullin.

He sought business with plumbing and insurance companies, he placed ads highlighting leak detection in the Yellow Pages, did radio spots, offered coupons, and embraced any other opportunity to grow the company as a slab leak specialist. Within a few years of opening, the company had grown substantially.

Leak detection and locating remains the primary focus, providing up to 60 percent of revenue, although Hi-Tech is now a full-service plumbing company. Relining, which was recently added, makes up 10 percent of revenue with the balance in service and repair.

Mullin says his former company provided 24-hour service for clients such as restaurants and apartment complexes. However, he did not gross as much with five trucks as he does today with two trucks doing leak detection.

Over the years, Mullin has amassed a variety of 30 instruments he uses to find leaks. Three dedicated leak detection service trucks carry three different cameras and a full complement of related locating tools.

"If you have just one package for leak detection, you don't have the strength to find everything," he says.

March on

Mullin says success requires learning the "tricks of the trade" and continually discovering and including new technology, equipment and procedures.

"This is where the Pumper and Cleaner [International Expo] has been invaluable," he says, adding that this is where he sees the new technology that is leading the way in leak detection.

"One of the things I work at is staying one step ahead of the competition," he says. "We don't consider that we have competition. We are the guys everybody wants to chase. We set the industry standard. We have built our system, and it takes not only money, but an investment of time and in people to make it happen."

Most often they are inspecting 1/2- to 3/4-inch copper water distribution lines located under a slab floor. Drain lines typically are 3- to 4-inch cast iron. Hi-Tech also inspects residential and commercial lateral lines out to the city mainlines.

Mullin notes that he has three trucks, a 2010 Ford Transit Connect, a 2012 Ford F-150 pickup and a 2012 Ford F-250, that do nothing but leak detection all day long. Nine Ford Cargo vans are equipped for service and repair.

"There are three of us on the leak detection team: myself, Trenton Beliel and Matt Amick. On leak detection jobs we will be calling each other, communicating, even while on different sites. We are getting the jobs nobody else wants. We are the last stop. Everybody else has failed to find the leak."

Roots, even under a structure, are often the cause of leaks.

"The customer may have cut down a tree, but the roots are still there and will go toward the food source," says Mullin. "They will grow around the pipe, and as they get bigger, they will crush the pipe. Roots also get inside the pipe and have to be removed."

Another issue they deal with is damage to PEX tubing, sometimes used for water distribution lines, by rodents attracted to the cold water in summer and hot water in winter. Gophers and moles will scratch and claw at these lines.

Hi-Tech finds the problem and provides the customer with at least three potential solutions.

Arrows in his quiver

Hi-Tech's leak detection equipment includes a variety of leak detection/locators from Goldak, Inc. and RIDGID, and thermal/moisture detection equipment from FLIR Systems, Fluke Corporation, Dri-Eaz and Tramex. Mini inspection units from Aqua Communications Inc. and RIDGID help locate troubled spots in small-diameter pipes. They also use a Hurco Technologies Power Smoker II for smoke testing.

The company outfitted a 2012 Ford E-350 box van with a Tommy Gate lift for their Nu Flow lining work, and they also have a pull-behind 6- by
14-foot trailer.

Mullin says that when they need fast repair on any of their RIDGID equipment they rely on Central Oklahoma Winnelson Co., which is a great benefit as there is no shipping involved and they get a fast turn around.

As a plumbing contractor in Oklahoma (equivalent to a master plumber), Mullin has seen the competition in leak detection grow. He notes, however, that there is no license required and many operators do not have the plumbing background or capability to go in and do the repair. Hi-Tech is fully licensed and therefore can offer complete service, a benefit to their customers.

Forward thinking

Hi-Tech added Nu Flow relining to its toolbox in 2009, and relining has taken off substantially in the three years since.

"This was a substantial investment for us, but this is what I see for the future," Mullin says.

When Mullin decided to add Nu Flow relining to his menu of services, he followed the same practice he used in schooling himself on leak detection. He found  contractors in other states willing to let him and his key employee, Matt Amick, who has been with him 10 years, ride along and learn the tricks of the trade.

"We rode with several out-of-state contractors using a variety of systems," says Mullin. "We decided Nu Flow would work for our area. We liked Nu Flow because it would allow us to rehabilitate lines inside the business or home."

When they had opportunities to ride along with other contractors, they were able to share their experiences as well. "So it was a mutual thing," he says.

He notes that after thoroughly cleaning and televising a line, locating the leak and establishing the condition, Hi-Tech can assess if relining is a viable option.

"At that point we might have a good candidate for Nu Flow," he says. "When we have 10 feet or more to deal with, we give the customer the options and the prices. Every solution is different, every customer is different, but we can always provide a way to avoid destroying the home in the process."

While Mullin does not want to give up all the "tricks in his tool bag," these networking experiences, along with his marketing and entrepreneurial spirit, have provided customers with not only solutions but options when facing sometimes daunting decisions about their home or business.



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