Cleaners Make Subcontracting an Art

Sewer and drain cleaning company builds its reputation as an extension of the local plumbing industry.
Cleaners Make Subcontracting an Art

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“They wanted to create this partnership where the plumber would be represented by a high-quality and noncompetitive extension of their business,” says Jeff Goan, who took over his parents’ business in 1994. “Even today, at least 50 percent of our business is with plumbing contractors. We work closely with them and we are there when they need us, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We do not advertise. There are no wraps on our trucks. When we go out for ‘Bob’s Plumbing,’ for the most part the customer thinks we are ‘Bob’s Plumbing.’ We are a bit of an anomaly.”

Goan points out that most plumbing trucks are filled to the brim with tools and fixtures. Drain cleaning vans are just as full with their own specific equipment, so to be fully equipped to do it all, it would take a semi. Instead, Plumber’s Service focuses on sewer and drain cleaning and rehabilitation, and lets plumbers focus on what they do best. The result is greater specialization on both sides and better work all the way around.

While the company maintains its focus on serving plumbing contractors, the customer base has grown along with the company’s reputation. Plumber’s Service now serves property management companies, mechanical contractors and even a few municipalities. The company doesn’t advertise, so the occasional residential client comes on the referral of a relative, neighbor or friend.

“We provide good customer service and follow-up,” says Goan. “If our service technician finds any problems, we will follow up with the plumbing contractor to see if they want us to proceed to do any continued maintenance, or structural lining or cable maintenance. We offer a number of options for their client.”

Working with and for plumbing companies, especially as a primary revenue source, calls for an arrangement when it comes to collecting and billing. Goan says their process is flexible. Sometimes the plumbing contractor will provide invoices to Plumber’s Service, and they will handle the transaction. Other times they will do the work, and the customer will pay the plumbing company directly through their billing.

“We have our standard rates for our services, but with the plumbers we give a commission for work we do for them, so they actually get better pricing.”

They promote the company through direct mail to plumbing contractors in their service area, which includes a 50-mile radius around the greater Detroit region. If they are required to go beyond that area, they charge extra for travel.

Getting with the program

Goan says that his father was a visionary who was open to new technology as it came along, using some of the early locating equipment to trace the paths of buried lines.

“This had always been a challenge to precisely locate the damaged areas,” he says. “We got into televising lines in the 1980s. Pipe bursting came along in 2000, and structural lining around 2005.”

Plumber’s Service has added jetting, radio detection and confined space entry, but they continue with excavation when necessary. The company has a dual-reel trailer jetter (3,000 psi/40 gpm) from Sewer Equipment, and contracts with several firms when a jet/vac truck is needed for cleaning catch basins, oil interceptors or industrial waste handling and disposal.

They have a variety of Pearpoint/SPX and Vivax-Metrotech cameras in their inspection arsenal.

“Conditions in the area are typical of older neighborhoods, with Orangeburg (pipe) that is often failing, and clay pipe that isn’t watertight and allows root intrusion at the joints,” Goan says. “Then we have cast iron pipe, which deteriorates and rusts out. These all offer opportunities for our services. We find Orangeburg (pipe) can be repaired with pipe bursting and sometimes relining.”

He says the Formadrain structural lining and Pipe Genie pipe bursting systems have been successful in clay and cast iron pipes as well.

Goan has 14 technicians who typically work on either the “dig crew” or the “cable crew.” They are specialists, but they are also cross-trained for any situation that requires their services. The dig crew takes care of televising, jetting, pipe bursting and excavation work. The cable crew is appropriately equipped with all the cable equipment.

“They snake the line, cable it, get it open using a full diameter cutter and they are taught to restore a 6-inch pipeline back to 6 inches,” Goan says. “Some customers request a yearly service call to keep the lines open.”

Goan has a lot of confidence in these two crews to perform their duties, and he values open working relationships with his employees.

“Ultimately, decision-making that affects the company on a bigger scale comes down to me,” he says. “Day to day I can depend on my crew members to handle their chores. On the dig crew I have 20-year employee Danny Harris, and on the cable crew I have another longtime employee George Cissney. They are always available to their crews when they need advice. I am only brought in for consultation when required.

“I care about these people,” Goan says. “If they are struggling personally or financially we try to be helpful, and I think we deal even-handedly. If there is a problem, I’ll pull an individual aside and work to solve the issue.

“I want everyone to realize that we offer an important product and they should feel good about the job. We can have a nice level of satisfaction because we are solving a problem that is important for our customer, both the plumber and the homeowner or business.

“Yes, the guys get frustrated sometimes, but we look for the person with the qualities we want, someone who will stick with us and wants to be successful in this line of work. Someone willing to learn everything we can teach. It takes a lot of time to get that expertise where an individual can work in a confident manner.”

Goan points out that they offer good benefits that include health insurance for their 20 employees, plus vision and dental, a 401(k) plan and vacation pay.

Tapping into the task

Goan says they start each day at the company’s headquarters — a 6-acre property with offices and two buildings for equipment — by gathering to review the day’s jobs and assignments.

“When I come in each morning I like for the guys to get together, deciding who goes where and does what and how it gets distributed, and I participate,” he says. “We figure what customers need to be contacted from the previous day’s work. As for myself, I’ll have appointments my office staff will have lined up. A plumber might be having an issue on a specific job and want me to consult. I will go to that job, take a camera with me and decide what we want to do. That kind of thing is a part of my day-to-day activities.

“Whenever I bring on new equipment, I’m always in the field with my crew, training them on it — teaching how to do it, going through the hard knocks of learning how to pipe burst and any related problems, going through harder knocks on how to do CIPP and how to avoid tragedies. I want to have a confident staff of guys who can get the job done without me there. We will still review the job together, but I like it when I can get to the point where I can confidently give them a bursting or lining job. I like to train with them, get them comfortable. I like that part of the job.”

He says that early on his workers were apprehensive about lining because they were used to bringing in a machine and digging it up, but as they got more comfortable with the Formadrain system they understood the value it brought to their own work and to the customer.

“Pipe bursting is complicated. Lining is complex,” Goan says. “It takes a mechanical person. But we want to give our customers another choice. I like having an option that avoids the excavation work, as it has a dramatic impact on the property, and most important, my guys are on the surface and not in a trench line or a trench box.”

The family connection

Jeff Goan is the owner of Plumber’s Service, but he’s not the only one with an important role in the company and family ties to its founders.

Jeff’s brother, Jim Goan, has been a part of this company for many years, handling human resources, payroll, insurance, and tax and regulation issues. He also serves as a sounding board and adviser.

“My brother is a business backbone for me, as he keeps me on point, and with an MBA in business he has much to contribute,” Goan says. “He also has experience working in the lines over the years and while attending college, and in his off hours while he was working in the health care industry for several years.”

Jim Goan says he tries to be someone his brother can consult with on the major issues and stressful situations that arise in any business.

On the subject of finding qualified technicians, the brothers agree it is one of the biggest challenges. Jeff Goan says that young people are just not going into the trades. He finds their best employees are those who tried to make it in other fields until they realize that they are in a job with no real future or opportunity to make enough to support a family.

“We look for a guy with the qualities we want, someone who wants to be successful, someone who wants to learn everything we can teach,” Goan says. “It can take time to get the expertise where a person can do a lot of this work in a confident manner. We want our customer to have confidence in our technician to handle the problem.”


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