California Company Serves High-Tech Niche

Taking care of Silicon Valley clientele requires versatility and technical savvy.

California Company Serves High-Tech Niche
The Therma Corp team includes (from left) plumbing technician Guadalupe Pattison, safety coordinator Carlos Vega, operator David Maurice and plumbing service supervisor Todd Mays.

Building state-of-the-art “clean rooms” for high-tech corporations in Silicon Valley is vastly different than unclogging drainlines for those same companies, but these services — and many others — mesh quite well together at Therma Corp.

While some companies grow by doing one thing particularly well, Therma Corp. — a full-service mechanical contractor based in San Jose, California — has thrived by offering a wide array of high-level services to a core group of high-tech giants. It’s all part of a simple underlying business philosophy: Provide customers with whatever services they require.

The company’s services include engineering and design, plumbing, drain cleaning, HVAC, sheet-metal work, process piping, industrial and building control, and energy services. They cater to industries that make or develop biopharmaceuticals, semiconductors, cloud technology and artificial intelligence, says Mike Fisher, the company’s chief operating officer.

The company’s founders and owners, Joe and Nicki Parisi (president and chief financial officer, respectively) started out in construction back in 1967. But as their customers’ companies expanded — particularly high-tech firms — so did their services. “Joe would approach customers and say, ‘Yes, we’ll build what you need, but tell us what else you want us to do,’” Fisher says. “He’d tell them we can do anything from fixing a faucet to repairing a roof and everything in between.”

The Parisis sensed that technology companies in particular would grow quickly, so their core strategy centered on partnering with key technology customers in Silicon Valley and growing with them. “As those companies expanded their facilities, Therma Corp. was there to build and service them,” Fisher notes. “Joe Parisi often says that while it seems like he’s a brilliant businessman, he and Nicki just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but they also secured and kept really great talent that helped the company to grow.”

But even with more than 600 employees, seven strategically located satellite offices and high-profile clients like Intel, IBM and Genentech, the company has managed to maintain a down-home culture. “We’re the largest mom-and-pop shop you’ve ever seen,” Fisher says. “We’ve been able to maintain a family-owned business atmosphere.

“We emphasize open collaboration,” he continues. “We have a vast amount of resources, but unless you tap into them and communicate with the people next to you, you don’t receive the benefits. We also don’t micromanage employees. Instead, we recognize the value of their skill sets and give them the ability to go out on their own and succeed.”

Starting small

Plumbing and drain cleaning wasn’t initially a big part of the company. By 1997, 30 years after the company’s inception, Therma Corp. employed just two plumbers dedicated to service. But in 1998, the company hired three more plumbers and officially formed a service department. The initial focus was servicing backflow preventers, but as customers’ needs for line cleaning and inspections increased, the department followed the Parisi philosophy and expanded accordingly, adding more personnel and equipment.

“Our growth was slow, steady and sustained,” Fisher says. “It also was sheerly organic. We didn’t advertise — it was all word-of-mouth referrals.”

Today, the department generates about 10 percent of Therma Corp.’s annual gross revenue.

It services companies ranging from semiconductor and computer manufacturers to research-and-development and tech startups. The latter two offer the department an opportunity to follow the company’s overall strategy on a micro level: partner with potentially high-growth companies and grow with them. The company also does work for non-tech clients, including universities, industrial and commercial facilities, and food and beverage companies.

To serve those customers, the department relies on a Vac-Con combination sewer/hydroexcavation truck, a pipeline inspection truck built on a Ford F-450 chassis with an Envirosight Rovver X robotic crawler camera (the truck was built out by Haaker Equipment Co.), and eight trailer-mounted water jetters made by Spartan Tool (3,000 psi at 12 gpm).

The department depends on a 2016 Ford F-650 dump truck with 7-cubic-yard dump body manufactured by Scelzi Enterprises; a mini-excavator and a front-loader, both made by Bobcat; two 2015 F-450 utility trucks with bodies made by Scelzi; and 12 service vans, each equipped with full complement of RIDGID ProPress tools, a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera and a portable drain cleaning machine made by Spartan Tool.

High-pressure jobs

Therma Corp. works with a lot of companies that require clean rooms, which are sealed manufacturing areas that must be kept completely free of contaminants such as air-borne microbes, dust, chemical vapors and so forth. These rooms rely on tightly controlled pressurization, temperature and humidity levels and specialized filtration systems to eliminate entry of even submicron particles.

As such, it’s financially disastrous when a stoppage causes a waste line to back up into a manufacturing area, for example. When that happens, the manufacturing process stops and all the products may need to be destroyed. “If a semiconductor or pharmaceutical production line goes down, for instance, it could result in millions — if not tens of millions — of dollars in lost product,” Fisher explains. “So these customers require an exceptionally high level of service. That’s why we have seven strategically located remote facilities; they allow us to provide better response times. In our markets, getting to a customer in one hour instead of, say, two hours, is huge. If we get there within an hour, we often can help prevent product loss.”

While the pressure is on during such emergencies, these jobs also carry high upside, he adds. “If you can service a client and get them out of a jam, you’re usually the go-to contractor the next time they need something,” Fisher notes.

Therma Corp. has good success with retaining employees, which has benefited the plumbing service department because over the years, its workers develop unique skills and expertise. Most of the department’s technicians can do things like inspect and clean drainlines, modify controls and install pumps, to name a few.

“We’ve been able to develop very versatile technicians,” Fisher says. “But they also pick up other skills, like understanding how the utilities in plants affect the processes within the plants. Without that good understanding of what’s going on, it could have a disastrous impact on the systems tied to the utilities on which the technicians are working.”

Leveraging services

The plumbing service division benefits from Therma Corp.’s diverse service offerings. For example, technicians sometimes encounter jobs where repairs require parts made in foreign countries, such as Belgium or Germany. But instead of waiting weeks to gets those repair parts, craftsmen in, say, the machine shop might be able to fashion replacement parts.

“We have unbelievable capabilities within our various shops,” Fisher says. “For example, in our sheet-metal department alone, we have five industrial laser cutters. So we have the ability to recreate certain parts, like a pump enclosure that services a grease pit.”

In turn, the plumbing department often creates business for the HVAC department. “We call it cross-pollination,” Fisher notes. “Our divisions are constantly feeding off each other to give the highest customer service that no other contractors in our space can provide.”

In addition, plumbing service work also leads to new work for plumbing construction. The service technicians are limited by union agreements to only replacing or repairing existing pipes. So if new pipes are required, that directly benefits the plumbing construction department. Moreover, sometimes service technicians working on a failed pump might find outdated or damaged controls. “That’s when we call in our industrial controls department,” Fisher says.  

The company’s multiple service capabilities even help the plumbing service department find quality skilled workers — a critical benefit in a field marked by a severe labor shortage. Instead of investing time and effort on recruiting new employees off the street, the department can cherry-pick good workers from the construction side of the business. That forces the construction division to hire more workers, but Fisher points out that it’s much easier to hire new construction workers than it is to find skilled plumbing service candidates.

“We already know that these construction workers share our company’s values and fit well with our culture,” he explains. “While not every construction guy will dig the odd hours dictated by our 24-hour emergency-response services, we can at least try them out.”

While the plumbing department has a well-established customer base, Fisher doesn’t rule out entering more new markets, such as providing services for high-density residential developments, which are booming in the San Francisco Bay area due to the high cost of real estate. “That comes with some risk because we’re not used to working in that space, so we have to be careful and determine if it fits well with our business model,” he says.

In addition, the burgeoning failure of urban infrastructure is creating business opportunities for line cleaning and inspections. “There’s not a union plumbing service company in the Bay area that has a CCTV truck or a combo vacuum truck, so that’s a big differentiating factor,” Fisher says. “We’re not quite sure how that might fit in our business model either. The last thing we want to do is tie up equipment on municipal sewer jobs to the point that we can’t serve our existing clients.” But the potential in that market is too large to ignore, he notes.

Looking ahead for the department, Fisher is bullish on the department because it generates consistent revenue with solid profit margins. Moreover, the business is constantly reoccurring. “That’s why we like to invest in our service divisions,” he says.

Therma Corp.’s business model — offering many services and partnering with growing companies also makes Fisher feel optimistic. Silicon Valley continues to be a hotspot for innovation in cutting-edge technologies, which continues to create good business opportunities.

“Now it’s autonomous vehicles, life sciences and artificial intelligence,” Fisher notes. “Before that it was solar energy and before that it was semiconductors. There’s always something new going on here, and we’re not dependent on any one industry. In addition, we’re very versatile — able to shift gears quickly and focus on customers’ needs. We have a lot of skill sets to offer that should remain in high demand.”


Exposing broken waste lines took workers down under

Therma Corp.’s plumbing services division has built a reputation for developing innovative solutions to problems experienced by high-tech Silicon Valley corporations. Recent jobs that involved confined-space entry under concrete slabs of large buildings offer a good case in point.

The problem: Silty soil underneath the buildings’ self-supporting slabs is settling — and damaging buildings’ waste lines in the process. “All the waste lines are suspended with rods and hangers under the slab and surrounded by pea gravel (backfill),” explains Mike Fisher, the company’s chief operating officer.

“But as the silt infiltrates the pea gravel, it locks up the gravel and sticks to the pipes,” he continues. “So instead of falling away as the ground settles, the pea gravel pulls the waste lines apart and the fill material gets into the lines.”

Under normal circumstances, workers would locate the line break, saw through the slab from inside the building, excavate the area and make the repair. But that’s not possible in the sensitive “clean room” environments at these corporations. “So we’ve gotten pretty good at hydroexcavating tunnels under the buildings,” Fisher explains. “We even have a manager dedicated to under-slab waste line repair.”

Crews use the company’s Vac-Con vacuum truck/hydroexcavator and a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera to locate the line breaks and tunnel under the slabs. An employee carrying the hydroexcavator’s wand and hose slowly burrows trenches to expose the lines. As he works, a vacuum hose sucks up debris created by the excavating.

“Sometimes they’re creating a 4-foot-wide excavation under the slab that’s 3 to 4 feet deep,” Fisher says. “If you’re just working in gravel, it actually goes pretty quick. On one job, we were able to dig 100 feet in one day. But that was under perfect conditions. You never know what you’re going to find under those slabs.”

After the pipes are exposed, repairs are relatively simple; cut off the hangers and damaged pipes, and install new hangers and pipe. But crews don’t use pea gravel to backfill the trenches. Instead, they use large chunks of Styrofoam. “It’s lightweight, easy to modify and it lasts forever,” Fisher says.

Fisher says these challenging hydroexcavation jobs illustrate the department’s depth of resources. “We have a lot of different parties involved to pull off these projects, which also require problem-solving skills,” he says. “And the vac truck has proved to be invaluable. When we first bought it, we didn’t think we’d be using it to tunnel under buildings.”



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