A Professional Approach

Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer builds its reputation by developing professional employees and being there for customers every day.

A Professional Approach

The staff of Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer includes (from left) Victoria Kosirog, Dan Ranallo, Jake Kantor, Mike Krejci, Jay DeFrates, Bruce Sartin, Bryan Kantor and Keith Wilmoth.

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A professional is an expert in his field, someone with the knowledge, expertise, and skill to successfully complete the job. But “professional” also alludes to the character of a person. That is, a true professional is one who respects his work and the person for whom he’s working, which he demonstrates by being trustworthy, dependable and candid.

Jay DeFrates is a professional.

The owner of Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer in a western Chicago suburb can fix a leak with the best of them, sure. But he has instilled in his crew the need to offer customers a larger package. After the drip-drip-dripping has stopped, DeFrates hopes a homeowner will also notice that the work area is clean when the job is done and that the plumber who comes to the door is as courteous as he is knowledgeable — that he is a professional, in other words.

Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer is a professional shop with a philosophy, not just a business plan. After all, how many plumbing companies pledge in their online mission statement “to maintain an atmosphere of optimism, creativity, resourcefulness and excellence”?

“I like to think we do a little bit better than our competitors — that we do things with a little bit more finesse,” DeFrates says. “Anyone can get a job done, but when you can do it with finesse … well, I think we bring that little extra to the table.”

To DeFrates, “finesse” means being “polite, neat and thorough.” Such a workplace culture doesn’t just spontaneously develop. It’s cultivated. “We constantly teach it to our crew,” he says. “Once they get it, they know they are offering customers something above and beyond what others are offering.”

Finding his calling

DeFrates was born near the southern tip of Lake Michigan in northern Indiana, a contiguous part of Chicagoland. He first put a wrench on a pipe 30 years ago as an apprentice, working for several plumbing businesses. He also labored at other kinds of jobs as a younger man, including factory work, before getting his plumbing license and opening his business southwest of Chicago’s Loop in Downers Grove.

From there, his crew rolls out 25 miles or so to plumb homes and commercial properties in places like Wheaton, La Grange and Naperville. The area includes new residential developments as well as an abundance of World War II-era residences, structures that are still sturdy and attractive but have been occupied long enough to begin to have issues. Ninety percent of the company’s work is residential, and this housing stock is one reason why.

“It is a general mix of houses, but there are a lot of older homes in places like Riverside,” he says. “Businesses — a lot of time — will have someone on staff to do the plumbing. But the things that need to be maintained in a person’s home are not the things that a lot of homeowners can do for themselves.”

DeFrates worked from his own home in the beginning, then began to stockpile inventory in a warehouse owned by his brother in a nearby town before finally moving the company into the current Ogden Avenue facility in Downers Grove. He found plumbing work immediately. “I was at the right place at the right time,” he says. “A large remodeling company I knew about was going through some plumbers. They had a ton of work, and I was hungry. It just kind of worked out.”

He also began to develop expertise. At the same time he opened his business, DeFrates moonlighted as a licensed state Environmental Protection Agency inspector of cross-connection control devices — the backflow valves that prevent possibly tainted water from entering a potable water system. Seven years later, he tested out and became a certified plumbing inspector, subsequently inspecting plumbing work part time in Elmhurst and full time in Hinsdale.

More credentials? He is a certified “competent person” for excavations and confined spaces, both of which can come into play in plumbing projects. The latter competency protects his crew members while his inspection knowledge protects homeowners. “When I was inspecting, I basically was making sure a job was done correctly.” Though he is not inspecting now because he has more administrative responsibilities in the company, he says he gleaned knowledge from his inspection work that he regularly passes on to his crew.

A shift in jobs

As years passed, the steady work continued for the company, but DeFrates began to modify the range of jobs undertaken by his crew. He moved away from plumbing remodeled residences and working on new residential construction and small commercial properties. He moved instead toward service and repair work. He did so, he says, because there are fewer headaches in servicing existing plumbing systems. “And I think that’s where the demand is.”

Certainly there is enough potential work there — from jetting and repairing sewer lines to installing sump pumps and tracking down leaks. DeFrates trademarked a slogan to fit the changed focus of his company: “Your Problem Is Our Problem,” which emphasizes both the service nature of the business and the company’s personal approach to individual customer satisfaction.

His equipment, which includes pipe inspection cameras and electronic locators, has evolved along with the industry. His RIDGID cameras have become necessities, he says. “It’s common now to run a camera through a sewer along with a rodder. It’s almost standard to push a camera in there. More and more, it is not doing a customer justice if you’re not inspecting as well as rodding a line.”  

Each Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer crew member supplies his own hand tools. Larger company equipment is hauled to work sites in five service vehicles — box trucks with a Ford or Chevrolet van chassis and a utility body. DeFrates prefers Goshen, Indiana-based Supreme service box bodies because they “come in a lot of different styles, with bins on one side or the other, or bins on the outside. They seem to be of great quality.”

The company does pipeline work, so periodically, crews must dig up a lawn or alley to repair or replace a line. For such jobs, DeFrates leases excavation equipment for the same reasons so many other companies do. “Jobs that require excavation are not a big part of our work yet. That may come, but for now when I lease a mini-excavator or backhoe, it’s not my maintenance headache. I’m not paying for it when it’s just sitting around either.”

Lucky number 7

There is, in fact, not a lot of sitting around at Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer. The company offers customers service and emergency repair work seven days a week, from seven in the morning till seven at night. This “seven-seven-seven” schedule, as DeFrates refers to it, is not a common business schedule. What especially makes it appealing to customers is that the price of service work is the same every hour, every day.

“When customers realize you can come on a Sunday for the same price as during the week when they have no one home to let you in, it usually is seen to them as a blessing,” he says. Consequently, while the company’s office staff is not in the office on weekends, some crew members are on the job in people’s homes.

The service schedule was implemented within the last year. “It just kind of happened and works well,” DeFrates says. “Some guys prefer to have some days off during the week as opposed to weekends and others couldn’t work weekends, so it worked itself out. The ones who work weekends take off Monday and Tuesday or whatever days they want.”  

Whatever days they are working, the six service technicians at Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer carry with them current know-how about doing their jobs. DeFrates keeps them informed by holding weekly hour-long training sessions. The in-house training ranges from new product knowledge and review of plumbing techniques to updates about company bookkeeping procedures. He and his service manager and general manager also welcome visits by manufacturers. “When parts change on a product, we have company reps come in and talk to us and show us what’s involved. It’s always very helpful to be a part of that circle.”

Continued growth

The 46-year-old company owner is a full-time administrator now, presiding over a company that he wants to keep growing. He is currently looking to add an employee and plans to roll out another service truck this year. All of which means DeFrates doesn’t have time to handle the tools any more.

“When I personally was doing the work, it was always art to me: The finished jobs were works of art. I wanted my work to look better and be better than anyone else’s. It was hard to break away from that, but I think it’s part of the evolution of the company. You find key people who want to come behind you, and you let them do the work.”

Bringing people into the trade

Skilled trades get short shrift in a society riveted to the notion that everyone should have a college degree and pursue a white-collar career. The fascination of the last couple of generations with manipulating electronic devices rather than turning wrenches has added to the difficulty of bringing in the best people.

Jay DeFrates, owner of Jay’s Plumbing & Sewer in Downers Grove, Illinois, is well aware of the problem. Attracting qualified candidates for sewer and plumbing work is an uphill battle. “It’s hard to find help. Younger people are not entering the trades — I mean all the trades, not just plumbing.”

The issue was on his mind in October partly because he was looking to hire another plumber. The company website advertised for “an extraordinary plumber who is passionate about customer service” and doing quality work. Compensation promised the person hired included health and dental insurance, a 401(k), “a family atmosphere,” and ongoing education programs. DeFrates says when he hires, he looks for qualified people who can be molded into superplumbers. “We like to make plumbers. Some of the best ones we have are the ones we have made ourselves.”

DeFrates believes in education. He holds weekly training sessions for his technicians. He has instructed students at the area’s Building & Fire Code Academy. And he wants to educate young people about the benefits of starting a blue-collar career. “We are looking for opportunities to speak at schools, anywhere young people will listen to us. It is important that someone does it.”

Part of his zeal in converting young people to the idea of working in the trades is that he benefited as a young man from serving an apprenticeship and was helped along the way by veterans of the trade. “A lot of people offered me an opportunity when I was starting out, and I try to do the same for others. I sense a real need to give back. That’s a soft spot for me.”


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