Plumbing With a Personal Touch

Indianapolis plumber takes on more services to become a valuable resource for customers

Plumbing With a Personal Touch

Plumber Mark Lambert cleans out a sink drain pipe with a Spartan 100 machine with a 5/16-inch 75-foot-long cable. Every L.D. Smith Plumbing service truck is equipped with a Spartan 100.

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When Lance Smith started his plumbing company in 2011, he never expected it to grow so much so quickly.

A year after starting out, the Indianapolis-based plumber found himself moving his company, L.D. Smith Plumbing, into a 3,000-square-foot building. He rented that facility until May 2017 when he had to upsize again. Then he bought an 11,000-square-foot building near downtown Indianapolis.

“And we’re still growing,” Smith says. “We’re looking to be about 20 percent above last year, and we have some room to build out if we need to at this spot. I like this space.”

The company, with its 12 employees, offers drain cleaning services and trenchless excavation work in addition to typical plumbing work such as fixture repairs and installations.

Making a change

Smith wasn’t a newcomer to the plumbing industry when he started his company. He had already been in the business for 10 years, starting as an apprentice at 23 years old. He began by working on the new construction side of plumbing, but transitioned into service.

While working for other firms, Smith saw changes in the industry that he wasn’t happy about. “A lot of national HVAC companies were coming in and purchasing good mom and pop shops in the late 1990s and early 2000s — and either ran them into the ground or just made them not very good places to work,” he says.

Smith decided it was time to venture out on his own and create something to fill the void in the market.

“I tried to find a small plumbing company to buy, but I couldn’t find one and didn’t have a lot of money at the time,” Smith says. “I decided to strike out on my own out of the garage at my house. It was scary. I didn’t have deep pockets, and banks don’t lend you money if you don’t have a lot of money.”

Smith had a vision and went all in, knowing that if it didn’t work out, he would lose almost everything. “Six years later, we’re in a building and have a full staff,” he says.

Standing apart

L.D. Smith Plumbing is a full residential service contractor covering everything from fixtures to water heaters and sump pumps. Residential work, including drain cleaning, makes up about 70 percent of the business. The company handles some light commercial work as well.

“It’s a very competitive market here,” Smith says. “We offer a personal touch and I feel that many of our competitors don’t.”

The company has eight service vehicles, all Chevy 2500 vans, which are stocked with about $5,000 in parts and tools. Plumbers carry basic hands tools ranging from Channellock pliers to RIDGID pipe cutting tools, and wrenches, drills and reciprocating saws from Milwaukee Tool. The vans are also equipped with Spartan Tool 100 drain machines.

“They’re good trucks,” Smith says. “They aren’t as big as those trucks that companies have to carry water heaters and toilets, but we stock all that in our shop and have a delivery person available to bring that out as needed.”

Smith says the trucks are much easier to maneuver in a metropolitan area like downtown Indianapolis.

Going digging

The other 30 percent of operations for L.D. Smith Plumbing comes in excavation and trenchless repair work.

“Excavation is anything from putting in clean-outs to total line replacements,” Smith says. “We do trenchless sewer repair and replacement; we do water service repair and replacement. The excavation side has become a larger and larger part of my business.”

It wasn’t until about two or three years ago that Smith really got into the digging and trenchless repair work. “I didn’t have the space or money to add it right away,” he says. “It’s a big investment to make that leap.”

That investment included equipment like a Bobcat E35i, being pulled by a Ford F-350 with custom-built tracks and bins and a TRIC Tools V26 pipe bursting setup.

“I’ve just always liked to play in the dirt,” Smith says. “I love all of plumbing, but I’ve always liked that aspect of it. I can’t explain it. There’s certainly a need for it, and I’ve always just liked excavation and drainlines and sewer lines. I’ve always enjoyed that type of work.”

Smith has found that offering trenchless repair methods has made working in tighter spaces, like downtown Indianapolis, easier. The company used its pipe bursting equipment on a section of sewer line that needed to be replaced but that was inaccessible by vehicle and would require moving a structure just to access the line.

“One repair involved us replacing a line under a newer garage and another one involved us replacing a line between two houses where we couldn’t get any excavation equipment in,” Smith says. “We were one of only a few contractors that could provide a long-term solution to those difficult problems.”

Adding trenchless services to the company’s offerings has allowed L.D. Smith Plumbing to be a one-stop shop for customers. “It has just given us more solutions to offer to the homeowner,” he says. “It’s less destructive, and it helped us to diversify and expand to truly become a full-service contractor.”

The company also uses three complete RIDGID camera systems with V10 monitors, three Spartan 2001 machines, reels and locators.

“There have been times when homeowners have had to make a very expensive repair to a sewer line, but we’re able to do trenchless and save them a lot of money,” Smith says. “We have videos, and we’ll show the homeowners what we’re going to do and how it’s done. They can watch them online, and our technicians all carry videos of us doing trenchless work too.”

One of the crew

There’s one thing that Smith says makes his company stick out amongst many of the competitors: He works along with his crews.

“For a company this size, you seldom see owners still actively involved in the field, which I am,” he says. “I wear a uniform just like any other guy. I don’t have dress pants and a collared shirt on, except if I have meetings. Even when we’re really busy, I’m a helper on the jobs.”

He says it helps him keep in touch with the needs of the customers and plumbers, allowing him and his crews to be more responsive to customers’ needs and concerns.

“Sometimes people tell me not to do that, not to go out and work, and that I need to be concentrating on running the business,” Smith says. “Why change something when it’s working? It shows that I actually care, that I’m involved and not just sitting up in some cushy office chair watching the dollars roll in. I care about what goes on.”

Despite spending less time in the office, Smith can see that his company has the potential to keep growing.

“Within the next five years, my target goal is 15 service vans and two complete excavation crews,” he says. “I’d also like to continue by adding benefits to make the company a better place to work than it already is, to attract top talent to a place where everybody wants to retire.”

Finding the right match

Lance Smith knows a big part of his Indianapolis-based plumbing company’s success is thanks to his employees, and he knows what he wants when he needs to hire.

“We have a variety of plumbing backgrounds,” says Smith, owner of L.D. Smith Plumbing. “There’s seldom a time where we can’t put our heads together and figure out a problem. We have a great well technician, a guy with an excavation background and two guys with new work backgrounds. If there is something one of us gets stuck on, we communicate very well. This is a team-first environment.”

The company has grown fast — Smith needed to upgrade from his garage to a 3,000-square-foot building just a year after starting out. In order to facilitate that growth while maintaining a high level of service, he says it’s important to have quality employees and an open line of communication.

“It’s their hard work, too, that got us here and allowed us to grow; and letting them know we’re in growth mode right now helps,” Smith says. “We make sure we keep open the lines of communication when we’re sharing what our goals are.”

While it is tempting at times to hire whomever they can find, Smith says that method has always come back to bite him. For the most part it’s a little bit of luck and seeing the real person when it comes to hiring.

“I find attitude and character are more important than anything else,” Smith says. “I can teach plumbing. I can’t teach work ethic and character. I’m looking for green guys who are wanting to get into the field and have a good work history and good character and good attitude.”


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