Michael Williams Goes Above and Beyond the Scripted Service Call

Third-generation plumber builds on his family legacy and helps everyone he can along the way

Michael Williams Goes Above and Beyond the Scripted Service Call

Michael Williams unloads a Sewerooter T-3 at a residential drain cleaning job.

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When Michael Williams talks business, he’s really talking about life and relationships. That’s what the business is to him.

And make no mistake, the owner of Just Drains in Philadelphia likes to talk. He’s quick to dispense advice, share wisdom and help whoever he can, whether it’s a customer, a colleague or a group of school kids.

“I’m not playing the short game. I’m playing for the legacy,” Williams says. “The way I live my life is like a marathon. It’s not a sprint. If it takes the last breath of my body to make sure somebody else is doing better before I leave here or that someone has a better life and can provide for their family, then mission accomplished.

“Life’s not about me. A man is not measured by the cars, the money or the houses he has. He’s measured by the people he helps along the way.”

Early introduction

Williams grew up in the plumbing business. At only 54, he’s already spent the better part of a half-century in the industry, having started working with his grandfather at the age of 6. Arthur Williams was one of Philadelphia’s first African American master plumbers, and his grandson quickly took to the trade.

“He taught me about building relationships. He said a friendship will last longer than the money, and it’s true,” Williams says. “My grandfather was a very humble man. There was nothing and nobody he didn’t have time for, and he never forgot you. My father was the same way. My uncles were the same way. My mother’s the same way. I’m the same way. Real people don’t forget you. That’s something that stuck on me — seeing him talk to people and seeing people always wanting him to do work for them. He was the first black plumber in Philadelphia, and he helped everybody.”

When his grandfather passed away in 1996, Williams went to work with his uncle, Les Woods, a master electrician who was head electrical inspector for the city of Philadelphia for 30 years. Later, his uncle Alexander Hickman, a master drain cleaner in Philadelphia, shared his knowledge and helped Williams develop his love and respect for drain cleaning. Along the way, he also attended trade school.

“I was very fortunate to go to a trade school here in Philadelphia called Randolph Skill. It was a school for inner-city youth and anyone who wanted to learn a trade. I learned some plumbing there, but I learned plumbing all over. The drain cleaning I learned from my uncle Big Al. To learn a trade and to learn to respect the trade, that’s the whole thing.”


Williams has now been a licensed plumber for almost 20 years. In 2007, he opened Just Drains in Philadelphia and hired his uncles and brother, Wesley Sanon, who now owns All Service Plus in New Jersey. While the company handles some light plumbing work, Williams’ focus has been on drain cleaning from the start.

“Drain cleaning to me is freedom,” he says. “With plumbing, sometimes it’s a possibility that you’ll be stuck on one job all day long. With drain cleaning, the most jobs I’ve ever done in one day is 12. I’m still trying to catch up to my uncle because the most jobs he ever did in one day was 20. But I’m traveling. I love people. I’m not in a box, not in a cubicle. I’m out there, and the money in drain cleaning squashes the money in plumbing. Drain cleaning is the thing people will always need.”

Still, Williams hasn’t abandoned plumbing, which accounts for about 15% of the business. “We only do light plumbing work,” he says. “If it’s something bigger or it requires excavation, we give it to a plumber who gives us work. We don’t stand where we are without other people’s help, so shame on me if I don’t give work to plumbers who give us work.”

The company’s other services include drain cleaning, jetting, video inspection and pipe locating. About 65% of the work is residential. The rest is commercial. Drain cleaning referrals from other plumbers account for an important chunk of business. Williams says he does drain cleaning work for about 425 plumbers in the Philadelphia area and gets 20 to 25 calls or referrals from other plumbers every week.

“Referrals are fantastic,” he says. “The plumbing and drain industry is all a close-knit family, so to have another plumber call you and recommend you, that’s priceless. It lets me know that what we’re doing is working.”

On call

Williams has used a lot of different equipment over the years, but experience and time in the field have shown what works best for him and his crew.

“I have over 200 machines now, but our go-to machines are General Pipe Cleaners. You want to have the best equipment, and General equipment and machines are like tanks. They take a beating and they keep running. One of the Power-Vees I have, I’ve had for over 20 years. I’ve had a SewerMatic, which they don’t make anymore, for over 25 years and I still use it every week.”

Williams recommends smaller vehicles. He and his four technicians run Chevy Astro vans because they’re big enough to hold all the necessary equipment and small enough to make parking easy. That’s important in downtown Philadelphia, with heavy traffic, narrow alleyways and limited parking.

“We can pull in and park in a regular parking space. We can park, get in, get out and be done versus having to circle the block looking for a place to park,” Williams says. “Big trucks are fine, but a big truck is like using only one drain machine: You can’t use it for every job.”

Trucks are stocked with the General Mini-Rooter, Sewerooter T-3, Speedrooter 91s and 92s, Power-Vees and Super-Vees, the Kinetic Water Ram and a JM-2900 cart jetter.

Trucks are all stocked with the same basic equipment, but some machines and tools get swapped between trucks depending on the job and workload. Some will run lighter than others. One of the technicians handles more inside work, so his van is loaded with smaller inside equipment, including a General JM-1450 electric jetter.

“It’s a great product,” Williams says. “It puts out 1.5 gpm and has 1,500 psi. It’s a great machine for inside or smaller lines for the simple fact that it’s not gas.

“We’ve had quite a few jobs downtown where it’s really helped. If you always use a big jetter, you run the risk of flooding a place. When a restaurant calls on a busy Friday night, a small jetter like this gives you the ability to clear the problem without shutting the place down. We’ll try cabling it first, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll turn to the electric jetter.”

Technicians take their GPS-equipped vans home at night so they can head straight to their first job in the morning. The office is staffed by Williams’ longtime secretary, Helen Lewis, but service calls are handled by a 24-hour answering service and then dispatched.

Williams wants everyone who calls to get a real person on the line, regardless of the time.

“People want to talk to people, not a machine. It’s like going to the emergency room — you don’t want to talk to a robot, you want to talk to a doctor. It’s the same thing with us,” he says. “It’s 24/7 because drains never take a day off and drains don’t sleep. Christmas, New Year’s, Fourth of July, we’re out here.”

Serving others

The 24/7 mentality is a big part of Williams’ business. He’s always willing to lend a hand, and he doesn’t turn down work.

“I work every day for opportunity, but opportunities aren’t like car accidents — they’re not going to run into you. You have to make your opportunities, just like you make your own luck. People say I’m lucky; no, I work every day, seven days a week. If you put the time in, you will see the results.”

Williams says a problem he sees with some companies, no matter how big, is that the people responding to service calls don’t always want to do the work. They’re not available on weekends or holidays, or they’ll oversell a job because they don’t really want to do it. And they lose track of the fact that they’re in business to provide a service.

“We’re here to serve. It’s not the other way around. People think the customer needs you. Customers don’t need you. The customer has a smartphone, and there are 50,000 other drain cleaning companies out there. They can surf the web forever and never call you,” he says. “You need them.”

While there are plenty of other drain cleaners in Philadelphia, Williams doesn’t see them as competition because he doesn’t do business like everybody else.

“Yeah we come in with our clipboard and our booties, but we come in to listen to the customer first. We assess everything and then we go to fix the problem, whereas a lot of the companies out here are like robots. They have the same script. They do the same thing, day in and day out.”

Instead, he treats every call as its own unique situation. There’s always someone new to get to know, someone to help. Even if he’s seen it a million times, it may be the first time the customer has had their basement drain back up. They may have damage to their house or personal belongings. It’s an emergency, a situation that deserves care, both for the customer and the plumbing problem.

“A lady the other day summed it up. She said I care. She said, ‘I only want you to come because you care. The first thing you always ask about is my husband. And then you ask about me, and then you ask about my children. And then you ask about the job. Nobody else does that.’”

Calling Williams a drain cleaner, or even a plumber and drain cleaner, doesn’t begin to paint a complete picture of who he is. Williams is an entrepreneur, a tireless self-promoter, a resource for anyone who needs business or life advice, and someone who’s always willing to lend a hand, regardless of whether you can return the favor.

“Our success is about people,” he says. “I’m not just there to clean your drains.”

Take some advice

Michael Williams, owner of Just Drains in Philadelphia, is quick to offer advice and encouragement, both to fellow drain cleaners and anyone else who needs some help.

He’s proven he knows what it takes to be successful in life and business, so here are some of his words to live and work by:

  • Always carry business cards. Not having a business card is like trying to start your car without a battery.
  • Wake up hungry every day. Don’t ever be complacent.
  • When you do things for the right reasons, you’ll have everything you want.
  • Do more than the other guy is doing.
  • You don’t get anything by being selfish.
  • You have to love the journey and enjoy the process.
  • Learn every aspect of drain cleaning, inside and out.
  • If you provide excellent service, people will pay whatever you’re charging.
  • Referrals make your phone ring.
  • Life is about how bad you want it. Nobody’s stopping you.

Of course, Williams has learned plenty from the people who’ve helped him along the way.

“As my uncle who passed away used to say, ‘It’s not the end of the world. There’s somebody who’s worse off. There’s somebody right now who doesn’t have water. There’s somebody who doesn’t have anyone to talk to. There’s someone who doesn’t have the opportunities you and I have. So stay humble, be respectful and help people.’”


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