Julius Voss Carries on His Family’s Legacy of Quality Plumbing Service

Julius Voss uses professionalism and his plumbing “super truck” to build a broad customer base

Julius Voss Carries on His Family’s Legacy of Quality Plumbing Service

 Julius Voss Plumbing employees Willison Voss (right) and Adarlyn Price take survey measurements to prepare for a sewer line installation. 

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During the past two decades, Julius Voss has slowly but surely assembled a fleet of productivity- and profitability-enhancing equipment that’s surprisingly large for the owner of a two-man plumbing shop in Cleveland, a small town in rural northwestern Mississippi.

From a trailer-mounted PipeHunter water jetter and a color sewer camera from Forbest Products Co., to newer excavation equipment and a 17-foot box truck that’s a warehouse on wheels, Voss, owner of Julius Voss Plumbing & Construction, has built a well-diversified business since he established the company in 2000.

Not bad for someone who started out with a 1978 Chevrolet pickup truck with no working heat or air conditioning, $200 in his pocket, a 5-gallon plastic bucket, some basic hand tools and a toolbox.

A third-generation plumber, Voss built his company through two key strategies. The first is an unconventional approach to marketing, centered on what Voss calls his “super truck” — a 2018 Chevrolet Express 3500 outfitted with a 17-foot aluminum box body built by Reading Truck Body.

The second is a continual emphasis on reinvesting profits into equipment that helps him expand his services and markets, differentiate from competitors and better serve customers in Cleveland and surrounding Bolivar County. Cleveland is a small town of about 12,300 residents, located roughly 115 miles south of Memphis.

“I sacrificed a lot to plow money back into my company,” Voss explains. “If I made $100, I knew I had to save $85. I saw what my daddy and granddaddy went through [as plumbers]. … I wanted to take my business to a whole new level — do something no one else had done in this area, especially an African American.”

That last comment speaks to another factor that drives Voss’ passion for continual growth and improvement: It’s not easy to be an African American businessman in a small town in the Deep South. Ever since Voss was young, working for his father, he encountered challenges imposed by racism.

“I get crumbs compared to what other companies get,” Voss says. “I’m often the second or third call people make and I get the worst jobs. The deck is kind of stacked against you.”

But the 55-year-old tradesman and entrepreneur isn’t someone who spends time feeling sorry for himself or expecting pity from others. Instead, he saw injustices as a challenge to overcome and used them as motivation to be better than his competition.

“It made me always want to do a little more, as well as do things differently to make sure my company stood out,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t always going to get the first opportunity, so I had to think outside the box. But after I get my foot in the door for top-shelf jobs, I make sure my customers see something they’ve never seen before. And after they get a taste of my professionalism and see the kind of work I do, I have customers for life.”

Deep plumbing roots

Voss comes from a long line of plumbers. His late grandfather, the Rev. John Henry Voss, a licensed plumber in Cleveland, established John H. Voss Plumbing & Gas in 1943.

“He became a plumber because he didn’t want to be a sharecropper earning $1 a day,” Voss says.

Then there’s Voss’ grandfather’s half-brother, Buddy Robinson, who operated Buddy Robinson Plumbing Co. in Cleveland, starting in 1935. And Voss’ father, the Rev. Willison Voss, was a licensed plumber in Cleveland; now retired, he worked for his father before forming the Voss Plumbing Co., and Voss’ uncle, Andrew Voss (Willison’s brother), opened a plumbing company in Milwaukee.

Voss and his brother, Bobby, worked for their father as teens and hated it. “Other kids made fun of us and bullied us because we did such dirty work,” he recalls. But after Voss graduated from high school and his father told him to move out and find his way in the world, he stuck with what he knew: plumbing.

“It was tough love at age 18,” he says.

Something to prove

Voss moved to Milwaukee, where he worked for two plumbing companies. About four years later, he moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job with a large and prominent plumbing company. That’s where he saw how trucks could be used as marketing tools, he says.

“They had five of what they called ‘super trucks,’” Voss says. “I was so impressed with how those trucks were set up that I said to myself, ‘Someday I’m going to have me a big truck and fix it up just like this.’”

Voss got that opportunity when he moved back to Cleveland in May 2000 and established Julius Voss Plumbing & Construction, carrying on the family name and trade. Although he started his journey with meager resources, he was convinced he could succeed.

“The Voss name already was there — all I had to do was step up and perform. I also had a strong work ethic, just like my daddy and granddaddy, and I didn’t believe in cutting corners and doing crappy work. I also felt like I had something to prove. People always told me I wouldn’t amount to much of anything, but I used that negativity as motivation.”

That motivation is reflected by the four different master licenses Voss holds in plumbing, gas-fitting, installing septic systems and pumping out septic tanks.

Much of how Voss operates was informed by his father and grandfather. One important lesson: It’s all about customer service and differentiating from competitors. That means wearing a uniform, providing impeccable craftsmanship on jobs and cleaning up afterwards, he notes.

“Customers don’t know what you did under the cabinet. But what they’re going to look at is the finished product, so it better look really professional. And I always bring a mop, a broom, a dustpan and some bleach … the walls and floors where I work are going to look and smell really nice.

“I often get thank-you notes from customers who say they never had a plumber do things like that before.”

Strategic parking and lighting

The Chevrolet “super truck” is central to Voss’ marketing efforts. It features a $6,000 blue, orange and white vinyl wrap emblazoned with the company’s name, phone number and slogan, “One call, that’s all” — a testament to his one-shop-stop business mentality.

Inside, Voss built his own shelf-and-bin storage system. To make it lighter, he used steel supports instead of wood for the framework. The result is better gas mileage and less wear and tear on the engine and tires, he says.

“A truck’s appearance reflects on the kind of work you’ll do. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. I get compliments all the time how neat and clean the truck is. When I’m out running errands or on jobs, I leave the rear door open so people who walk by can see how neat and organized it is. It lets people see me as a professional. I can’t count how many customers I’ve gotten from displaying my truck like that.

“Sometimes a customer’s neighbor comes over and sees the truck and says, ‘This is impressive — I’ve got some work you could come and do.’ Some people might call it bragging. But I call it marketing — strategically parking in places where everyone can see my truck.”

And if the vinyl wrap and well-organized interior don’t catch peoples’ eyes, the yellow-and-white flashing light atop the cab does the job. Featuring nine different flashing patterns, the lighting fixture is street legal, and a key marketing tool.

“When I come down a road, you cannot miss me. It keeps me at the forefront of peoples’ minds when they need a plumber because they remember that guy with the flashing light.”

The fleet to beat

Voss also prides himself on being at the forefront of technology. The backbone of his drain cleaning efforts is a trailer-mounted PipeHunter water jetter (PipeHunter is a brand owned by Texas Underground). Featuring a 700-gallon water tank, a water pump made by Giant Pump (5,000 psi at 75 gpm) and 700 feet of 1-inch-diameter hose, the jetter can clean pipes up to 48 inches in diameter.

The machine not only differentiated him from competitors, it opened up new markets for his company for cleaning municipal sewers.

“I’m the only plumber in the area with that kind of power and capability. After the word got out, I started getting work from neighboring towns and municipalities, which broadened my business base.”

Voss says his machine is a very basic model; he decided to not add any bells and whistles in order to whittle the price down to about $40,000. That’s a big chunk of change, but if businesses want to be competitive, they have to spend money to make money, he says.

Seeing is believing

Investing in a color sewer camera made by Forbest Products also helped Voss to burnish his company’s reputation. Purchased more than a decade ago, the inspection camera helps him sell jobs by allowing customers to see a problem in an underground pipe, not just take his word for it that something is wrong.

“They can see the problem in full color and make up their own mind,” he says. “At the time, there were only one or two plumbers around here with sewer cameras.”

The company also owns medium- and full-size cable drain machines made by Marco Products Co. (now defunct). Voss also uses power tools made by Milwaukee Tool and DEWALT, including a family keepsake: a Milwaukee right-angle drill that his father handed down to him.

“It still does the job,” he says.

For excavation work, such as installing new sewer lines or doing septic system work, Voss relies on a 2019 Caterpillar 303.5E mini-excavator with a 17-foot arm. He also owns a full-size Case 580D backhoe for larger excavation projects, as well as a Ditch Witch 3610 trencher/backhoe that he uses to install water lines.

The company also owns a 20-foot flatbed trailer made by Texas Bragg Trailers and a 14-foot enclosed trailer made by Arising Industries.

Two Ford pickup trucks and a Dodge Bighorn pickup truck round out the fleet.

Giving back 

Voss measures success by more than just revenue or equipment. He also strives to give young people jobs and open their eyes to career opportunities in the trades.

“Not everyone is cut out to sit in an office and wear a suit and tie, but lot of people can work with their hands,” he says. “I let them know that just because they don’t get a college degree and won’t wear a suit and tie doesn’t mean they can’t make a darn good living. Look what plumbing has done for me.”

Voss says he speaks at Ruleville High School in Ruleville, Cleveland Vocational Technical School in Cleveland and Amanda Elzy High School in Shelby.

Voss also sponsors a flag-football team for youths ages 8 through 11. The team has won two championships and Voss says he enjoys taking the players and their parents out for burgers and fries after games, just like his youth coach used to do.

A lasting legacy

Voss is hopeful that the Voss name will continue as a local plumbing tradition. A daughter is thinking about coming on board and learning the business, and he also has two cousins in Milwaukee that might move down and eventually take over the business.

“The name is already here — all they have to do is step into it, just like I did,” he says. “I’d love to see a next generation come in; you don’t want your name to die out. I believe it’s part of our family legacy to show another generation how to make an honest and profitable living.”

While Voss says he never doubted he would succeed as a plumber, his company’s growth has exceeded his expectations.

“I never imagined I’d be quite this successful. But I knew that with my work ethic and the training my father gave me, I could do something different. And when I got a chance to prove myself, I stepped up to the plate. When those people who used to make fun of me see me now, they don’t laugh at me anymore.”


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