Hawaii Serves Up Endless Work and Tough Jobs for Honolulu-Based Contractor

Pipe Masters earned a solid reputation tackling challenging jobs and treating customers with integrity

Hawaii Serves Up Endless Work and Tough Jobs for Honolulu-Based Contractor

 Pipe Masters technicians Micah Huffman (left) and Devin Watabu inspect a drainline with a RIDGID SeeSnake system.

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At Pipe Masters, there’s a running joke that illustrates one reason for the company’s rapid growth over the past several years.

“We always say that the best way to get our pipe masters to do something is to tell them they can’t do it,” quips Jason Koran, the owner of the pipeline rehab and plumbing company based in Honolulu. “All of us like a good challenge.”

That can-do attitude, coupled with investments in advanced technology and an emphasis on customer service, has lifted the company to financial heights Koran says he couldn’t have imagined when he established the company in early 2015 on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

While working with just two employees that year — Koran and right-hand man and lead technician Bernard Luong — the company racked up about $690,000 in gross revenue. By 2017, the company cracked the million-dollar barrier, generating $1.6 million in sales. And in 2020, the company notched $2.2 million in sales, with only a couple more technicians on board than it employed in 2017. Pipe Masters now employs 12 people, including eight technicians.

The main ingredient in Koran’s success is a team of crack field technicians, led by Luong and two other lead technicians, George Manguba and Devin Watabu.

“They’re the tripod on which this company stands,” says 40-year-old Koran. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without these guys. I don’t have to baby-sit or micromanage anything. … They always get the job done.

“You can invest in all the good equipment you want, but at the end of the day, it comes down to the technicians who operate it. We’re a small company, so we’re not big enough to handle every emergency call. That’s just not who we are.

“But if a customer is experiencing repetitive emergencies, that’s where we shine and can show our capabilities. We’re always up for a challenge and we don’t leave a job until we find a way to repair it. That’s one thing that separates us from our competitors — we do not tell customers no.”

Roundabout career path

Koran’s success is more notable for the fact that he never planned on a career in plumbing and pipeline rehab. Koran, who grew up in Hawaii, did construction and landscaping work for several uncles when he was younger, but that didn’t involve any mechanical work like plumbing, he says.

After graduating from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with a political science degree, Koran — who grew up in Hawaii — held a wide variety of jobs.

“Every job I fell into, I loved,” he says, noting he worked for an attorney, served as a mortgage officer, and handled marketing and advertising duties for a phonebook company. “But boy, am I glad I pursued a career in plumbing rather than politics.”

The turning point occurred when he returned to Hawaii and met the owner of a prominent plumbing company based on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The owner asked him to help establish a division of the company on Oahu, and Koran eventually accepted.

“That’s where I learned how to not only do good work, but how to grow a company,” he says. “I got my feet wet in pipeline rehab work and enjoyed every bit of it. I was always advocating to attempt bigger and bigger projects.”

Koran also credits a mentor, Rich Hart, who now owns Harts Services in Tacoma, Washington, for teaching him about customer service and quality control.

After leaving the plumbing company in 2014, Koran founded Pipe Masters. Koran says the name not only alludes to the company’s expertise, but it’s also a nod to the annual World Surf League’s Billabong Pipe Masters surfing competition, held at the renowned Bonzai Pipeline off the coast of Oahu.

“I wanted to have some fun with the name because sometimes plumbing can be boring.”

Great market potential

Koran says he jumped headfirst into trenchless pipe rehab because it was new and other companies didn’t seem interested in new technology, which created an underserved market niche just waiting to be filled. Furthermore, Hawaii’s corrosive soil and salty environment is hard on cast iron pipes, which creates a lucrative market for pipe rehab work.

“Many of the pipes here are 50 to 60 years old,” he explains. “Putting cast iron pipes in the ground here is like laying them into a salt bed — they start to corrode quickly. We sometimes see cast-iron pipe fail after only 25 years, which is half its usual life expectancy.

“We’re also situated on a tectonic plate here, which means there’s a lot of ground settling on our islands. So offsets often occur.”

Despite the great market potential, working in Hawaii — roughly 2,500 miles from America’s West Coast — poses its own set of challenges. The pool for skilled laborers is small and the logistics of obtaining materials and buying new machinery and equipment are difficult, Koran says.

“I have to go to the mainland once or twice a year just to find out about new technology because distributors generally won’t come here to sell us equipment. That slows down operations. And everything takes more time to bring here and shipping is expensive, too.

“But we also work in nice weather year-round, so we’ve got that going for us.”

Investing in technology

The company started out doing service and repair plumbing work, plus pipe lining, using a system made by MaxLiner USA. But within the ensuing three years or so, Koran quickly invested in other productivity- and profitability-enhancing equipment and technologies.

Pipe Masters owns two pipe bursting machines — an R2 and an R8 — manufactured by RODDIE and an ElastoTec M pipe coating system developed by I.S.T Services.

“Every trenchless technology has limitations, so it’s all about trying to give every customer an option,” says Koran, explaining why he diversifies the company’s offerings. “The more technologies we add, we more we reduce the odds of ever saying no to a customer.”

The company also owns about a dozen RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection cameras (standard models, Minis and microDrains) as well as Gvision monitors built by EPL Solutions.

For drain cleaning, technicians rely on RIDGID K45 hand-held machines and toilet/urinal augers; a Speedrooter 92 cable drain machine manufactured by General Pipe Cleaners; JM-1000 electric box jetters from General Pipe; and one Maxi Miller and one Mini Miller made by Picote Solutions.

Other investments include two Brute water jetters built by Jetters Northwest; a trailer-mounted, hot-water jetter manufactured by HotJet USA; a SebaKMT leak detection system; six RIDGID SeekTech SR-20 pipe locators; and a Kubota U17 mini-excavator.

For service vehicles, the company relies on three Ford Transit 250s, two Mercedes-Benz Metris vans, one Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van with a Knapheide KUV utility box and a Chevrolet 3500 cutaway van with a service body made by Knapheide.

Honesty matters

Koran says treating customers fairly and with integrity also has boosted growth.

“We only recommend to our customers whatever work is necessary, as opposed to someone telling them they just need to replace everything,” he says. “We recommend doing what we would do if the property was our own.

“We also drill down into what repairs are needed now versus things that could be done, say, two to five years down the road. That way customers feel like we’re always looking out for their best interests.”

To ensure customer satisfaction and improve quality control, every customer gets a call from the company’s office supervisor shortly after every job is completed. Making sure customers are happy with the service they received also provides an opportunity to schedule any further work a technician may have recommended, Koran says.

“So we’ve turned a customer satisfaction and quality control technique into a sales tool, too. We also ask customers to give us a good online review. If they agree, we make it easy by sending them a link to online review platforms like Yelp and Google.”

The approach has been successful. Since last fall, the number of online reviews on Google increased from none to 121, with all of them five-star ratings on a scale of one to five. The company also has garnered 147 reviews on Angi (formerly Angie’s List), with an average rating of 4.7 stars, and over 75 reviews on Yelp, with an average score of 4.5 stars.

Dialed in

During the company’s first year or so, rapid growth — expanding from one service vehicle to seven, for example — created chaos, which forced Koran to periodically tap the brakes on even more growth.

“But now that we’ve got our systems dialed in, we can afford to push the gas pedal a little more,” he says. “After that first year of chaos, I know how important systems are for both technicians and office personnel.”

Along with more emphasis on consistent processes, the company switched to ServiceTitan business management software, which was a game-changer in terms of better efficiency and productivity, Koran says.

“It was like hiring two new employees. It sends booking and technician-arrival confirmations to customers and handles dispatching, all without putting an extra burden on our staff.

“We can even record pipeline inspections and upload them to the cloud, then email the videos to clients before the technicians leave the job site,” he adds. “For about $1,500 a month, it’s one of the best investments I ever made. It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for.”

As such, Pipe Masters now is in a position to grow fast — minus the chaos that reigned in the early years, Koran says. His goal is to double the size of the company within the next three years.

“We’re ready to go. The sky’s the limit from here.” 


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