Family Members Carry On Late Plumber’s Legacy and Vision

Mark McGinnis’ unexpected death didn’t mean a downslide for his longtime plumbing and drain cleaning company, as his wife and children stepped up to ensure it remained strong and on a healthy growth trajectory

Family Members Carry On Late Plumber’s Legacy and Vision

 A big part of why Valerie McGinnis decided to keep her husband’s company going following his death were the many loyal employees. “I couldn’t just walk away from almost 20 families,” she says.

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When Valerie McGinnis’ husband Mark unexpectedly died of a heart attack in January 2020 at age 60, she wasn’t sure what would happen to $15 Sewer & Drain, the business the well-known plumber and drain cleaner had started in 1986 in San Jose, California.

That all changed when she met with grief-stricken employees the following Monday morning.

“They were beside themselves,” McGinnis says. “When I saw the looks on the faces of all these grown men, that’s when I decided to keep going. I couldn’t just walk away from almost 20 families.”

That decision set in motion an emotionally and physically exhausting journey for McGinnis and her five children, three of whom joined the company to keep it traveling on the path envisioned by their father: Savannah, 20; Steven, 28; and Charles, 31.

“I went from being a ‘class mother’ at my kids’ schools and a stay-at-home mom to a full-time employee,” McGinnis says. “It was very difficult to step into Mark’s shoes because he did almost everything. Between the long hours and dealing with things I didn’t know a lot about, like finances, money for payroll and materials, it was very challenging. I was putting in 14 hours a day on some days.

“We all kind of worked into areas that fit our strong suits and then it got easier,” she adds. “I also hired an outside payroll service, a CPA and other professionals to get things done right. Now I mainly take calls and handle customers, which is a much better mix than it was in the beginning.”


The family had giant-size shoes to fill. For decades, Mark was a fixture in the plumbing and drain cleaning arena in the San Francisco Bay Area, a skilled technician who slowly but surely built a business — and a brand — by pledging to unclog drains for $15. He strongly believed in embracing new technology, comprehensive training for employees, and never leaving a job unfinished, no matter how difficult.

“We still get calls every day from customers who say, ‘My plumber is here and can’t get my drain open, and he says you’re the only company that can help me,’” McGinnis says. “Mark was very big on never leaving a customer with a clogged drain. We just don’t do that. Ever. Period.”

Mark also possessed the proverbial heart of gold, always willing to tackle drain issues that other plumbers wouldn’t touch or give free plumbing advice to customers.

In fact, McGinnis says Mark would routinely take customer calls late at night, tell them what parts they needed to fix a problem, then talk them through the repair over the phone. In honor of that philosophy about doing the right thing for customers, every technician now is required to stay in the office on a rotating basis on Wednesdays and do nothing but take calls from customers and give them free repair advice.

“We do that because that’s what Mark used to do,” McGinnis says. “He always said that’s what made the company strong. He felt if he did the right thing, he’d always land on his feet when things got tough. It’s not always about making money. We’re dealing with people at their worst — stressed and upset. That gives us a chance to save the day and that’s what really matters.”


Mark got into the trade after quitting high school and working for a neighbor who ran a drain cleaning franchise.

“He kind of fell in love with the freedom to be out in the field with customers, not stuck in an office all the time,” McGinnis says.

After working for a couple years, he encountered a situation that spurred him to form his own company. During a service call for a clogged drain at a home owned by an elderly couple, both ill with cancer, Mark discovered that they’d merely forgotten to deploy their bathtub trip lever. He tripped it and left without charging them for the call.

A supervisor later questioned him about the free service, noting that the company’s mission was to make money.

“Mark said he never felt worse in his life,” McGinnis recalls. “It was a moment he never forgot. He figured there had to be a better way.”

And so $15 Sewer & Drain was born. The business model was simple: Attract customers with a low drain-cleaning price and make up the revenue shortfall by amassing a large volume of business.

The formula worked. By the mid-1990s, Mark was running 45 trucks, employed about 43 technicians and served the entire San Francisco Bay Area. But after getting married and having children, he scaled back to about 20 technicians and trucks to make the business more manageable.

Talk about volume: From the day the company started through September 2022, the company has created 788,202 invoices, McGinnis says. That comes out to an average of nearly 21,900 a year.

“That number absolutely blows me away,” McGinnis says.

The company no longer charges only $15 for drain cleaning. How does staff explain the discrepancy between the company name and the now higher price?

McGinnis says they tell customers that the company name when it started was $15 Sewer & Drain, but the actual charge has increased over the years to $15 just for a trip charge, plus $100 for a one-hour service call.

“If the call takes more than an hour, we charge $50 for every extra half-hour,” McGinnis says. “But I’d say about 75% of our calls take about an hour.”


The company owns a full complement of machines and equipment, including a pipe bursting system from TRIC Tools and a brush coating system from Picote Solutions, both of which reflect McGinnis’ philosophy about embracing technology that can open up new markets and better serve customers.

The company also owns a HotJet II trailer-mounted, hot-water jetter (4,000 psi at up to 10 gpm) from HotJet USA; a sonar leak detection machine from LeakTronics; GO 50, GO 62 and GO 68 cable drain machines from Gorlitz Sewer & Drain; a GO 1500 Series water jetter (1,500 psi at 2.1 gpm), also from Gorlitz; a standard RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera, plus SeeSnake Mini Reel, Compact C40 and Compact M40 inspection cameras; RIDGID FlexShaft 120 and 204 drain machines; a RIDGID NaviTrak Scout pipeline locator; a pipeline inspection camera from Forbest Products Co.; jackhammers from Robert Bosch Tool Corp.; ProPress tools and concrete saws from Milwaukee Tool; and a MaxiMiller descaling machine from Picote Solutions.

The company runs 17 service vehicles for plumbing and drain cleaning technicians. About half the fleet consists of Ford cargo vans, with Dodge Ram ProMaster vans filling out the rest of the fleet. The company is slowly converting the entire fleet to ProMaster vans, McGinnis says.

“Mark always was big on having the best — the latest and greatest in equipment,” she says. “He firmly believed that reliable and productive equipment always gets jobs done faster and more efficiently.

“Because our business model has always been based on high volume at low cost, our technicians have to be efficient — get in and get out. Each of our technicians does six to eight service calls a day for drains which, from what I understand, is more than normal.”


One thing that has changed in the past few years is the company’s marketing strategy. For reasons unknown, the number of drain cleaning and plumbing businesses in San Jose’s service area has skyrocketed.

In addition, the pandemic hurt business, which forced the company to increase its marketing. The upshot? The company started using social media platforms such as Yelp and Instagram to further bolster the $15 Sewer & Drain brand.

“Before COVID, we made it because we had so many repeat customers,” McGinnis explains. “About nine out of 10 people were either repeat customers or local plumbers referring business to us.

“But when COVID first hit, it was an eye-opener when we realized what we had to do (to strengthen marketing efforts and keep phones ringing). We had no social media presence — we fell a bit behind in that area.”

But now the business enjoys a significant amount of reviews on Google and Yelp. As of early October 2022, the company had 480 reviews posted on Yelp alone.

“And we don’t even encourage customers to post reviews — they just do it on their own,” McGinnis says. “It’s kind of amazing.”

The company is also doing some internal restructuring to better market its plumbing services, which aren’t as obvious to customers, given that the name of the business is $15 Sewer & Drain. Instead of renaming the entire company and ditching nearly 40 years of built-up brand equity, the company is marketing its plumbing and trenchless pipeline rehab services under a different name, The Great American Plumbing Co.

“We think of it as two different divisions,” McGinnis says.


Looking ahead, McGinnis plans to keep building on her husband’s legacy, which extends far beyond the company itself. She estimates that more than a dozen former employees have gone on to form their own companies — something that never upset Mark.

“He always wanted our guys to better themselves — have great careers,” she says.

McGinnis says the company plans to extend its service coverage northeast of San Jose to the east side of Francisco Bay, out to Alameda County, and south of San Jose to Santa Cruz County.

“We feel we can step into those areas slowly and still maintain great customer service,” she says.

And as McGinnis looks back at three very tumultuous — as well as fulfilling and gratifying — years, she knows she made the right decision in January 2020.

“I feel really good about how far we’ve come and where we’ve brought the business,” she says. “We’re just carrying on what Mark started. I think he’d be very proud.”


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