Plumber Builds His Company and the Plumbing Industry

Kansas plumber works with tech school to help build a robust company culture

Plumber Builds His Company and the Plumbing Industry

 Pat Grogan (center) talks with residential sales reps Julie Tomczek and Andre Banks.

It’s easy for plumbers and drain cleaners to complain about the national shortage of qualified technicians, a byproduct of retiring baby boomers and younger people that have shunned the professional trades for decades. Doing something about it, on the other hand, is a lot harder.

That hasn’t stopped Pat Grogan from making a stand in Topeka, Kansas.

A couple years ago, Grogan — the owner of Pat the Plumber, Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning — reached a tipping point in terms of frustration with the labor shortage. So he decided to become part of the solution and contacted officials at a local technical school, the Washburn Institute of Technology, a branch of Washburn University.

“We were getting qualified HVAC technicians from other programs in town,” says Grogan, 51, who established his company in 2005. “But there weren’t any programs for plumbing. So I reached out to Alan Beam (director of instruction) and Mike Strohschein (now the school’s dean and an associate dean at the time) and they thought starting a program was a good idea.”

The program launched in fall 2022 with 22 enrolled students. Grogan helped develop the curriculum and also put his money where his mouth is, donating $25,000 to kick-start the program. And Explore the Trades, a program that builds awareness of career opportunities in the plumbing, HVAC and electrical trades, matched that with an in-kind donation of $25,000. (The program is part of the Nexstar Network.)

“Washburn Tech has been awesome,” Grogan says. “Mike and his team are go-getters. They jumped over hurdles and ran through walls to make this happen.”

Grogan estimates he and his team devoted about 100 hours of time to help develop the program, no small commitment. But he says it was time well spent.

“People know we have an issue,” he says. “And if we don’t do something about it, it’s not going to change. We want high schoolers to want to be plumbers when they grow up. Unfortunately, there are too many negative stereotypes. But once they see it’s an honorable profession that can provide a great life for them and their families, the sky’s the limit.

“We need to change the stereotypes. High schoolers need to see plumbers as guys who wear uniforms with nice button-down shirts, can carry on a great conversation with customers and earn a great salary — more than six figures in some cases.”

Success story

Grogan makes a good role model. When he started out, the company had only one employee — himself — and a truck. Now the business employs 16 people (including 10 technicians) and runs about a dozen service vehicles.

Grogan’s journey began when he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Army at age 17. He then worked in construction for a while and became a full-time plumber in 1995, when he was 23 years old. His entry into the field was influenced by working during summers for his father, Charles Grogan, who was a plumber in Binghamton, New York.

Grogan worked for a couple of plumbing companies for about 15 years and even became a junior partner at one of the firms.

“But deep down inside, I wanted to do my own thing,” he recalls.

So he left the last company in April 2005 and established Pat the Plumber, a name he trademarked, the following month.

“That’s what people called me,” he says, explaining the genesis of the name. “Plus it had nice alliteration, which is good for brand recognition.”

Grogan modified the name of the company in 2015 to reflect the addition of HVAC services.

As the company grew, so did its inventory of machines and equipment. For service vehicles, technicians rely on Ford Transits, some equipped with Hackney box bodies, and an Isuzu NPR-HD, also equipped with a Hackney box body.

The company also has invested in three RIDGID SeeSnake Mini pipeline-inspection cameras, a RIDGID NaviTrack Scout pipe locator, a RIDGID SeekTech locator, Spartan 100 and 300 drain machines, RIDGID K-50 sectional drain machines, Super-Vee handheld drain machines by General Pipe Cleaners and an Undertaker pipe-bursting system from Spartan Tool.

Technicians use RIDGID and Milwaukee power tools.

Employees drive growth

When asked about the most important factor in the company’s success, Grogan answers without any hesitation.

“Our people — hands down,” he says. “They work so incredibly hard and they’ve bent over backward for me and our customers. This is all built because of them. They treat every customer as if it’s their last one. They know every single relationship is important, whether it’s a fellow employee, a customer or a vendor. We care deeply about our customers and develop lifelong relationships. Do we screw up sometimes? Yes, we’re not perfect — it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. But we make it right and fix it.”

To attract and retain employees, the company offers medical, dental and vision insurance and pays half of the annual premiums; paid maternity and paternity leave; life insurance; a savings incentive match plan for employees’ IRA, with a dollar-for-dollar match up to 3% of salaries; and paid vacations and holidays. Employees even get a paid day off on their birthdays.

To find quality employees, the company pays referral bonuses to employees who recruit workers who get hired and stick with the company for a set period of time; that includes a $5,000 bonus for finding a qualified licensed technician, Grogan says.

Culture is critical

Grogan says he also strives to build a company culture that makes employees want to stay.

“Culture trumps process any day,” he says. “You can have the best plans and processes in place, but if you don’t develop the best culture, it doesn’t matter. With the best people and the best culture, you can move mountains together. They’ll help you develop those processes and deliver them, too.”

As an example, Grogan notes that employee input has been critical to revamping the company’s customer-service processes — figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The company has a culture development team that meets weekly to discuss ways to improve the company culture.

Grogan also brought in a facilitator to develop programs to help employees grow personally and professionally and take ownership of their careers.

Intertwined with all this is a continual emphasis on four core values: fanatical attention to consistency and detail; compassion for the families the company serves, both internally and externally; employees striving to be the best version of themselves personally and professionally through a commitment to continuous self-improvement; and a sense of urgency — moving fast with precision, Grogan says. 

Going for growth

Looking ahead, Grogan has an ambitious goal in mind: become one of the largest plumbing and HVAC companies in northeast Kansas.

“I used to be afraid to grow because it can cause chaos and you can lose control over quality and customer service,” he says. “Then your online reviews go down. But once I got rid of those fears, I learned you get better as you grow. Plus there’s more security because you have redundancy. If someone leaves and you have 20 employees, for instance, it doesn’t impact you as much as if you had only a few employees.”

Furthermore, more growth provides more avenues for employees to grow their careers, which is key to retaining quality workers.

“We’re all growth-oriented here,” he says. “We all want something better and want to be challenged in our lives. So I feel like I owe it to our employees to give them opportunities to move up.”


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