Emerald City Service: People are the biggest asset at Seattle's South West Plumbing
Service stays steady in new construction-crazy Seattle
Bill and Connie Buckingham sat in a waterfront chowder house enjoying the rare Seattle sunshine beaming through one of the front windows. Outside, Puget Sound was covered in whitecaps and Bill, a sailor and fisherman himself, estimated the wind on the water to be about 20 knots as he pointed out landmarks on the far shore: “Over there is Bremerton and Port Orchard,” he said.
The Buckinghams are the principals of South West Plumbing in Seattle, a fixture on the city’s plumbing scene since 1982. Then, Connie was working as a registered nurse, Bill had just gotten his Washington state plumbing license and installed some extra shelving in his home’s garage to hold inventory.
“Connie worked graveyard [at the hospital], and answered the phone during the day for me,” Bill said. “And I went out 24 hours a day, whenever the phone would ring. I’d just advertise in the local newspaper and I think I would get, starting off, maybe three calls a week. And then I’d get five or six. And it added up...it just started growing from there.”
The big question at this point may be how South West Plumbing got its name, considering it’s only ever been located in the Seattle area. Bill said the “South West” refers to the part of town he originally covered. But a small bridge to his part of town became a big bridge and competitors from across the river started moving into the southwest. In response, the Buckinghams started running calls in competitors’ territory.
Today, Connie and Bill run the company together full-time. The company employs about 110 people and fields about 40 plumbing trucks and a dozen support vehicles. The company offers lines like Bradford White tank water heaters, Wolverine Brass, TOTO and Noritz, among others: “Anybody that we can find that doesn’t sell in the big box stores,” Bill said. “Anybody that doesn’t sell in the big box stores is who we usually try to get.”
Over a recent lunch, Reeves Journal grilled Bill on South West and what makes the company tick, finding qualified labor, demographics and the Seattle market for service and repair work and the company’s most important assets.
Reeves Journal: What is it about Seattle that makes people go for the tankless heaters so much?
Bill Buckingham: I think they are very energy efficient type people in Seattle. I don’t know if you’d call them ‘tree huggers’, but they’re really into electric cars and very energy efficient type people or very conscious about their carbon footprint. So, a lot of people are starting to really ask about them and we’re starting to install a lot more tankless water heaters.
RJ: Has the influx of the current breed of new residents coming to work for companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft caused a backlog of service and repair work or is most of the big action in Seattle on the commercial side with all the new construction?
B.B.: There is a lot of new construction going on. But it doesn’t really affect service work that much. There’s a lot of older homes in the Seattle area, so, the new construction doesn’t really affect it. It pretty much remains pretty steady. Yeah, for the past 35 years it’s been very, very steady.
RJ: It seems like everybody I ran into in the office seemed pretty happy to be there. What’s the culture like at South West?
B.B.: We try to keep our employees very motivated. Once a week, we have a very motivational company meeting where I go in personally and try to pump everybody up. We give out rewards for people that get the most customer comments on the internet and things like that. And we reward them in front of everybody and we clap and raise the roof. And we reward people in front of everybody, and we talk about how well they do, and we read the comments that people make about them and any comments cards we get back on them.
And our plumbers, we try to set them up so they’re actually almost like running their own business out of their trucks so, they’re really kind of more happy...they’re their own company. I started out as a plumber myself so I kind of know what the pitfalls were for me. I think the difference between my company and a lot of other companies is we have trainees ride along with every one of our plumbers. That really makes [the plumbers’] life a lot easier because they’ve got somebody to help them when they have a digging job, or something like that.
RJ: I saw the ‘Now Hiring’ marquee at your headquarters. How else do you go about recruiting journeymen, apprentices or trainees at South West? Do you go to unions or PHCC or what?
B.B.: We just advertise for people that want to learn how to be a plumber. It’s a hard process to become a licensed plumber in the state of Washington. So, it’s a real privilege. Plumbers in this area have to go through a three- to four-year process to become a licensed plumber. After three years they can become a residential plumber, and after four years, they can become a journeyman plumber. Then they have to take a state test to get their license.
They get paid very well in this state because there’s very few licensed plumbers — it’s a real opportunity. It’s like going to college and getting paid for it. So, it’s a real privilege to find a shop that will actually put you with a journeyman licensed plumber and teach you one-on-one. There’s not very many shops who will actually do that.
RJ: First of all, how long have you been a PHCC member?
B.B.: I’ve been a member of National for probably 30 years. I’ve been the state president several times. I sit on the State Board now and I now sit on the National Board so I’m the Zone Director for this area — Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
RJ: What are some of the big issues affecting the West? What are some of the things going on in your Zone that are keeping contractors there awake at night?
B.B.: Well, the main thing is the lack of licensed plumbers. Getting workers a real, real difficult thing for all the states in my Zone. It’s just a horrible thing for them to try to get for the union guys and the non-union shops. It’s real tough getting qualified people in.
RJ: What’s one thing that you would like contractors and techs who read this article to take away from this? What would you like them to know?
B.B.: I started out not a businessman — I started out as a plumber. And, I would say for people starting their own business, one thing you should do is have somebody outside your office do your books for you and have them teach you how to read a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet. That would be the first thing I would do once I start my own business.
Your biggest asset is really is your people. Without your people, you don’t have a business. So, you need to take care of your people and train, train, and train and do more training and teach them how to be good people. Teach them how to take care of your customers and let them know it’s okay to fix little things for customers and not charge them every time. It’s okay to just help people out occasionally and you’ll have customers for life when you do that. Just take care of your people because if your people are happy you’ll end up having happy customers from that alone.
If you have happy employees, it’ll run down the line and then you’ll end up having happy customers, too. Let them know the goal is to have happy customers. And I think it just kind of runs down the line. But it has to start with happy employees and you have happy customers.
Running Calls with South West
It was a water pressure call – a customer was complaining of low water pressure in an upstairs shower. “Lots of times people will confuse flow with pressure,” said journey-level plumber Kirk Thompson as he and trainee Dustin Williams discussed possible causes for the customer complaint on the way into the nearby Newcastle neighborhood of Seattle
The pair touched on basically every possibility from pressure regulator adjustments to the possibility of a simple clog. Maybe nothing is “wrong” at all and the home’s pressure would turn out fine. The place is only 14 years old, and the pair recalled it had a tankless water heater installed recently.
They arrived at the home after a short drive, slipped on booties and went right to work checking obvious things first. The kitchen water pressure looked all right to the upstairs bathroom and took a look at the shower head. Thompson popped it off and the problem was obvious – its filter was clogged. The filter was removed and a recommendation was made to the customer to install a new one at some point. Problem solved.
Part of South West Plumbing’s “thing” is a walk-through inspection techs perform on every call. Thompson and Williams worked through, rinsing faucet aerators, and checking for pressure, leaks and other tells the system might not be performing up to snuff.
They noticed a slow drain in one of the bathrooms that turned out to be easily cleared by popping out the P-trap and cleaning off the pop-up. For the clog in the drain, Williams put a used reciprocating saw’s teeth to good use pulling the hair out of the drain. Then he swabbed the drain with a brush to make sure everything was clean and ready to be reassembled.
The call was a short, “bang-boom” kind of affair, and the techs did their thing for this customer for no charge since the work involved turned out to be so minor.