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No more plumber jokes Featured

9:40am EDT July 22, 2002

Waterworks knows and accepts the fact that it’s got a dirty job to do in the plumbing and drain cleaning business.

What executives at this East Side company won’t stand for anymore is the public perception that they’re in an unkempt, sloppy industry with employees that don’t take pride in their appearance.

In fact, owners Thom Havens and Betsy Dickerson are so dedicated to projecting a clean-cut image that they once bought teeth for an employee to improve his overall customer presentation. They’ve also asked their five crew leaders, supervisor and foreman to police matters of personal hygiene to the point of suggesting employees shave, get a haircut, change their uniform or even visit the dentist.

The privately owned Waterworks officially began changing its style in October 1998 after spending $2 million to renovate a 12,000-square-foot elementary school to use as its corporate headquarters.

The building, with its exposed brick, high ceilings, loft-style spiral staircases, renaissance and eclectic art, resembles an architectural firm more than a drain cleaner. That neoclassical/modernist feel is the brainchild of Havens, who is the company’s majority owner, chairman and president.

The image polishing appears to be paying off. Havens purchased the company in 1986 when it had gross sales of $300,000 and just nine employees. Today, Waterworks has grown to more than 90 employees with three divisions branching out into industrial service, excavating and commercial plumbing, as well as the standard residential drain cleaning and plumbing.

The company grossed $6 million in 1999 and projects this year’s sales at $10 million.

Dickerson, who is a part owner and CFO of Waterworks, says hiring a consultant was key to beginning the metamorphosis.

Impressed with Bob Juniper’s name recognition and market saturation in the collision repair business, Havens and Dickerson invited Juniper, owner of Three-C Body Shops, over for lunch one day to pick his brain.

“Don’t hesitate to ask someone that you admire, ‘How have you done what you have done?’” Dickerson advises.

Through a campaign spearheaded by Media Solutions, Waterworks worked to develop an immaculate new image for both the company and the plumber profession. As part of the image-building campaign, the company began requiring all field personnel to wear clean, stylish uniforms — with an extra-long shirttail to eliminate any chance of the unsightly “plumber’s crack” syndrome — and meticulously wash their vehicles inside and out, as needed.

An employee shower area is available at the Leonard Avenue headquarters for when a job becomes particularly smelly.

“I think image sets us apart from Mom and Pop [plumbing] companies,” Dickerson says.

“We’ve taken a blue-collar drain cleaner and said, ‘That’s not a job; that’s a profession to be proud of. We’re proud of you and you need to be proud of yourself for accomplishing what you do.’”

Forrest Clarke (fclarke17@hotmail.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.