Profile: Doug Lanzo, Lanzo Plumbing and Sewer Contractors, Hackensack, NJ
Career-building advice from a master plumber who has mastered the business of his trade
For our first This Old House Pro2Pro profile, we sat down with Doug Lanzo, owner of Lanzo Plumbing and Sewer Contractors in Hackensack, NJ. This family business, founded by his father back in 1957, has grown to encompass everything from residential plumbing to commercial and municipal sewer systems. Here, Lanzo shares some of what he's learned as he's built his business. He shares even more with our own plumbing and HVAC expert, Richard Trethewey, during the very first Pro2Pro Livestream.
How did you get started in the plumbing industry?
My father was a plumber who had his own business, and I worked with him through my teens. I went to school to become an engine rebuilder, and did that for a few years. But one day my father called. It was only him and a helper, and he asked me to do a job that would take about a week. That week has lasted about 30 years now!
My father was an old-school guy, though; he'd have his coffee in the morning and then have to have his lunch exactly at 12 o'clock, and about six months in, I told him, "Listen, we need to expand this, and I want to take control or I'm going to go do something else." He said "Do what you want," and here we are today.
How did you make the leap from a two-man shop to the major operation with 33 employees that you run today?
We got involved with supermarket chains. Those jobs are very demanding, with a lot of overnight work because they don't want to disrupt the sales of the store. Back then my mentality was, give me the job that nobody wants. If you need to break up a concrete floor, dig out the hole, put the pipe in the ground, and backfill and get the mason, the store would have five or six different trades do that, and it would take them a week.
I came in and said, "I'll break up the floor, dig the hole, put the pipe in, backfill, and cement the floor myself. And by tomorrow morning it'll be done." Turnkey. One-stop shopping. And we still do that today, with our own excavators, dump trucks, sewer jet machines. If there's a problem, we'll do what we need to do and get out, even if it means staying all night. Our motto is, "We will get the job done."
So that was a game-changing moment for your business.
Yes. I was probably 26 years old when I did that first big job for Pathmark. And when I explained to them what I was going to do, they told me it was impossible. I said, "Okay, here's the deal: At 7 AM tomorrow when the store opens, if I'm not done, you don't have to pay me. But if I am done, you are going to pay me a premium." And they said, "If you're going to get five days' worth of work done in one night, we'll pay you whatever you want." So I called the supervisor at 6:15 AM the next morning, and said "Just so you know, I'm out of here. Finishing up my coffee and leaving."
How do you get your employees to deliver on that promise? To step up and go the extra mile?
I'm very fortunate, I have a good staff, and we take care of them. This weekend, we're sending a few guys to the Jets game with their kids. Our Christmas party this year will have door prizes as an incentive—flat screen TVs, fruit baskets, dinners, weekends at the Borgata. When our employees arrive for the party, they'll get a ticket and we'll have drawings throughout the night. Nice perk for them.
Has the skilled worker gap and lack of young talent entering the trades affected your industry and your business?
There is definitely a skills gap, and it has affected us, as it's affected everyone in the trades. That's why we go above and beyond to keep our employees. We have one guy who's been with us 28 years. Another guy, 25 years, and another 23 years. They can go other places, but they stay for a reason.
You have to keep your employees. Getting new qualified employees is more difficult. A 22-year-old kid coming out of plumbing school has no idea what he's walking into when he has to work on a house built in the 1930s. They've been taught how to use the latest techniques and products, which is good when you're putting new piping in—but how do you adapt what's been there for 100 years? That's challenging for the younger generation.
So how do you get them up to speed?
It's basically on-the-job training. We have a young guy with us now who is doing an awesome job. He's like a sponge. He works with Kenny, who has been with me a long time. We'll go to a job, show him how to do something new, and this kid will tell four other people in the shop about what he did the other day with Kenny and me. Those are the kind of guys that we look for. They want to learn. And you have to screen for that. Some guys just want to go through the motions and become a licensed plumber. We get a handful of those that come in, but most don't last.
What would you say to young people who may not be academically inclined about the rewards and opportunities of a career in plumbing?
In my opinion, college isn't for everyone. I have friends who never went to college who are multimillionaires with huge businesses. One friend is a business owner with 380 employees, and on his business card next to his name it says "HSG." Everyone asks him, "What kind of degree is that?" And he says, "Well, I'm a high school graduate." It's on his business cards, letterhead, everything.
What matters in the trades is your work ethic. Work hard to learn your trade, and you can make a wonderful living.
The field has become high-tech. How do you stay current with new technology?
The DEP and sewage commission guidelines for sewer work, and the technology needed to do it, have changed drastically over the last 20 years. We just purchased a new high-tech jet machine for sewer cleaning. We're having trainers come in from Georgia to show the guys how to use it. We go to trade shows. We're going to a disposal class. We try to stay up to date.
You're an independent contractor, and you also signed up for HomeServe. How do you balance the two?
HomeServe is a huge part of our business. We did over 5,000 jobs with them last year. They are very demanding of the service they expect because we are the face of HomeServe. On an everyday basis, it's Lanzo Plumbing that's walking into the homeowners' houses. Our record/score cards are very high, so they give us a huge amount of work. They're great with the customers, and they're great with us. They pay you right away, which means a lot in our industry. They don't micromanage. If we have to dig up a street at 10 PM to tap a main to get someone water, and it calls for paying a cop overtime to patrol the job, well, that's what we're going to do. HomeServe stands behind our decisions.
HomeServe promises to get back to customers within 24 hours. How does your team balance their customers' needs with your independent jobs?
We answer the phones 24 hours a day. No answering service. I take them some nights, our office manager other nights, we all manage the phones. If we get a call at 1 AM and nobody answers, my cell phone is the backup number. If a customer says they have an emergency, I can tell them how to turn the water off, not to worry, and we'll go the next morning. But if they need someone at 2 AM, we'll get someone out there.
Any advice for a plumber who wants to achieve your level of success?
Obviously you have to work hard, but customer service is key, and you have to be hands-on. If I hear one of my back office people telling a customer something that doesn't sound right, I tell them to send the call into my office, and I'll deal with it. Especially when it comes to technical issues, they can't know plumbing like the guys in the field. But they're learning.
We also send them out into the field to see what the technicians are doing, so when a homeowner calls up, the dispatcher who's taking the call understands what type of technician they need to send to your house. At least twice a month, they spend a day in the truck going to jobs and working with the guys in the field. It's important.
You're on half a dozen local charitable and planning boards. What effect has that had on your business? And how would you recommend other tradespeople get involved on this level?
I started small and cut my teeth 20 years ago when I volunteered for the Hasbrouck Heights Design Review Board, which oversees streetscape design decisions in the community. That experience led to positions on the planning and zoning boards, and I took night classes to get up to speed on all the rules and regulations. It's a great way to understand all the aspects of a job, to meet other contractors, architects, and attorneys who work on these projects. The networking is tremendous. I'm currently the liaison between the mayor of Hasbrouck Heights and the DPW, so if they have sewer issues in the town, they call me. But more importantly, it's name recognition.
My advice for other tradespeople: It doesn't happen overnight. Go to council meetings, tell them you want to get involved, call the mayor and volunteer. Coach a sports team. I don't have to chase after work, and it's nice to know that people want us to help them.
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