Straight Answers And Great-Smelling Techs

January 19, 2004
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The “world-class” owners of Gem Plumbing and Heating (clockwise, from lower left): Anthony, Lennie, Larry, and Edward Gemma.
LINCOLN, R.I. - Sometimes you hear companies call themselves big companies with a little company attitude. And then you yawn and think, "Yeah right."

Then you meet a company like Gem Plumbing and Heating.

What do you say about a company that has a state-of-the-art global positioning system (GPS) and high-tech dispatching call center that encourages its employees to practice random acts of kindness?

How can you describe a company that has Ferguson Supply on site permanently, handling crib and stock management; that adds a wing to an orphanage; and creates hilarious phone ads whose primary message is, "Call the great-smelling technicians at Gem!"?

In reality, the company is an inspiring example of controlled growth and a "world class" infrastructure that helps improve efficiency at every level. The Gemma brothers (Anthony, Lenny, Larry, and Edward) started calling their company world class because that's what they wanted it to become. Not long ago, people from Verizon toured the new headquarters facility to look at the sophisticated call and dispatching center - the heart of the service operation.

With all this growth (the company has made the list of fastest-growing companies in Rhode Island), the company manages to make its employees feel special in a good way. In many good ways.

As a result, Gem Plumbing and Heating is the New England Region winner in The News' 2003 "Best Contractor To Work For" contest.

Having the training setups hooked up gives Gem technicians a better way to apply their classroom knowledge before they go out into the field. Problems can be mocked up for troubleshooting exercises.

‘Family. Life. Health.'

A big part of that good feeling at Gem Plumbing and Heating comes from something as simple as respect. According to General Service Manager Arnold Romano, his job includes "listening to technicians in the field, what they have to deal with every day." Often he helps them deal with problems other than those in the field, but with which the company can still have a positive impact, answered Romano: "Family. Life. Health."

It's important that "technicians have someone to go to," he said. It's part of the company's structure that gives employees empowerment.

The key to this company's success is that the good things don't just happen by themselves - they are planned and then carried out. It goes beyond the picnics, holiday parties, and fishing trips, which are almost a given.

For instance, the company established teams of six to 10 people (based on military squads) and set team leaders in place. Not only does it create a sense of ownership and structure, "It also brings out peer pressure," said Service Division Vice President Larry Gemma. "It shows individual performance."

Problems and obstacles can be addressed more quickly. Honesty is also critical in treating techs well - like adults. "I am fair with the guys," said Romano. "There's a fine line you have to walk every day. My door's always open. I give them direct answers. I don't beat around the bush."

Mike Corvese, a technician who has been with the company a year and a half, is happy to report, "You're known by name here. You're not a number." Corvese used to work for an industrial contractor but "I wanted more challenges, and to meet new people."

Jim Dugan, now a Gem executive, used to own Bayside Plumbing. The company was bought by Gem last October, bringing more than 5,000 customers and seven employees into Gem's fold of more than 300 technicians and 120 trucks.

"Most customers came on board and have been happy with the transition," said Dugan, noting the companies' philosophies meshed well together. "It freed up a lot of time for me. I'm back to working 45 hours a week."

With his small company, "Work was limited by the size of the company," he said. "Now the potential is unlimited."

Dugan has also been impressed by the "constant training" that "doesn't stop with classes." People share information with each other. The company doesn't hire people who keep the good stuff to themselves.

The company also has a knack for spotting potential talent in the rough. Kristen Csizmesia, for instance, was training for a career in radiology. However, she learned from Anthony's wife that there were limitations to putting her radiology skills to work in the field. She was hired into Gem based on her technical aptitude and positive attitude, and started learning about plumbing and heating. "It's a new adventure," she admitted.

Anthony said he has noticed that in Rhode Island, there are fewer men than women. For whatever reason, the men entering the job market are moving out of state. It's important for contractors to spot these trends and plan for them.

Said Csizmesia, "I am grateful for the opportunity they've given me, taking me from ground zero to however far up I want to go."

Team leader Chris Stewart, who has been with the company nearly four years, said, "It was ... a whole different feel. You can take time off if you have a family situation."

"They have a heart," agreed Dugan.

Corvese said he likes "the friendliness, the happiness when you come to work. It's waking up and wanting to come to work every day."

"They've created a culture within the company to feel that way," added Stewart. "These guys listen to any suggestions. We identify with this being our company. We can make decisions."

Larry simply stated, "We built a hierarchy to see an opportunity for their growth."

Service truck supplies are loaded on pallets like this in the Gem warehouse.

Dedication To Training

"We've truly energized our ability to train in-house," said Larry, with the recent hiring of Director of Training Rod Rodriguez.

"I started in HVAC service in Naples, Florida," Rodriguez said. "I have an IAQ specialty. Then I went to graduate school." At Gem, "I have been tasked with developing world-class training."

Cross-training is encouraged.

"HVAC guys go to all the plumbing training as well as HVAC training," said Rodriguez. "Plumbing guys go to the HVAC training."

That's a lot of training - more than 200 hours per year, according to the company. It works because "top technicians have a quest for knowledge," said Rodriguez. The goal is to attract and hire more top techs, and give them all the training they can take.

In line with Rodriguez' area of specialty, the company just held IAQ training - how to identify IAQ problems, and how to help solve them. At the team leadership meetings, Romano explained, technicians bring in problems from the field, which the team then tries to resolve.

"The team concept took us about a year to develop," said Larry. "Leadership training - that was the match to the gasoline."

In addition to a regular classroom with high-tech media interfaces, Gem Plumbing and Heating keeps several functioning equipment setups for training purposes, such as this residential boiler. (Photos by Anne Lessa.)

Good Works

Another thing that many winners in The News' "Best Contractor" contest seem to have in common is their good works in the community. It's not required to list them on the entry form, but it's common to find that people like to work for a company they can feel good about.

For instance, Gem built a wing for St. Mary's Home for Children in Providence. The new visitor center will be called the Gemma Family Visiting Center. St. Mary's also awarded the company with the Philanthropist of the Year Award in 2002.

The company continues to support St. Mary's by donating goods and services, volunteer efforts, and logistical support.

Another cause with a more personal note is breast cancer awareness. The company is a supporter of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

"Through donations of media support, volunteerism, and promotional marketing, Gem was named ‘Local Presenting Sponsor of the 2003 Komen Rhode Island Race for The Cure,'" the company said. The work is done as a living tribute to the Gemma brothers' mother, Gloria Gemma, who died from breast cancer.

The company has also rebuilt a theater in the brothers' old neighborhood, to help keep the community strong. Anthony fondly refers to the theater as "a money pit"; it is sometimes made available for no charge to charitable groups.

"It's the oldest theater in the state of Rhode Island," Anthony said. Occasionally they show it as a model on how to restore old buildings.

Perhaps the most significant contributions, from the employees' points of view, are the little ones. The company asks that its employees perform Random Acts of Kindnessâ„¢ (which the company has trademarked because it is used with the company name on a card). "It's taken on a life of its own," Anthony said.

Employees can choose to do any small thing that makes a stranger's day better in some small, unexpected way - buying them a cup of coffee, paying the toll for the car behind them, helping to carry groceries. If the employee feels comfortable with it, they can leave a card that states that the "Random Act of Kindness was performed by an employee of Gem Plumbing and Heating." It then requests that the recipient perform a random act of kindness for someone else.

The key to this is not to think of it as a promotion. Even though the card gets the company's name out in an unexpected way, passing the card along is not mandatory. The company doesn't even put its contact information on the card.

"We tell [employees], whenever you're feeling tired, perform a random act of kindness," said Anthony, noting, "It is energizing. Makes a technician feel good."

After a truck pallet is complete, the vehicle is loaded up inside the warehouse.

Innovations

In regard to operations innovations that help improve efficiency, one such is a direct link to Ferguson Supply - as in, Ferguson has a stock management office at Gem's headquarters. The contractor gets approximately $10 million in merchandise per year through this program, which not only helps them get the lowest price, it also tracks movement of material.

Ferguson has a history of performing similar crib management for big manufacturers. They never did it for an HVAC-plumbing contractor before this. "It will change the way the industry works," predicted Anthony. "Everything here is on consignment."

Within six months, the company plans to have bar coding in its trucks. Trucks are stocked to carry a four-day load. A committee decides what to carry for each truck type. Truck stock changes to meet seasonal needs.

The wholesaler's onsite services are from the Ferguson Integrated Systems Division, a separate enterprise from Ferguson Enterprises, the wholesaling division. The onsite service offers procurement consulting. The company stocks 3,000 items at Gem.

It's a boon for Gem, said Anthony, because "it allows us to focus on our core competence."

"There is a cost for these services," said Larry, "but the net gain is greater than the cost."

The Integrated Systems Division procures stock from any supplier, not just Ferguson; keeps track of stock movement; takes parts orders from technicians; and provides reports and trend analyses to Gem management - the USA Today version of the report.

According to Larry, this system translates roughly into an 8-percent gain in efficiency in the field. The big gain comes from technicians not having to waste their time at the wholesaler's counter.

"Most contractors strive for 50-55 percent billable time," said Anthony. "We could meet or exceed that."

Another innovation is the company's communication/dispatching system. It includes a GPS and a constant link to Department of Transportation (DOT) highway cameras throughout the company's service areas. These traffic images are projected on the front wall of the call center, so dispatchers can give advice on accident situations and offer better routes.

The phone system gives callers the option of getting an automatic callback instead of sitting on hold.

According to Larry, some people in the company were leery about GPS. However, "It can be a bigger benefit to employees. The directions help increase efficiency. That adds up to more jobs per day."

"Rhode Islanders don't like to drive," added Romano. "They like simpler and easier directions."

"The operation is geared for the efficiency of the technician," said Anthony. "It's not about how much we pay, but how good he is. We have profit sharing, but also efficiency bonuses."

There aren't any management concerns over whether a technician stops for a soda. The bigger problems - weekend leisure trips with the company vehicle, or using the company gas card - are the ones that stand out. Figures are tracked, discrepancies are flagged; employees know this, but some still have attempted to sneak past the checks and balances. To manage that large fleet, the company performs all maintenance and repairs in-house.

"We can do all repairs up to engine replacement," said Anthony.

A sophisticated computer program helps keep track of the fleet's mileage and any maintenance that's needed. According to fleet tracker Joe Andrade, "A technician's bonus can be affected by damage. It can also affect the technician's ability to take a truck home."

To help improve the safety of its technicians and keep insurance costs down, the company provides a mandatory defensive driving course. The company also brings in a doctor to perform exams so that drivers can be issued health cards. These state that the carrier is able to operate a truck. It's a local requirement.

And That Pleasant Smell?

Finally, let's talk about that "good smell," since it's mentioned in the company's radio ads:

Husband: "Honey, are you baking brownies?"

Wife: "No silly; the plumber from Gem Plumbing and Heating was here today!"

Husband: "Gosh, those Gem plumbers smell fantastic!"

The radio ad continues by stating, "Call the great-smelling plumbers at Gem." Then they play a jingle.

Not surprisingly, these spots have a high memorability factor. In fact, the company also places classifieds for new technicians on the radio. According to Anthony, they don't want the people who are already looking in the want ads. The radio spot states, "We're looking for a [plumbing or HVAC technician] who's not looking for a job. That's why this ad is on the radio."

As Anthony put it, this radio ad is geared toward technicians who are looking to move on to a better company.

In the eyes of The News, Gem Plumbing and Heating is one of the best contractors to work for.

Sidebar: Just The Facts

Name: Gem Plumbing and Heating Co. Inc.

Executive VP/COO: Anthony P. Gemma

Location: Lincoln, R.I.

Years in business: 54

Bulk of market: Residential-commercial mix

Total sales for 2003: $30 million

Total employees: 310

Total service technicians and installers: 125

Average hours employees spend in training: 200 per employee, per year.

Benefits offered beyond medical/dental insurance: Company-paid life insurance; two separate 401(k) plans with a 25 percent match up to 3 percent; vacation plans; seven paid holidays; flexible schedules; friends and family discount program; employee incentive programs; company trucks which service techs may take home; outings; holiday party; and daycare flexible spending account.

Industry association and contractor group members: AirTime 500 and Plumbers Success International (PSI).

The News selected this contractor because: The Gemmas have taken a cutting-edge approach to HVAC and plumbing contracting and are using it to hire the best technicians for their team. In addition to having an open-door policy, they give their technicians honest answers. They provide the training today's top techs are hungry for, and are always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the company. The biggest reason this company was selected is that the owners consciously empower their employees to do the best they can for the customer.

Sidebar: About That Phone Number ...

The phone number for Gem Plumbing and Heating is 867-5309, in the area codes for its service areas.

Sound familiar?

There's a catchy little jingle for it, reminiscent of the song "Jenny (867-5309)" by 1980s one-hit wonder rock band Tommy Tutone.

For those unfamiliar to the tune, the song took on a life of its own as people around the country called the number in their local areas to see who would answer. Many people had the number disconnected. According to Snopes.com:

"The 1980s produced a number of one-hit wonders, including the infamous Tommy Tutone and its 1982 hit song ‘Jenny (867-5309).' This San Francisco band led by Tommy Heath and Jim Keller doesn't appear to have made much of a mark on the music world, and it likely wouldn't now be remembered were it not for the furor raised by its use of a phone number in its one memorable song.

"‘Jenny (867-5309)' caused nothing but grief for telephone customers unlucky enough to have that combination of numbers as their own. Its relentless chorus ... pounded the phone number into the minds of teenagers everywhere, resulting in waves of kids dialing it and asking for Jenny. The joke quickly became old for those who had the number and weren't interested in talking to horny teens.

"Even as recently as 1999, phone customers unlucky enough to have been assigned an 867-5309 number were still getting plenty of crank calls."

The phone number was available in Rhode Island and areas of Massachusetts, so Gem snapped it up. Many of those teenagers in the 80s are homeowners now. They know the song. For Gem, its catchiness is no problem at all.

Anthony said the company has tried to contact Heath and Keller to purchase rights to the song, or at least to give them fair notice of the company's intent to use the number as an ad jingle; they haven't ever heard back. To be safe, the company had a professional musician rewrite the song just enough (chord changes primarily, as well as lyrics) to make it legal for them to use.

- B. Checket-Hanks

Publication date: 01/26/2004

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