Massachusetts Contractor Successful as a One-man Show
Plans to expand — eventually
At the young age of 35, Bruce Sison is an industry veteran.
The owner of Walpole, Massachusetts-based Sison Plumbing & Heating has spent more than half of his life in the industry, having started in the plumbing industry at the ripe age of 17.
As a child, Sison disassembled everything within reach, much to his parents’ chagrin. A trail of parts and pieces for the VCR, toasters, and flashlights could often be found in his wake. During his high school years, he attended a vo-tech certification program that focused on auto mechanics and electric.
Soon after school, Sison considered a life-long career in the trades. When a buddy of his who worked for a plumbing company told him about a job opening, Sison immediately brought it to the attention of his parents.
“I grew up in a household where my parents pushed college,” he said. “They offered me cars and other things — they just wanted me to go to college. Like all parents, mine wanted what they thought was best for me. Once they realized college wasn’t for me, they became very supportive of my choice to enter the trades.”
Sison landed the job and quickly discovered he’d found a profession that was tailored to his fascination with all things mechanical. He learned the ropes rapidly. For 10 years, he worked in the plumbing industry before deciding to branch out on his own in 2011.
“Construction, in general, comes natural to me,” Sison said. “I’ve worked with many different companies — large and small — and it got to the point that no matter who I worked for, nobody really cared as much as I did in terms of doing things the right way and the customer service aspect of it. I figured if I was going to be spending so much time on it, I might as well be doing it to benefit myself.”
Today, Sison Plumbing & Heating serves a large area from south of Boston to east of Worcester, Massachusetts, taking on both new construction and retrofit jobs.
Routine service work keeps him busy year-round. Right now, it’s just Sison on his own, but that’s intentional so far.
Sison Plumbing & Heating has one van and one truck, and since it’s just Sison himself, revenue has remained consistent from year to year.
“I’ve never hit a slow period in my business,” he explained. “I’m booked out constantly.”
LEARNING THE ROPES
After starting his company, one of the biggest hurdles — especially as a younger plumber — was establishing a name and reputation in a market flooded with many older businesses boasting existing customer relationships that go back years, sometimes even decades, Sison noted.
Another difficulty was balancing office work and field work.
“I have a lot of patience,” Sison joked. “I’ve learned that organization is the key. Believe me when I say, when I first opened my business, keeping everything organized was the hardest learning curve. The biggest mistakes I made in the industry occurred on the business end of things in terms of scheduling, keeping up with paperwork, and filing taxes — all of those behind-the-scenes things when it comes to running a company. Now that I’m in my fifth year of business, it’s getting a lot easier as I’m more organized. I’ve learned a lot, so it was trial and error, I guess.”
When it comes to scheduling customers, Sison operates on a first-come, first-served basis, unless there is an emergency.
“I look at my schedule and tell them my first availability,” he said. “If they can wait, that’s great; I add them to the schedule. If not, then I apologize, and I recommend a few guys in the area I know who are pretty good to try to help them out.”
In that respect, Sison is a little different than other contracting businesses.
“I don’t treat my business like it’s in competition with other plumbers in the area,” he explained. “I feel like there’s enough work out there and not enough of us. I think the reasons why my customers choose me is because of my personality. My wife calls me an extrovert, and I tend to focus on my cleanliness. I’ve had people tell me that I’m the neatest guy they’ve ever had in the house and that I leave the house cleaner than when I got there. Overall, I try to give people what they deserve, and what they pay for.
“I strive to make the process as easy as possible for customers, from start to finish,” he continued. “I take time to answer customers’ questions, explore their options, and make recommendations based on what best suits their individual needs. I firmly believe there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to plumbing and heating solutions.”
NOT JUST A PLUMBER
Sison doesn’t see himself as just a plumber — especially now that he’s moved into sophisticated hydronic work.
In addition to maintaining familiarity with new technology and installation techniques, he enjoys building and maintaining customer relationships. As part of that, he listens carefully to find out exactly what customers want and need.
“If I take the time to make sure jobs are done the right way, regardless of how time consuming they may be, that extra time leads to repeat customers,” said Sison. “I believe in doing the right thing to help people and changing the stereotypes we get as people in the trades.”
Two years ago, a building contractor hired Sison for a home he was flipping for a customer. This summer, those same homeowners were seeking more work from Sison after buying another house. But, unlike the last home, this one was a foreclosure, and the contractor was unsure if the old heating system was functional. Cracked copper domestic water lines were evidence enough of a hard freeze inside.
Sison started from scratch, giving the homeowners two options: They could replace the plumbing and reinstall inefficient boiler heat or install a more efficient hydronic system.
Unsurprisingly, they chose the latter, not only with the guarantee of month-to-month energy savings but with state energy rebates adding to the enticement, as well.
After completing a heat loss calculation for the 3,500-square-foot home, Sison utilized sleek, efficient Runtal baseboards to heat the home. Heat for the low-temp system is supplied by a 150-MBtuh Burnham Alpine condensing boiler.
“I’ve been using the Alpine for about four years now,” said Sison. “I have about 50 units in the field with minimal issues. It’s dependable and easy to install.”
The 95 AFUE Alpine boiler line includes models from 80-800 MBtuh and provides a 5:1 turndown ratio.
The boiler’s main circulator is a Taco 0013, 00e Series delta T pumps provide the flow to each zone, and a Taco 007e electronically commutated motor (ECM)-powered circ controls the domestic hot water through an indirect.
“The 007e is perfect for a lot of the work I do, and it sells at a price point real close to the old 007 circs,” Sison added.
Sison was also eager to install Taco’s latest boiler fill valve with backflow preventer, the 3450; 4900 air separator, and 5003 thermostatic mixing valve to temper domestic hot water coming out of the indirect.
“Taco is the one of the most recognizable names out there for us ‘heating’ guys — especially in this area,” said Sison. “Some of that recognition comes from the quality of the company’s training.”
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Eventually, Sison has plans to expand his business.
“Right now, the hardest thing I have to tell people is I’m not available for a few weeks,” he said. “I’d like to be able to have a business where if somebody does call me, I can be there that day or the following day. I like helping people. Unfortunately, right now, being by myself, it’s impossible. I can’t be in two places at once. So, I would like to grow and expand with responsible people like myself. Eventually, I would love to have it be a family-owned and operated business. My son is only 4, so that’s way down the road.”
Sison is also passionate about advocating for careers in the trades.
“I feel like we live in a world that is always pushing college,” he said. “If I wasn’t so strong willed and defiant against my parents at that age, I probably would have went to college, got a degree in something, and would be sitting behind a desk doing something I hate just to make a living.
“I talk to people all the time that say, ‘I hate my job, I wish I could do what you do,’” he continued. “I tell them they could have and still can. I don’t want people to think just because they’re in their 30s or 40s that it’s over. Being a plumber, electrician, or carpenter is not bad. These professions are actually helpful. There’s an importance to them. Just like being a doctor or lawyer, we all have our purpose. I’m one of the youngest plumbing and heating business owners in my area. I want students to know there is huge opportunity in the trades to not only make money but also make a big difference by meeting the community’s needs for the most basic things, like water, heat, and electricity. It’s challenging to confront the existing stereotypes about the trades, but I’m up for it.”
Sison speaks of someday bringing on a young apprentice.
“Americans in general need to get their hands dirty and to work harder to understand how things come apart and go back together again,” he added. “We’re not only losing our curiosity but our ability to solve problems. As a trade pro, I want to teach others a thing or two about this. Some of us simply aren’t wired for bookwork and spreadsheets. I’d like to explain to some young people that a world of challenge and opportunity awaits them, and it’s not always through the big, expensive doors of a university.”
Rachel Ruhl, account manager at Common Ground, contributed to this article.
Publication date: 6/26/2017