BY ROBERT P. MADER
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF
HARLINGEN, TEXAS — Operating a trencher is one of the many skills that Jo Wagner has learned during a 40-year career in the plumbing industry; she's also pretty good at estimating and project management. Wagner becomes president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association at the group's annual convention Sept. 26-30 in Chicago.
Wagner has been running a contracting business in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas since she co-founded the company in 1973 with her husband, John Wagner, and dad, Edwin Correll. They operated the company as Century Twenty-One, but when they incorporated in 1976, their lawyer told them that some real estate company had beaten them to the trademark office by three weeks. They've operated the company as CTO Inc. ever since.
Wagner's dad was a Seabee during World War II and worked for other contractors before setting up his own plumbing shop in 1960 in California. She said she has inherited his perfectionist streak.
Correll had a union background, but he was looking to move into a right-to-work state in the early 1970s. Jo and John Wagner were looking to settle down in Corpus Christi, Texas, but they heard about the Rio Grande Valley area near McAllen, Brownsville and Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico, and they liked what they saw.
Correll was the plumber and John Wagner had a background in estimating and sales from Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Federal Sign & Signal. He eventually became a superior plumber, Jo Wagner said, because he has near total recall. If somebody loses the as-built drawings, he can remember what's behind the wall years later. He also has the ability to look at drawings and "see" them in three dimensions. Correll retired in 1978 and her husband, who's in ill health, has been retired since 1991, although he still meets her for lunch everyday.
CTO started in the new housing market with a little bit of commercial mixed in, but after it won its first hospital job in 1976, the Wagners realized they couldn't stay in the housing market. Today, CTO builds mostly hospitals and medical office buildings with about 40% of its work in high-rise condominiums. It used to work on schools, but that market has become too litigious for Wagner's tastes, she said.
At one time, CTO worked on hospitals as far as 150 miles away from home, taking key people on the road and hiring labor locally. The company hasn't had to travel more than 40 miles, however, since 1991, because it has found so much business in its own area.
CTO has also developed such a strong reputation that it rarely has to bid. Todd Auny, Jo Wagner's son, has worked for her for 20 years and runs the firm's significant amount of design/build work.
Wagner said she likes the medical building field because it keeps her technicians sharp. Those technicians are mainly Hispanic. About 95% of her employees in the field and in the office are Hispanic, all of them legal because they need birth certificates to get into the apprenticeship school she helped found.
"They are wonderful craftsmen, if you can teach them the way you want them to learn it," she told CONTRACTOR. "They are company people. They work hard, they do their job and they do it to whatever expectations you have for them."
She has also discovered that on government jobs, immigrant workers can switch from metric to English measure "at the blink of an eye."
Wagner lives in an area that's 85% Hispanic. She doesn't speak Spanish and jokes that her workers can't speak her ancestral tongue, Italian. She requires that all communications on jobsites be in English for safety reasons.
She's on a first-name basis with 90% of her workers, and there's a lot of respect going both ways, she said. When Auny announced at a shop safety meeting in June that Wagner was going to be PHCC president, the employees gave her a standing ovation, and that meant a lot to her.
Wagner said she tries to be open minded and understand all points of view on the immigration debate and believes there's no one single answer. She noted that both sets of her grandparents came from Italy, and if somebody wants to be a contributing member of society, she doesn't have a problem with that.
Wagner grows her own employees, so to speak. She and five other contractors started an apprenticeship school 10 years ago and had it certified by the U.S. Department of Labor as a four-year apprenticeship program. The school is run from PSPC, a local technical school, but the contractors are responsible for the instructors and they use the PHCC apprenticeship curriculum. Wagner takes five of the apprentices every year, although she said she could use as many as 10.
She's a believer in education but has a problem with educators.
"A lot of people connected to higher education think 'trades' is a dirty word," she said.
More than half the young people going to college in her area drop out, so then what are they going to do? Even those who graduate often have trouble finding jobs, she said, but you can't outsource plumbing.
The local government complains that wages in the area are low, but they're not in plumbing construction, Wagner said, because that's the only way she can keep people. Otherwise her workers would pull up stakes and move to a higher wage area, especially with construction booming in the South.
One of her initiatives as PHCC president will be to get more women in plumbing. There's no reason why a single mom can't get into plumbing and earn the same high wages as a man, Wagner said. She plans to encourage PHCC members to think about getting their daughters into the business. She's doing that with her 5- year-old granddaughter who has already told the staff that she's going to grow up to be the boss.
At this point, she has no plans to retire, although Auny will take over the business, especially as she travels constantly over the next year as PHCC-NA president. She sits on the Construction Board of Adjustments and Appeals for the city of Harlingen, is a co-chair and trustee of the Harlingen Utility Board, trustee of the Texas PHCC workers' compensation insurance plan, and she's on the board of the Rio Grande Valley Apprentice-ship Committee.
If she keeps going to the gym every day, she'll probably be able to stay on for a long time and, as she put it, like Douglas MacArthur, just fade away.