SCHWENKSVILLE, PA. — There are few companies lucky enough to survive for decades and even fewer are lucky enough to retain employees for decades as well but the plumbing company owned by the family of Stacey Ziegler Harp is one such company. Ray A. Shaffer Inc., started by Ziegler Harp’s great, great grandfather Ray Shaffer in 1925, is in its 89th year and has a technician celebrating his 30th anniversary with the company this March.
Luke Johnson was just 19 when he answered an ad in the paper, which simply stated that Shaffer Plumbing was looking for help. Just a couple of years out of high school and vo-tech, Johnson already had a few jobs under his belt, though none in his chosen field of heating and air conditioning. Johnson took a job as an apprentice with Shaffer’s, riding along with more experienced technicians, who taught him plumbing and allowed him the opportunity to put his tech school education to use. Working hard and learning as he went, Johnson moved up through the ranks, first becoming a Journeyman plumber, and now Johnson is Shaffer’s newest Master Plumber.
Not one to seek the spotlight, Johnson’s laid back manner and easy going personality endears him to people immediately and makes it easy to understand why he has been so successful in an industry that thrives on trust and customer service.
Johnson said he was impressed with the company right from the start.
“It was a great opportunity when I started,” Johnson said, “but after I got here, I realized that the company being around since 1925 says a lot. They really cared about their customers and doing what’s right for them. They had great benefits and wanted their employees to do well. I felt, and still feel, like part of the family.”
When Johnson joined the company, the founders Ray and Alice Shaffer were still around. Stacey Ziegler Harp’s grandparents, Carl and Connie Zeigler were there working every day, but Kent and Scott Zeigler were really running the company on a day-to-day basis. Johnson also saw the transition from Time & Material calculated in the office to T&M in the field and then the change to Flat Rate pricing.
“When I started we were Time & Material done by the office, then we went to Time & Material done by us in the field when the job was over, then to Flat Rate about 15 years ago or so,” Johnson said. “Flat Rate is definitely the best thing that ever happened to the industry. It’s taken a lot of the worry away. I used to just want to rush through the job because I was worried about getting to the end and handing them that bill. It’s much easier to get the ‘no’ upfront. I mean I still stress about getting that ‘no’ but at least it’s before I do any of the work.”
Johnson thinks that the competitive environment today has gotten tougher for small independent plumbing and HVAC shops because of the Internet. Consumers now have more information, perhaps just enough information to make them dangerous.
“The Internet has made it harder,” he said. “You have people that have more access to information, good and bad. Plus people who think they can fix their own plumbing by watching enough videos on YouTube. I don’t know how many jobs I’ve come in to, that a customer started and figured out halfway through wasn’t as easy as they thought. But I think that companies that have been around as long as Shaffer’s have an advantage. The year, like 1925, says a lot.”
Johnson said this is a great industry, one that he wishes his nephew would get into. So many young people would do better in trade school than in college, he said, but the situation won’t change until teachers and counselors stop treating vocational education as a place for the “dumb kids.” He also thinks that it has become more difficult for beginners to get on-the-job training because so many employers are looking for people with certifications and credentials.
“No one is making the kids start by digging ditches anymore,” Johnson noted.
He said he has learned to never prejudge a situation.
“First, never say it’s going to be easy and second, never pre-diagnose,” he said. “You never know what it’s going to be until you’ve seen it, even if the customer tells you what they think it is. Like the other day, I had a customer tell me their water heater was broken and that they needed a new one. So I went there thinking I’d be replacing a water heater but when I got there and really listened to what the customer was complaining about, I decided to check the shower. Turns out it was just a problem with their faucet. If I hadn’t taken that minute to check the faucet, I would have just replaced their water heater and been back then next day with the problem persisting and that wouldn’t have looked good for the company or me.”
Johnson said he would do it all over again because he loves what he does and every day is a new challenge.
“I was just two years old when Luke Johnson came to work at Shaffer’s and it is impossible for me to think of one without the other,” Stacey Ziegler Harp said. “Though no longer with us, I am sure that my great grandparents, Ray and Alice Shaffer, and grandparents, Carl and Connie Ziegler, would be as proud of Luke as the rest of us in the family and at Ray A. Shaffer Inc. Luke is a prime example of what can be accomplished when someone puts their head down and works hard to succeed.”