SEATTLE — The roots of a true American success run deep under Alaska Street in Seattle, about four miles southwest of city center. They tie to a 36-year saga about a family-owned plumbing company with plenty of highs, lows and cliffhangers.
The story might be vastly different, though, if not for an extremely supportive wife, guidance from one of the nation’s leading trade organizations, and a 550-ft. freighter that rammed a drawbridge.
With humble beginnings in 1981, Bill and Connie Buckingham have grown South West Plumbing Inc., into the 110-employee, 50-truck enterprise that it is today. Gradually, their territory expanded to encompass the entire greater-Seattle area, a 75-mile radius from the shop.
“In those early years it was just me,” said Bill. “I was a great plumber, but a poor businessman. There’s no way I could have kept the dream of being self-employed alive had it not been for my wife.”
In addition to paying the mortgage as a full-time RN, Connie was dispatcher for the company, which became more difficult when Bill added their first several employees. Call volume increased, and for the first time since they embarked on their entrepreneurial adventure, not all those calls were good.
“One of those very first employees — because of his character — was a crash-and-burn experience,” said Bill. “I lamented the issue with a fellow business owner one evening. He told me that through training he received from PHCC (Plumbing, Heating, Cooling Contractors – National Association), he’d learned to improve his hiring process and navigate difficult situations like the one I was dealing with. That got my attention.”
That suggestion completely changed the company’s trajectory, ultimately steering South West Plumbing to become one of the largest plumbing enterprises in the state.
And, as a testament to how smaller things can grow into big ones — in this case, an introduction to PHCC — Bill is, today, NAPHCC National Zone 3 Director and on the board of directors for Washington State. Those positions come after more than three decades of PHCC involvement.
The Buckinghams joined their local PHCC chapter in 1986 and began attending every conference, meeting and educational session they could. They learned how to market, sell, dispatch, hire and further improve customer satisfaction.
“I found that at national conventions, members really open up and share experiences and advice,” said Buckingham. “We also had an opportunity to give and get feedback from manufacturer members. I was open to the entire experience, learning as much as I possibly could.”
Bill and Connie returned from each convention with a list of 15 or 20 action items. Armed with a brand to develop, and much improved management tactics, the company excelled. Sales rose by $1 million every year for 10 years.
The crash of ’08 reined that growth back some. But the fact stands that every single year since South West became a PHCC member, business has been stronger than the previous year.
Collision alters course
As crucial as PHCC membership was to the future of the company, there were other external forces that created positive growing pains. South West Plumbing’s structure changed unexpectedly as the result of one very large mishap.
In 1978, before Bill started the firm, the freighter Antonio Chavez collided with a drawbridge over the Duwamish West Waterway. To a great extent, the accident isolated the West Seattle peninsula from Seattle proper until 1984.
'A fellow contractor told me that through the training he received from PHCC he learned to improve his hiring processes.'
So it was that Bill founded the company during a time when there was no convenient link between his shop and the city. Business was good. Local recognition grew.
“As soon as the new bridge was complete, we had competition like we’d never known,” explained Bill. “I battled it out on my home turf for several years before realizing that we, too, could put the bridge to use. We hired, expanded into territories we’d never served before, and began advertising all over Seattle.”
Today, Seattle is booming. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in nation, spurred in part by the presence of companies like Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and the presence of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, home to 45,000 military and civilian personnel.
South West has grown in lock-step with the region’s population and economy.
“I never envisioned that we’d become such a large company,” said Bill. “But I can say in earnest that we grew in the best way possible; through superior customer service and taking care of our employees. We really want them to be happy and fulfilled here.”
The Buckinghams have done their best to create a “mentorship culture.” Each journeyman or master plumber is joined by an apprentice. They work as a team throughout the day. The best way to instill honesty, accountability and the need to be courteous is through example.
Bill admits that this effort only works if it starts at the top of the totem pole, and he practices what he preaches.
In addition to great pay and an impressive benefits package, employees are provided late-model trucks, uniforms, and free and continuous training. Classes take place in a large training room that doubles as a banquet hall for company parties.
“We’ve all heard the saying, ‘What happens if you train an employee and they leave? Well, imagine if you don’t train them and they stay?’” laughed Bill. “That’s so true. By and large we’ve seen that if you truly invest in an employee, they’ll stay.”
Training sessions take place about once each week. A variety of topics are covered, and the speakers and trainers vary greatly. Manufacturer’s representatives come as often as South West asks them too.
“Rick Giles, at Western State Sales, is just a phone call away,” said Bill. “He’s our Bradford White rep, and he’ll do anything to help our people.”
South West shifted to exclusive purchasing of Bradford White water heaters in early 2016. The decision to strengthen the commitment came when Bill joined PHCC’s board of directors. It was then that he realized how much the company supported not only PHCC, but also the local plumber.
“Bradford White has been a passionate supporter of PHCC for longer than my 30-plus years with the organization,” said Bill. “But they’ve also vowed to sell only through wholesalers, and they’re made in the U.S.”
Because South West Plumbing provides heating and cooling service in addition to plumbing, there are times that plumbers will travel across the country for training as well.
Passing the torch
Bill and Connie have built the business on a sound foundation. This includes keen attention to customer and employee satisfaction, training, quality product and reinvestment of profit. But that’s not to say there aren’t headwinds.
“Our single biggest challenge is educating the customer,” said Ben Morrison, VP of marketing and development. “Why should customers hire a certified plumber to do their work and not use big box store installers, or the handyman that’s here today and gone tomorrow? It’s our job to show them the difference.”
As Seattle continues to grow, technology changes, new sales channels appear and others evolve, South West will continue to have a dominant presence in the Emerald City. The Buckinghams have used as much care in seeing to the continuation of the company as during its creation.
“We have a fantastic management team in place,” said Bill. “My goal now is to turn more of my responsibility over to them, and spend more of my time and effort giving back to the trade organization that has treated me so well.”