KIRKLAND, WASH. — Considering how many centuries that plumbing was made out of lead, it's ironic that Jim Stack suffered lead poisoning from paint. That was good for the plumbing business and bad for the painting business.
Stack, the incoming president of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors --National Association, was flat on his back in a hospital room in 1970 from the effects of lead poisoning as a result of his work painting bridges. The man in the bed next to him, dying from congestive heart failure, owned a plumbing firm that his son had taken over. Stack knew he couldn't paint another bridge, so he went from being an $ 8 an hour painter to a $2 an hour plumber's helper.
Stack learned the trade and worked for the firm for about 10 years. In 1983, he decided it was time to do his own thing, so he founded Stack Plumbing in the Seattle suburbs.
He knew how he wanted to run his business and how he did not. In 23 years he's never missed taking his 2% at the wholesaler.
"I had no grandiose ideas of getting big," Stack said. "We're a five-man shop now and I have no desire to get bigger. I never had the idea that I wanted to be a 15- or 20-man shop. I see the headaches that brings. This provides a good, comfortable living for me the way I do it. It wasn't about money, it was about providing service and doing a quality job, and the reward for doing that is money."
Stack has always been enthralled with doing the work. It was fun for him. Even today he likes to get in the truck at least once a day.
It wasn't really work, he said, until about eight years ago when the whole industry was turning and it became a job. He can't quite put his finger on it. Maybe it's the influence of the big-box retailers. Maybe it's a younger generation of more demanding customers.
"I had to change my attitude," he said. "I had to look at things differently. I don't know what it was, but I finally realized that things were different and they weren't ever going to be the way they were again."
But still, that hasn't diminished his love for his customers, his peers and this business. He has loyal customers who always ask for the same technician or call for little things such as changing the light bulb in the shower stall.
Stack joined PHCC in 1985 as a oneman shop. The Washington State chapter was relatively new, formed by a handful of contractors who were unhappy about a wholesaler selling to the public. Stack quickly realized he could learn a lot from contractors who were larger than he was, and he joined the board of directors almost immediately. He's been on the state board for all except for one year since 1985. When the state chapter split into locals, Stack served on those levels too.
Perhaps the best thing Stack has ever done, he said, was to attend a 1992 national leadership conference where he met his wife Sandy, who was working on the PHCC-NA staff.
By 1995, Stack was a member of the Delta Advisory Council and he was asked to serve as a zone director. He became the northwest zone director representing Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska from 1995 to 1998. Looking back, Stack noted that 1995 had an impressive group of zone directors that included two future PHCC-NA presidents, Skip Flatten and Steve Carder, along with Jim Driscoll, now chairman of the PHCC Education Foundation.
When Stack was asked to come back as a zone director again to fill an unexpired term, he decided he was ready for national office.
As president, Stack is working with a long-range strategic plan, so he doesn't have big initiatives that would be unique to his presidency. But he does, see a couple areas of concern.
One problem is that many contractors don't know their costs of doing business. When Stack became active in PHCC in the mid-'80s, several traveling seminars taught accounting for contractors. Stack recalled that Bob Kreutzer, PHCC-NA president in 1991-92, gave a series of seminars. Kreutzer later wrote a series of columns on the same subject for CONTRACTOR.
Those lessons need to be taught again and the PHCC Education Foundation, which is already putting on a seminar on contractor accounting for members of the Quality Service Contractors enhanced service group, may be a good way to do that, Stack said.
His second concern is that plumbers have done such a good job protecting the health of the nation that nobody remembers cholera. He's seen doityourself installations without traps, or with S-traps, or lawn sprinklers without backflow protection.
" The codes were created for a reason, but people think they can do it themselves," he said. "Sometimes they do it illegally and they put their families in harm's way."
If he could give contractors one piece of advice, it would be to get involved in associations.
"There's nothing more important than being a member of something with your peers," Stack said.