Like most kids after graduating high school, Larry Shoemaker went to college. However, he came home after about a year, and started working in his father’s plumbing business, Deluxe Plumbing & Heating.
“I wanted to be a forest ranger, right?” Shoemaker says laughing. “But I came back and worked here and just kept going — I never went back.”
The rest, as they say, is history. After working in the business with just his father and himself, Shoemaker purchased the company in 2003. He spent the first six years working in the field with his wife, Kim Shoemaker.
The second-generation family business has built a reputation for being the go-to company for plumbing, heating and electrical service in Lehigh Valley and the surrounding areas. Deluxe Plumbing & Heating is dedicated to staying up-to-date with the latest technologies through continuing education and training for its employees. The company’s commitment and passion for both training and apprenticeship have nabbed Deluxe Plumbing & Heating accolades as Plumbing & Mechanical’s 2021 Residential Contractor of the Year.
Founded by Shoemaker’s father 1984, Deluxe Plumbing & Heating has a rock-solid foundation in the communities it serves. In 2007, Shoemaker started hiring employees to help grow the business. In 2009, he decided to add an HVAC department, and started attending HVAC classes.
Today, the company boasts 37 employees and 19 fleet vehicles offering residential and commercial plumbing service and installation.
“I like the people we work with — they’re great,” Shoemaker says. “Fixing problems and seeing something different every day — that’s the best thing. And our customers love us. We do what we say we’re going to do, and we back it up.”
Last month, Deluxe moved into a new 12,000-square-foot location after outgrowing its former building.
“When we moved into the other place six years ago, it was the perfect size for us,” Shoemaker notes. “We had 14 people then, and actually, the 4,000 square feet was a little big for us. Now, with the number of trucks and employees, we just outgrew it.”
Shoemaker is also very active within the industry as a member of PHCC — National Association, PHCC of Pennsylvania, OESP, Success Group International and National Comfort Institute. He also happens to be the current president of his state PHCC chapter.
“The contacts and networking are excellent,” Shoemaker says about his association memberships. “Knowing people on local, state and national levels is a great way to do business. And the training is incredible. I’m still going to a lot of classes myself, and I send all of our people through classes.”
Home growing employees
When Shoemaker starts talking about training, you can see his passion for the industry shine through. Deluxe Plumbing & Heating features a full apprenticeship program, Shoemaker notes.
“I’m one of the oldest people in the company, and I’m 47,” he says. “Most of our people are in their 20s or early 30s. We get them from high school, train within and bring them up through both HVAC and plumbing.”
Unlike most plumbing and heating contractors around the country, Shoemaker says he is not having any trouble recruiting new employees.
“There’s a trick to it,” he notes. “Being part of all those associations helps. I’m on the boards of four different schools, and I go to each one of them and talk. All the students know who we are and what we’re about. We bring in students every year for summer internships, co-ops and job shadows. They go through the process and we find great people.”
Shoemaker explains it all starts with high school students doing a job shadow.
“For every four to five students we see job shadowing, we bring one on board — it starts as a co-op,” he says. “After the co-op, they do a summer internship. Sometimes, we get them young, coming out of their freshman year and heading into sophomore year. Once they have graduated, we put them through a four-year apprenticeship on the plumbing side, or a three-year apprenticeship on the HVAC side. We do NATE certifications, NCI certifications and utilize ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America) and PPATEC (a local trade school). Some of the classes are local, but others are not — we fly our people all over the U.S. for those types of trainings. We also send them to manufacturer training sessions, like the three-day Navien class or up to New Hampshire for Laars training. As long as they’re with us long enough and have a good attitude, we put money into them.”
All this training is important at the end of the day for one reason: To reduce callbacks and phone calls to Shoemaker himself.
“It’s less phone calls for me, and it’s better for the customer,” he says. “The customer gets an overall better experience. We train soft skills a lot with SGI, things like how to talk to customers, how to run a service call and more. The tech training is great for the customer as well. And it’s beneficial for the techs — they’re not calling on the phone when they don’t know something, so they don’t look bad in front of the customer. The job runs smoother, and there are less issues out in the field. You have to put money into your people. It’s well worth it.”
Deluxe has truly built a family atmosphere and culture within the business. It’s the thing 24-year-old Alejandro (Alex) Fritz appreciates most about working for the company. Fritz was one of those high school students that got his start through a job shadow about eight years ago. Now, he’s a licensed master plumber and new construction crew leader for Deluxe.
“I knew when I was in high school that I didn’t want to go to college,” Fritz says. “When I started the technical school program, I originally wanted to go into nursing or physical therapy. The way the program worked is you would spend 15 days in one area to learn about the job, then transfer to another area and so on. When I got to nursing and physical therapy, I knew I didn’t like it at all. Plumbing was one of the areas I liked, which is funny because I don’t even know how it got on my list. I didn’t pick it. When I got to the class, it was really hands-on and the teacher liked me.”
While Fritz really enjoyed the class, he notes he probably wouldn’t have stayed in plumbing after graduating if he hadn’t landed at Deluxe.
“I had went on a few job shadows at a few other companies, but I didn’t like the people I was working with,” he says. “I really like the culture here at Deluxe — it’s a nice place to work. It’s very family-oriented and everyone is really close. We all get along really well, and there are no issues or drama. I love what I do — it’s fun seeing it from start to finish.”
Fritz also has a deep respect for Shoemaker and his leadership.
“Larry is a really cool guy — you can call him for anything, it doesn’t have to be work related,” he says. “He helped me get my first car. He took me to the dealership and helped me go over all the numbers. He also helped me — and all the other guys here — get my journeyman license, and then my master plumbing license as well.”
Fritz laughs and notes their relationship was a little rough in the beginning because “Larry didn’t work with a lot of kids, and didn’t really know how to get through to us at first. He’s really good at learning on his feet, though. It’s funny because about a month ago, I was asking him how he dealt with us because now I’m in his shoes and training the new guys coming up.”
Chad Haberle, Deluxe’s plumbing service manager, has been with the company for the past nine years. He got his start in the industry in his 20s apprenticing with a small plumbing company.
“Deluxe Plumbing differs from other companies because of our atmosphere and Larry’s vision and drive to advance all of our employees in their careers,” Haberle says. “We have nearly 40 employees and everyone between departments get along extremely well. I love that we are able to help customers in their time of need by sending professional technicians to provide immediate relief while providing options for permanent solutions to their issues.”
Haberle also boasts about the Deluxe’s mentoring, internship and apprenticeship programs.
“We combat the labor shortages by utilizing many avenues,” he says. “Several of our current techs have gone through this program and have been with us for many years. They get to learn how we operate, our systems and what is expected of our technicians. Also, word of mouth locally has allowed us to become a place of business that people want to be a part of. Our mentoring doesn’t end when students finish high school. We offer a four-year night school apprenticeship program that allows our technicians to get technical training as well as receiving journeyman and master plumbing licenses.”
This is important, Haberle notes, because a majority of plumbing companies usually have only one master plumber on staff. Deluxe Plumbing & Heating currently has six employees with master plumbing licenses, and several others with journeyman licenses.
“Larry has a strong belief in advancing our employees in their careers,” he says. “Training is a big focus here at Deluxe. My greatest accomplishment is seeing our younger employees go through the apprenticeship program, setting themselves up for success throughout their lives for themselves and their families.”
Haberle adds he hopes to continue to help build Deluxe into the premiere plumbing contractor in Lehigh Valley.
“We not only want to become larger, but we want to maintain a level of commitment to our customers that they can trust we are providing the best service and warranties around,” he says.
Shoemaker notes that management is fun, and he tries to be open with his employees.
“Our people are great — there’s nobody I would want to push out the door,” he says. “Building a culture is all about picking the right people. It took us a long time to get it right. And some of our young people actually pushed some of the older ones out, and it was just because they didn’t have the right mindset. Finding the right mindset is key.”
“Our people are great — there’s nobody I would want to push out the door. Building a culture is all about picking the right people. It took us a long time to get it right. And some of our young people actually pushed some of the older ones out, and it was just because they didn’t have the right mindset. Finding the right mindset is key.” – LARRY SHOEMAKER
Rolling with the punches
Like every other service contractor, Deluxe Plumbing & Heating had to pivot when COVID-19 hit last year.
“My crew did not want to stay home at all,” Shoemaker says. “So they came in. We still had our trainings and in-house stuff. And we did a whole bunch of training over Zoom. In the very beginning, Pennsylvania shut down for about nine weeks, and our construction just halted. The service side slowed down for the first two months, but we were still running about five or six service calls a day. We did our best to keep everyone busy with training and to just keep them all positive. That was the biggest thing.”
By mid-June last year, the calls were picking up again. And Deluxe has had a stellar 2021 so far, Shoemaker notes. His team is back to running an average of 30 calls per day.
“People are at home using things more,” he says. “When you’re at home all the time, you want to be comfortable. Previously, if something wasn’t working right, let’s say an air conditioner, they wouldn’t mind it for a few hours each night. But when you’re there all the time, it becomes a problem. And everything is getting used more. All the fixtures and toilets are getting used more, so there are more backups and things like that going on.”
When asked about the future, Shoemaker says he is looking for steady growth for his company that will enable him to bring up more people.
“I don’t want to bring in outside people,” he explains. “I want our people to be able to move up into open positions and be able to prosper. I’m so proud of the group we have — they’re great. They’re driven. They do well, and they care about each other and what they do. That’s all I can really ask for.”
Nicole Krawcke is chief editor of Plumbing & Mechanical.
issue October 2021