From Richmond to Virginia Beach and Points In-between John Stemmle and His Crews Tackle Customers’ Plumbing and Sewer Challenges
Chances are if you live in or vacationed in Charlottesville, Richmond or Virginia Beach, Virginia — or points in between — you’ve stayed at, ate at or played at a facility serviced by John Stemmle or one of his technicians.
Since 1992, Stemmle has serviced a 60-mile area surrounding Richmond with Stemmle Plumbing Repair Inc. Over the course of the last 28 years, he has grown his family of companies with a branch in the Hampton Roads region, the acquisition of a Rooter-Man franchise serving the Charlottesville area and beefed up his HVAC offerings in Richmond with the acquisition of Gundlach Plumbing and Heating.
Since Day 1, Stemmle has prided himself on treating his employees right and providing his customers with the best solutions to their plumbing and drainage repair needs.
While Stemmle Plumbing Repair has existed for only 28 years, the Stemmle name in the plumbing world has been around since the 1940s. To say John Stemmle is rooted in the rooter business would not be hyperbole.
“I’ve been around this my whole life. My grandfather was in the Roto-Rooter business in the 1940s [in New York],” Stemmle recalls. “When I was 12, I used to ride around with my dad in Brooklyn, in the old cab-over style Roto-Rooter trucks.”
In addition to his grandfather and his father, Stemmle’s uncle Dennis was also in the Roto-Rooter world. Stemmle’s family moved from New York to Virginia, where they operated a Roto-Rooter franchise. The family sold the Richmond-based franchise when Stemmle was in high school. Because this is an industry he knew and loved, after graduation Stemmle became a plumber’s helper working for another company.
On His Own
After more than a decade working for other people, Stemmle, then 29 and now a licensed master plumber, decided to strike out on his own. “I didn’t like the way that I was treated and a lot of it had to do with that,” he says of starting his own business. “I decided to do it on my own because I had a belief that there was a better way to do it. We had no retirement, nothing. The construction trades did not offer that too much. I try to correct what I didn’t like and give it to my guys. I offer vacation days; I pay their disability and life insurance.”
For almost the first two years, Stemmle worked on his own, building a client base and doing whatever work came his way whether that be installing a faucet, unclogging a drain or repairing oil and gas boilers. As he added employees and his regional footprint grew, the services Stemmle Plumbing Repair offered did too.
The company’s growth has been methodical from Stemmle handling all the work around Richmond, on his own, to now having 144 employees and a fleet of equipment (See the Equipment Breakdown sidebar). “I always joke with my guys that I was the best employee this company had for the first year-and-a-half,” he says.
Stemmle Plumbing Repair services Richmond, Petersburg, Hopewell, Colonial Heights; approximately a 60-mile radius of its headquarters. Four years ago, the Hampton Roads division started and covers Williamsburg, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. Eight years ago, Stemmle purchased a Rooter-Man in Charlottesville that now encompasses Charlottesville, Culpeper, Waynesboro, Staunton and Harrisonburg. To help expand its residential and HVAC services in the Richmond area, Stemmle purchased Gundlach Plumbing and Heating. The latter companies continue to operate under their respective names.
“When we acquired Rooter-Man in Charlottesville, we were [originally] looking to grow into Fredericksburg, but I found this business for sale. I talked to the owner and looked at what he had and decided to buy because it was an existing business,” Stemmle says. The same can be said for the Gundlach expansion. That business has served the Richmond area since 1929.
The expansion of Stemmle Plumbing Repair to Hampton Roads was a little different. That company, which does more commercial and industrial work than residential, has a strong base of commercial and property management group customers. Stemmle and his crews were frequently being called upon to head southeast for work. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive between the two locations, and even more if traveling from Richmond to Virginia Beach. “The customers were in that region and it just made good business sense to grow into that area because we were going there to service them already,” Stemmle says.
Residential & Commercial PROs
Across the three entities, Stemmle estimates that the work is 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial/municipal. Of the three, Stemmle Plumbing Repair handles the most commercial and municipal work and includes trenchless pipe bursting and pipe relining in its offerings.
By his estimates, the crews clean more than 1 million ft of residential sewer and more than 10 million ft of industrial and commercial lines a year. What he has seen on the residential side is that most problems involve root intrusion, grease and using the systems in ways they were never attended. On the commercial side and increase in the use of low-flow toilets and grease are major culprits of calls.
“It’s a combination of abuse of the sewer, grease and age. Many people think that the sewer system is a trash can and throw anything and everything into it,” Stemmle says. “Our advice is to use the sewers as they were designed, for waste matter. Residential clients with long sewer lines may require annual or semi-annual maintenance to prevent occasional stoppages. The low flow plumbing fixtures are causing waste to not have enough line carry to flow to the bigger sewer mains. This causes much more soft stoppages. Water is leaving the solids behind.”
Stemmle also notes that people overlook pump and lift station maintenance. On the residential side, he says these systems should be maintained annually. Those that operate in commercial areas need maintenance on a monthly, quarterly or semi-annual basis. depending on load. “This depends on how much use and the amount of build-up and grease on the pump and in the lift station. Shopping centers with restaurants may require a quarterly sewer jetting maintenance,” Stemmle says. “With many municipalities charging for grease and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the sewer waste, the jetting maintenance program not only helps to prevent stoppages, but many times are less than the city or county fines and surcharges to the sewer bill.”
Helping Stemmle and his crews make informed decisions on these issues, as well as repairs, comes down to having, what Stemmle sees, as the best technologies in the industry. This also gives the customers, in many cases, multiple options, as well as piece of mind knowing what is wrong with the system. For example, by using new camera equipment, a technician can show the customer what is in the line and whether it can be simply cleaned or if a repair is warranted. “The technology has much improved and people are expecting their service providers to use this information,” he says.
Customer expectation is one of the areas in the industry where Stemmle has seen a lot of change. He notes that this is partially due to the Internet and customers sleuthing potential solutions for themselves. “With everything being so technically advanced with computers, phones and tablets, people expect us to have the same information quickly. People want to know and see what the problem is,” he says. “If it is a drain that stopped up, they want to know why and what they can do to prevent it in the future.”
To that end, Stemmle has embraced using Zip Solutions field service management software. The system is loaded with cost for services, so the customer can see the information vs. a plumber writing a number down on a pad of paper. The technician can also upload photos to share with the customer. And, in today’s COVID-19 world, the customer doesn’t have to look at the technician’s tablet, the information can be shared via email and payment rendered electronically. For Stemmle’s office team, the Zip Solutions system integrates directly with the company’s accounting software, meaning less paperwork and less lost paperwork.
By embracing new technologies, whether it be new combination trucks or camera technology and on to trenchless installation and repair capabilities, Stemmle and his crews are better able to serve the clients’ needs. Take trenchless for example. After seeing cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) presented at an event in Williamsburg, Stemmle became the first Perma-Liner Industries installer in Virginia. Today, the company has three crews that focus mainly on pipe bursting and pipe relining, though he makes it a point to try and cross-train as many employees as possible on the technologies.
“We try to be ahead of the curve and always are on the lookout for the latest and greatest [technologies],” Stemmle says. “I see the technology out there, and if someone else is doing it, I know I can too. When I started in the industry, we trenched water replacement lines in. Now, with so many underground utilities, it’s easier to bore a water line replacement in. I also had a desire to do a repair or replacement with the least amount of damage and have it look like we were never there.”
Stemmle and his team stay ahead of the curve by being actively involved in organizations, attending trade shows and being well-read about the industry. It’s at shows, like the aforementioned event in Richmond, where he connected with Perma-Liner. It was at the WWETT Show that he connected with the team at Roddie Inc. In both instances, he formed a bond and has never wavered from either company.
This bond with manufacturers and distributors across all Stemmle’s offerings is a key component of the company’s success. In an industry in which many jobs are done on an emergency basis, if equipment or product is not available, the customer may look elsewhere to have the work done.
“Our vendors are great. This is important because if we have a piece of equipment down, it’s not on a job. We can’t take care of the customer’s emergency or whatever situation they are in,” he says. “It’s more important, even if I pay a little more for the equipment, to have someone who is easy to work with and stocks a lot of parts, so if there is an issue, it can be repaired quickly. The key is, if a piece of equipment goes down, it needs to be repaired quickly and back out servicing our clients.”
In addition to the product availability and repairs, the distributors and manufacturers also keep Stemmle and his team abreast of training opportunities and new technologies. Having the best equipment and the latest and greatest technologies mean nothing without quality help. This harkens back to one of Stemmle’s tenets of starting his business and that is taking care of his employees. By doing so, he has been rewarded with growth, he never would have imagined.
“I attribute our growth to having the best people in the world working with me. A positive can-do attitude and the talent that these people have,” Stemmle says. “I have several people who have been with me for more than 20 years, and many at more than 10 years. We tackle the tough jobs and are recommended by many plumbers and contractors because of our ability.”
Combination Cleaners: 8 – Vactor, Vac-Con and Super Products
Septic Pump Trucks: 10 – Abernathy, Imperial and Lely
Portable Toilet Trucks: 2 – FlowMark
Jet Trailers: 7 – Mongoose, Harben and US Jetting
Easement Machine: 1 – Sewer Equipment Co. of America
Camera Trucks: 2 – Envirosight and one includes a lateral launch
Drain Machines: Multiple – Duracable, MyTana and RIDGID
Inspection Cameras & Locators: Multiple – MyTana and RIDGID
Pipe bursting – Roddie Inc.
Pipe relining – Perma-Liner and Flow Liner
Other Equipment: 7 Yanmar mini excavators, and technicians have a Dodge Promaster, Sprinter, Nissan or GMC service van