Entrepreneur establishes high-end operation with comprehensive customer service in the Lake Tahoe region.
Article By: Plumber Magazine
Duke Gutierrez wanted to build a company that would seldom face a slow season, offered clients an extraordinary array of benefits and provided access to a high-end clientele. The resorts and communities around Lake Tahoe provided the perfect location.
Based in the Carson Valley in the Town of Gardnerville, Nevada, his company, Duke’s Plumbing, Heating & Air, is a short hop from the lake and ski slopes. The small cities he serves, including the state capital Carson City, with a population of 54,000, are growing substantially due to new arrivals from California and other areas.
Gutierrez, who is licensed in both California and Nevada, got his start in plumbing in 1993 working for a family-owned firm in Southern California. The company relocated him to the Lake Tahoe region in 1996.
Gutierrez and his wife, Margie, opened their own firm in 2009 with encouragement from many loyal clients. Their initial goal was to have six trucks running within five years, develop a higher-end clientele and offer a full array of products and 24/7 service.
Duke’s will replace faucets, toilets, do complete remodeling jobs, and inspect and repair lines where required. Approximately 90 percent of the business is residential, with the balance in light commercial.
“Our clientele is about 95 percent upper income. Homes are typically 3,000 square feet at the low end,” says Gutierrez, noting that demographics typically dictate higher-end products.
Because many of the homes in the area are older, there is a substantial amount of remodeling in both bathrooms and kitchens. There are also many cases where clients simply want to upgrade or make changes to suit their taste.
Gutierrez estimates about 25 percent of the company’s total business comes from remodeling. Bathroom remodels can run from a simple $2,500 job all the way up to $25,000 on a more expansive project.
“When a client has something in mind regarding a remodel, I will sit down and help define what they want. What is their goal,” he says. “Often a client will have a basic idea but not a clear direction. I have a client now who wants to redesign her guest bathroom, which really had a terrible layout. We showed how we could relocate the shower and toilet. They loved the ideas. Initially they were under the impression that things couldn’t be switched around. We are suggesting ideas about the existing light fixtures and adding exhaust fans that were never in place.
“Next week, on Monday morning, I will pick up the couple in our company SUV at their home and drive them to Reno [20 minutes away] where there is a 40,000-square-foot store with displays of tile, marble, granite, everything along that line. We will spend all the time they want to decide what they would like. We may have lunch, depending on the schedule. Then we’ll come back to Carson City and stop in at Western Nevada Supply, where they have a fabulous showroom and my clients can look at every type of counter, faucet, sink, tub, Jacuzzi, fixture and toilet that might fit their particular wish for their new bathroom.”
Gutierrez says he didn’t realize he had such an interest in design until he had an opportunity to work with clients in this way.
“I think it was always there because I would see a bathroom or kitchen and think, ‘This could be arranged or designed much better.’ When I present an idea to a client, they many times will agree and give affirmation. If you then take the idea to an architect to present to the client, it is often what the client is looking for. “When we are looking at a $15,000 to $25,000 project, we do most often want to bring in an architect.”
While Gutierrez depends on Western Nevada Supply and other local firms for specialty goods, he also maintains a substantial variety of standard fixtures and basic equipment and materials, both in the warehouse and on the service vehicles.
He estimates each van carries $5,000 in inventory, with the tools, parts and fixtures for most jobs readily at hand. At the shop they stock toilets, water heaters and other basics.
Their shop, situated in an industrial park, is a two-story, 1,400-square-foot building with an office on the upper level. It provides plenty of room to stock water heaters, toilets, extra tools and a good supply of other materials, along with enough space to park all vehicles indoors.
Their six service vehicles are all Ford Econoline Cargo vans, and their concierge SUV is a 2009 Chevrolet Avalanche.
Gutierrez and his team use RIDGID and Channellock tools. Faucets come from Grohe and Moen. He sticks with Navien for their tankless water heaters.
“I can tell you we are the No. 1 tankless water heater installer in our region,” Gutierrez says. “More than any other local plumber.”
Gutierrez says pipe inspection is an important element of the business, and while they charge an extra fee to use the camera, their customers always agree to the fee as they value the importance of having the system working and maintained properly.
“When we put the fiber optic camera in the sewer line, we find the location where there is a break or root infestation,” he says. “We use a locator and we push normal stoppage into the city line. If we cannot do that we can use the locator to track where the problem is and can show the customer. We may need to dig and replace a few feet, or replace the entire line. For these projects, we have an outside contractor.
“If there is an infestation of roots, we can usually pull the roots or obstruction back out of the line. We have 3- and 4-inch blades at the end of the cable that cut the roots. We can pull the cable back and retrieve the roots. We can then recommend doing a camera inspection, and if the line is not repairable we can address the problem and find a solution.”
Lateral lines in the area are usually cast iron, which they repair with cast iron. If the pipe is clay or asbestos cement, they will substitute a section with ABS pipe.
Gutierrez says his technicians all work under his licenses with both states, and he expects them to take pride in the company and realize their own individual responsibilities.
“There is a lot more to plumbing than changing out a toilet,” he says. “This is what separates our company from most others. It is in many ways the extent of our diversity.”
Finding technicians is a challenge, as they must be proficient in three areas of service — the extensive plumbing division, plus heating and air. This typically requires a significant amount of training so the service technician can follow company policies.
“I have taken the initiative to hire laymen, people who want a career, to learn a trade and I take the time to train and teach the right way to do things.
“A good example is a young man who has come in several times over the last two years wanting to join the firm,” he says. “I have suggested he needed to mature before I would hire him. But he has persevered, and completed some further education. I just hired him. I appreciated that he was so determined to be a part of our company.”
Busy and rewarding
Weather drives about 75 percent of the business, with plumbing being the substantial year-round base. When it is cold, the heating division cranks up, and they will be repairing and installing units throughout the region. During summer when the temperatures reach a higher range, the company will be installing new or repairing older air conditioning systems.
Gutierrez says that his greatest joy in having his own business is providing his services to neighbors, friends and the local communities.
“Plus having a beautiful place to raise my family — it has been very rewarding.”