Bill Howe was wondering where all the customers were going to park around his building. A week before Christmas Bill Howe Plumbing was throwing a customer appreciation lunch where every customer who showed up with a new toy for the Toys For Tots campaign would get lunch courtesy of Mastiff Sausage Co. That’s typical of the frenetic pace of activity around Bill Howe Plumbing where the phones constantly ring, the TV and radio commercials constantly air, and the charitable giving and events never seem to stop.

Everything that Bill Howe Plumbing does feeds on itself and the operation has reached critical mass. The employees are well-trained, well-compensated, always recognized, lauded, feted and happy. They, in turn, take good care of the customers, who provide rave reviews about the firm on social media. Non-stop advertising has made Bill Howe Plumbing, and now his HVAC services and Restoration & Flood division, household names in San Diego. The charitable giving and volunteering involves many of the employees, not just the Howes, and that provides even more publicity and good will, and the phones never stop ringing.

There’s no ROI on charity, Tina Howe says.

Community involvement

The contractor first got involved with Job Corps about a decade ago, Bill Howe says, and then the American Heart Association five years ago. Bill Howe Plumbing employees pack boxes at the San Diego Food Bank. The Howes support the Burn Institute of San Diego, the Boys & Girls Clubs, and a charity started by one of their employees, the Andrew Chapman Mentorship Program and Second Chance. They’ll sponsor any Little League, soccer team or sports club that an employee asks them to.

So would they keep doing it even if it didn’t have any benefit to the company? Absolutely, Bill says.

“It shows the people who work for us that we give a damn,” he says.

Some of what the Howes do has at least a definable business benefit, although there is no cause and effect, no ROI, as Tina put it. And much of what they do is just the right thing to do, like the Andrew Chapman Mentorship Program and Second Chance, an outreach program for troubled youth. Bill hired nine of the kids to keep them off the streets for a summer. They are, as he described them, not bad kids, just youngsters without a direction in life who had made some stupid choices. “You are part of the community,” Bill notes.

Bill and Tina both generously give to organizations such as the Burn Institute of San Diego and the American Heart Association. Over the past three years, their contributions have topped $85,000 together for the organizations and they have signed on with the AHA for another two-year commitment of $50,000.

While X-dollars in sales can’t be traced to their commitment to AHA, the contractor’s Howe Healthy is Your Heart? campaign involves their customers and their children for four straight months. Howe Healthy is Your Heart?, which is targeted at 5- to 12-year-olds, is a drawing contest encouraging children to draw what they think a healthy heart looks like. Tina and an AHA representative appeared on TV to promote the contest. The hundreds of drawings were pinned up throughout the Bill Howe Plumbing offices and the employees picked the winners. The winners received Toys ‘R Us gift certificates and their drawings were featured on posters displayed throughout San Diego.

The Howe’s commitment to good works, however, is overshadowed by their commitment to their employees.

“I’ll tell you this,” says plumber Luis Mascareno as we were riding in his truck from job to job. “Tina Howe really knows how to throw a party.”

Bill Howe Plumbing holiday parties are legendary. The parties are open to all employees and their spouses, along with a few key vendors. There’s good food, dancing, perhaps a comedian or other entertainment, and every employee gets a $100 gift card. Bill cringed when he went to the bar and saw the plumbers doing shots, which they weren’t supposed to do. The bar bill alone was $15,000, he said. And then he confiscated the car keys of intoxicated employees and paid for their hotel rooms. Mascareno has talked to employees of other contractors who don’t even get a thank you around the holidays.

Tina hires a professional party firm to run the summer picnic that is open to employees’ friends and families and has everything from a DJ and caterer to a bounce house, climbing walls and more.

Mascareno is typical of Bill Howe employees, a cheerleader for the company who credits Bill’s personal attention to giving him a stable, good paying career.

How many contractors will give their employees interest-free loans? In December 2010, Customer Service Rep Isaiah Gallegos bought his first house and the closing costs were higher than he had anticipated. Gallegos went to Tina and Bill and explained his situation and they gave him an interest-free loan that he repaid over the next few months. Gallegos and his wife had their second child in 2012 and they’re grateful for having a stable home for the family.

There’s a wellness program, including weekly session with wellness coaches on healthy eating and stress management.

The company lets employees work flexible hours — need to go coach your kid’s Little League team? Go. People need to have a life, Bill explains.

Education commitment

Training is free. Every bit of it is company paid, including the four-year apprenticeship school run by the San Diego chapter of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. The school now includes an HVAC program, which is largely the result of Tina’s efforts as president of the chapter.

Bill and Tina have been active in PHCC-SD since 1985. Tina Howe was installed as PHCC-SD President for the 2013-2014 year. Bill has served on all levels of the Board of Directors, was the president in 2006-2007, and he remains involved.

By the way, look out for PHCC – San Diego. Dynamic Executive Director Danielle Dorsey is working to make PHCC-SD one of the nation’s best.

Bill and Tina have both a personal and professional commitment to upgrading the industry through education. They understand the need to properly train and educate the next generation of plumbers who will be responsible for the future health and safety of our communities. Currently Bill and Tina are sponsoring 24 of the students enrolled in the PHCC-SD Apprenticeship Training Program as well as the newly created HVAC training program. Bill Howe Plumbing pays the full tuition, including the cost of textbooks and supplies, to allow their employees to further their careers and continue their education in the trade.

That’s mirrored by their commitment to Job Corps, from which, over the years, they have hired 10 students as full time employees.

Employee satisfaction

Then they do all of the business stuff that a contractor is expected to do for its employees. The company pays for 90% of employees’ health coverage, the technicians’ salaries are based on a generous commission rate, and they ensure that employees have everything they need to excel in their jobs, including a fully stocked company vehicle with a GPS, a gas card, and cell phone (which they are forbidden to use while driving).

Drain techs, plumbers and HVAC technicians are paid a commission that averages 30% of the invoice, Bill says, in addition to mandated hourly wages. It varies, depending on experience and level of training, but 30% is the average production bonus. After two years in the apprenticeship school, a young guy can pop as many as eight drains a day, Bill says. Some guys, even journeymen plumbers, opt to stay in drain work because it’s easy and predictable, while others want more challenging work.

Even though they are paid a production bonus, plumbers are not expected to sell. Bill has even advertised that when a customer calls Bill Howe Plumbing, they send out a plumber, not a salesman.

Customer service

The Howes are fanatical about customer satisfaction. Marketing Director Juliette Riddle put together a 4-in. thick binder about the company for a Better Business Bureau award, and it contained page after page of correspondence with complaining customers, explaining how the problem was resolved, along with photocopies of checks they wrote to customers refunding their money. Here’s a typical example: The company relined a customer’s sewer line with an epoxy lining. It turned out that the neighbor’s sewer line wyed into the same line near the street and the epoxy lining obstructed the neighbor’s flow. Bill Howe Plumbing covered the cost of the solution.

The only way to gain trust, Tina says, is to make it right with the customer. Moreover, Bill points out, fixing a problem is another opportunity to be in front of the customer.

“You can’t find anybody who talks bad about us around here,” Bill says.

This commitment to employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and community involvement has paid off. The company has grown to about 120 employees and approximately 80 trucks. It bills between $13 million and $15 million a year and spends about $90,000 a month on marketing and advertising. It’s all built on volume. There are a lot of San Diego plumbing contractors who charge more than Bill does, but few who can match him.

Nevertheless, they enjoy the fruits of their labors, like Bill’s vintage Corvette out in front of the office. Their five girls are all college educated and three of them work in the company. They’ve traveled all over the globe. Tina runs marathons everywhere, including Antarctica.

Bill Howe Plumbing’s professional success, combined with Bill and Tina’s unmatched generosity, are stunning. That’s why Bill Howe Plumbing is our Contractor of the Year.

“We put our heart and soul into it,” Tina says.

That’s always a reliable path to success.