What do street drag racing, stock car racing, a senior basketball team and kite-surfing have in common? They’re all hobbies of professional plumbers. Pretty cool, right? Pfister certainly thinks so, as the bath and kitchen manufacturer has launched a new docuseries featuring the lives of plumbers throughout the U.S.
The docuseries, titled “American Plumber Stories,” is a passion project for Pfister, specifically Spencer Brown, director of sales for the company, and this project’s producer. Each episode highlights a plumber and tells the story of how they’ve built successful, profitable careers in the plumbing trade. The show will also feature plumbers’ unique hobbies, such as car racing, kite-surfing and competing in equestrian events.
As the pandemic hit, Brown — like most other outside sales folks — stopped traveling, creating more downtime to focus on other projects.
“This reset gave me a chance to reflect on what plumbers have been dealing with over the past 10, 15 and 20 years,” Brown says. “I also thought about Pfister and our brand; I knew we would eventually come out of this pandemic and wanted to plan for what we could do differently and better to help our plumbers.”
Brown spent a lot of time talking with contractors across the country, and they all have the same thing to say — there aren’t enough plumbers and it’s getting harder and harder to recruit new employees.
“I have a good relationship with these plumbers, and I know what their lives are like,” he says. “I know they lead financially rewarding lives. They all have great stories and have built great careers. Society needs to see these stories.”
A streamlined process
As Pfister developed this idea, Brown added a new title to his resume — producer. He took the lead on the project, talking with various producers and telling his vision. Mark Womack with Sub7 Production Co. immediately emailed Brown back. Womack has worked with Academy Sports on a storytelling project. From there, the “American Plumber Stories” was officially born.
Within two months, a pilot had been filmed. Brown explains the project moved quickly because the team had time to work on it due to regular duties being halted during the pandemic.
“The irony is, without COVID, this wouldn't have happened,” he says. “The thought wouldn't have been there, or the timing — because it does take a lot of time.”
Another person who had extra time to devote to this project was country music singer Craig Morgan, who voluntarily wrote the theme song for the docuseries and also became the show’s host. In a typical year, this would have been the peak of Morgan’s concert season, but COVID shut all of that down.
“Mark has a previous relationship with Craig,” Brown explains. “So when we were talking about who could host the episodes, Mark said, “You know what? I bet Craig could do it.’”
Brown says it’s clear Morgan just wants to help, and the topic is something he’s very passionate about. “Craig is the kind of person that just loves to help people,” he says. “He gets that the labor shortage is a major issue for our country. He's an Army veteran and he wants to do this for the country. That's where his passion comes from.”
When it comes to logistics, Brown says it takes about two days to film an episode. Each episode will be 10 minutes. The first season premiered on YouTube on August 2 with episode one, “Six Feet Under.” Episode are airing every two weeks through Labor Day. Season 2 is scheduled to pick back up in January.
“These guys at Sub7 are absolutely amazing,” Brown says. “They do the filming as well as the editing. Typically on the first day we do interviews, get to know the subjects and let them tell their story. Then we'll follow them on a job site. We spend the next day filming their hobby or passion.”
According to Brown, passion comes through during filming. “There's a lot of emotion in these things. We've got tears, smiles and laughter. It's raw and it's real. It's authentic. That’s extremely important for people to see. It shows who these people are, what's great about who they are and how much more credit they should get.”
The plumbing industry often talks about the stigma surrounding a career in plumbing, and how working to break that down is a No. 1 strategy in fighting the labor crisis we’re facing.
“The irony is, in addition to oxygen and food, water is the most important thing for us to live. And yet the plumber who delivers the water, is probably the least sought-after job and doesn't get the respect it deserves,” Brown says. “A doctor saves lives. Without a plumber, you're not living. One of the plumbers we interviewed said, ‘The only difference between a doctor and a plumber is that a doctor washes his hands before the job and a plumber washes his hands after the job.’ The importance is the same — you’re saving and improving lives.”
Brown explains Pfister’s three main goals with this series are to inspire, educate and entertain. “The younger generation needs to see this trade first-hand, and we want them to be inspired. The second part is education — what steps does it take to become a plumber? What programs are there to get involved? Lastly, we want to humanize the plumber. What do they do in their free time, what are their hobbies?”
In addition to fighting stigmas surrounding plumbing, Pfister has some stigmas to break of its own. The 111 year-old company previous held some negative perception related to its brand. Brown explains this project aids in Pfister’s re-branding and re-introduction to the industry.
“Without the plumber’s support, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I look at this as a way we're giving back to the plumbing community. They supported us. This is a great way to support them. It will show that we are part of their community. We are loyal to them, like they've been loyal to us,” he says. “There are some things we did as a brand where we did kind of step away, but we’ve always been there and will continue to be there for plumbers. We, as a brand, are dedicated to the trade and part of the industry, and that’s what we want to showcase. In fact, we’re so committed and passionate about our plumbers, we actually put the plumber name on our brand now on the wholesale side of the business — it says ‘Pfister Plumber’ to show our commitment.”
Although the timing of the “American Plumber Stories,” coincides with Pfister’s re-branding, Brown makes it clear that this project if about plumbers first, not the company.
“A lot of people don't know us personally, and through this they're going to get to know not only the brand, but our people. Once people see our culture, they’ll see who we are and they will want to have a relationship with us. Ultimately, this docuseries is not about Pfister, it’s about the plumbers.”
An ongoing effort
In order to get the message out about the American Plumber Stories, Pfister will need help and support from its distributor partners.
“Obviously without the distributor, we don't get the product to the plumber. They're the chassis of the whole thing,” Brown explains. “We've been talking to distributors about the series and them they’re very excited. We've got a lot of promotional materials, social media plans and content for the wholesaler-distributors to be a part of the show or help spread the word.”
Shannon Mercil, vendor relations manager for Hajoca, is really passionate about the docuseries. “Water is very important. You can go without electricity for a couple of days, but if you lose water supply for more than 48 hours, it’s a dire situation,” she says. “And we all have a hard time recruiting because of the stigma around plumbing. So that’s one of the reasons I'm so passionate about this series. It tells the story in an entertaining and educational format.”
Mercil says she watched the first episode and immediately forwarded it on to her co-workers at Hajoca. “I got so many positive responses from that email; the team is really excited about it,” she notes. “What Pfister is doing will really tell the positive story of what it’s like to be a plumber, and show first-hand that you can make a really great living in the trade.”
Our industry has some great platforms for addressing the skilled labor shortage, but Mercil points out this docuseries will expand the industry’s reach when it comes to recruiting. “When it comes to recruiting, family ties and word-of-mouth are successful in this industry,” she says. “But until now, there hasn’t been an entertaining and digestible platform for any viewer to see the success of a plumber. This will cast our net a little bit wider and help diversify the industry recruits.”
Nick Price of Southern Pipe and Supply also shared the American Plumber Stories episode with his entire team. “It’s just a great showcase of the plumbing profession,” he says. “We are all really impressed with the production quality and storytelling.”
Price and Mercil agree that the episodes do a great job of showing a glimpse of what a plumbing career really means.
“It showcases the amount of success Americans can have, without the need to drown yourself in student debt first. Hard work and fortitude still provide opportunities to those who are willing to pursue them,” Price notes.
Pfister’s work definitely isn’t going unnoticed, and distributors plan to help get the word out. Mercil believes working to spread positivity around the plumbing trade will take constant effort industry-wide. “The 'American Plumber Stories' will definitely hook an audience by the trailer and first few episodes, but the real work comes after that,” she says. “We need to keep people engaged, keep the word spreading about this. People will speak about the things that they believe in; they'll sell the things that they believe in. So the more Pfister can get the distributor behind this, success is going to naturally happen.”
Sharing their stories
To get started, Pfister focused on its current relationships with plumbers. Brown contacted the plumbers he knew about getting involved in the project.
“We wanted to make sure we covered all kinds of plumbers, from new construction to residential service to drain cleaning,” Brown says. “We also wanted to make sure we covered as many parts of the country as we could. You’re going to hear all the different accents and see how plumbers do things differently. We wanted to show diversity.”
Jeff Oeschger, president of Lakeland, Florida-based Pro-Team Plumbing, is featured in episode 5 “Start Your Engine,” which debuts Oct. 4. Oeschger was approached by Brown in early 2020 to be part of the series.
“I have always had a great partnership with Pfister, and I wanted to be a part of this,” he says. “There’s a lot that goes into a short video, but I greatly enjoyed working with the product people. I hope we can attract people into our industry. We greatly need plumbers. These videos will show the fruits of our labor and how the plumbing trade can provide the ‘extras.’”
Oeschger’s episode features his love of stock car racing. He bought a racecar while living in Vermont in 1996 and began racing in New Hampshire. The rest is history.
“Owning a profitable plumbing business allows me and my team some extra money to enjoy life,” he says. “Many of my employees have been able to buy new homes, new vehicles, boats and other toys because of the potential to make money in the plumbing industry.
“Our partnership with Pfister has created friendships that go far beyond a ‘business relationship,’ Oeschger adds. “It’s a great company with great people. The Pfister Plumber experience is just icing on the cake.”
Featured in Episode 2, J-Berd Mechanical, located in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, created a high school training program to help recruit the next generation plumber.
“We understand the talent crisis that the trades industry will be facing in a few years if we can’t get more people into the industry,” notes Megan Henkemeyer, marketing communications manager for J-Berd Mechanical. “We worked with our local high schools to see how we can support and supplement their Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes. Based on those discussions and our mission to bring the trades to more kids, we came up with J-Berd Trades Day and our traveling trailer that we stock with fun activities for the schools to use. Our hope is that through hands-on experiences like these, we can spark interest in kids to consider any career path in construction.”
When asked how he got involved in the docuseries, Kevin Johnson, president and owner of Gilbert, Arizona-based CHS Plumbing, laughs and says he folded under pressure over time.
“I was a little hesitant at first, but we were really happy to be part of it — mostly because of the huge need for labor in the trades,” Johnson says. “That was our motivation to see if we could help with that long-term process of trying to convince people that plumbing is still cool.”
CHS Plumbing has 300 employees between its two locations in Denver and Gilbert, outside of Phoenix. But Johnson notes he would add 100 new employees in a minute if he could find them.
“Pfister has an interesting approach because it dips into our personal lives a little bit more than maybe we would want, but I think it helps make the point. It will help open the door and let people see the opportunities available for people who normally would not choose this path. We’re going to market this on our end along with some of the programs with high schools we have going on. There’s a lot more to plumbing than people realize. I think this will be a good tool to promote the trade.”
Johnson’s episode, which will air sometime during Season 2, features his experience as part of a national senior basketball team.
“It’s through the Masters Basketball Association — instead of saying ‘old’ or ‘senior,’ they say ‘masters,’” he says. “It’s a very big program in about 75 different countries. The ages start at 50, and there’s a different team for each country at every five year increment. I’ve been laying the last seven years. I started with the 60-year-old team, and now I’ve graduated, if you will, to the 65-year-olds.”
Johnson was never involved in the sport in high school or college, only playing casually. After graduating high school, he was only 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 100 pounds. Today, he is 6 feet, four inches tall.
“I just love basketball — I have from a young age. Unfortunately, I was on the sidelines for a long time, but then, all of a sudden, I grew,” Johnson says. “I heard about this league from a friend on the team, and he encouraged me to give it a try. You go and try out, and they select the team who is together for about four or five years. My friend is on the same team — we’ve been fortunate enough to stay together for seven years now. Most of this team has played in the NBA or have played in Europe, and they’ve all played in college. I’m the unique anomaly, I guess. But in some ways, it’s helped me a lot — I don’t have the wear and tear on my body the way those guys do.
Brown notes all of the plumbers featured in the docuseries have been amazing.
“As soon as I start talking about the idea, it just resonates with them,” he says. “These are real issues they are facing. They can’t wait to talk about it. They’re the best spokespeople to talk about the trade because it’s who they are. They love telling their stories of how they became a plumber. Some of them are generational plumbers, some of them got into it because they had a mentor. We’ve got this neat community, and they’re as passionate as I am about this project.”
As the show has garnered more attention, Brown notes some plumbers are reaching out asking how they can tell their stories.
Brown mentions the appreciation from the plumbers have been truly rewarding. “The plumbers are all over this. We’ve had some say, ‘Finally, we’ve got help with this issue,’” he notes. “Others who have found out about it are asking how to tell their stories.”
“American Plumber Stories” has potential to blossom into different avenues, such as featuring mini-stories on social media or branching into other trades.
“We’re just on the front end of this thing,” Brown says. “Obviously I want to keep doing this; keep telling plumbers’ stories. This is a really exciting time for the industry and for Pfister.
“Within the industry, this project belong to the plumbers, it’s their show. It’s important to them and it’s going to finally shine the light on them,” Brown says. “And I hope people outside of the industry watch this and see that plumbing is a fruitful career, it’s not going anywhere, and you can have a long-term job lined up before you even finish trade school. That’s what I hope people take away from the stories.”