City Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning has been keeping you in your comfort zone since 1902, and while current leaders there Carey and Mike Ross weren't around in the very beginning, they are absolutely dedicated to continuing the remarkable tradition launched by their grandfather Amil Mashke and his son-in-law, their father, Ed Ross.
Mike Ross says he actually started in the business in about 5th grade when he would report to the downtown headquarters in St. Joseph to clean the toilets and the showrooms every Saturday morning...but not until he had made his way to Golden Brown Bakery to get a chocolate donut.
I sat down with Carey & Mike recently to reminisce about the history of City Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, still anchored in the heart of downtown St. Joseph 117 years later at 407 State Street just yards from the city's central crossroads of State and Broad.
Mike says, "It’s kind of fun that over the course of time when I talk to employees and ask what they like about City Plumbing or some of their observations, one of the things they always say is “You’re a good guy and Carey’s a good guy and together you make the best boss." He says most folks liken Carey to his father Ed and himself a bit like Amil, and adds, "That’s good! Amil was kind of hard core and Ed was more about the process and a little more understanding. That’s how I see Carey, too. You mold together and you just keep pulling forward."
Carey admits it wasn't always easy for their father, because he wasn't born into the Mashke family, rather came in by marriage. He says, "To other people at that time the son in law was not treated all that well because he was the son in law and not a son. That was just the way that my grandpa had to treat him, to prove he wasn’t getting any favors or getting off on Saturdays, or going on vacation and the like. I’ve heard that for years. That was the hardcore management style back then – the stern fist from grandpa, but fair to all employees and the customers."
It's an interesting look back on a family that has made a huge impact on Michigan's Great Southwest over many decades. In the beginning, they worked extensively in the new construction trades on many major projects across the region. Mike says, "We did mostly construction work back in that era. I don’t know how many of the Whirlpool buildings we did." An interesting sidebar emerges as he flashes back to job site inspection visits, saying, "I would hear from some of the employees that are now retired about how grandpa would show up on the job site in his yellow station wagon, with a smoke in his mouth and every time he’d show up they’d be on break and he’d come out of his car hollering, 'What are you doing?'" He goes on, "One thing I always heard about him, too, was he was stern but gentle and giving, and especially fair.” By way of example he cites Richard Beaudette who was hired by his grandfather and who tells one of the best stories. Mike says, "He says it was easier then, you put in a good effort or a great job and all of a sudden you might open up your paycheck and there'd be an extra $100 or $200 sitting in there, just because they wanted to take good care of their people and show the pride in what they were doing. It’s like taking ownership in a company, it’s hard to find employees that think about it the way that Carey and I or Amil and Ed would think about it."
While hiring in the current day and age for skilled tradesmen isn't always the easiest task, the Ross brothers admit they've got a solid team in their noteworthy Crew in Blue. Mike says, "I think we were pretty lucky, we have really good employees now that take great responsibility. Over the course of time I think Amil was hardcore, really intelligent, and I love to tell this story: I remember probably about 15 years ago where I was upstairs in his house and he had an office on the second floor, and he had a file cabinet there and I was going through the files and I brought out what happened to be the design of their house that he had drafted in a blueprint of the heating and cooling system as well as the plumbing and that house was built in ’66 or ’67, maybe ’68, and it was well ahead of its time with hot water boilers, and air handlers and hot water coils, I mean that was a commercial system in a residential house. You may see a lot of them that way now, but I looked at that and wondered how he even knew how to design all of that and lay it out, I mean it was really amazing."
Carey points out, "That was considered the best. When you’re in the plumbing, heating and cooling business and you're building your house you want the best. Now the best is highest efficiency, back then it was the heaviest duty and quality you could find," to which Mike adds, "Even taking it out of the context of plumbing and heating, the halls, the door entries were all wheelchair width, so he knew that when he built that house he wasn’t going anywhere for a long time. Big hallways and doors to get in and out, so it was just really neat to see how he planned it all."
With customer excellence at the pinnacle of importance, the Ross brothers know that their heritage in the customer service arena is paramount. Carey says, "The customers are really our boss, they’re everybody’s boss. To get that to continue going forward is something that we’ve really worked hard to keep alive. It’s not Mike and myself, it’s us and the customers that were taken care of and they’re taking care of us now. Their name could be on that paycheck because if we’re not taking care of them there IS no paycheck."
The Crew in Blue is the more recent moniker given to the powerhouse team at City Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, but Carey remembers a simpler day and age: "I remember after a while the old radio commercials were spot on. It was all about trust. Trust, honesty, ethics, morals – we did have a commercial for a long time that said 'Built on Trust.' Back then that was important and now it is equally as important because I’ve learned over the years that while you want to believe everything is good, we all know that some people are getting ripped off or their costs are too high." For the Ross family, trust and honesty was always up front...always. Carey continues, "If anybody had a problem we came and we resolved it, and while you can’t make everybody happy in this business, it’s always been our goal to do that."
When Mike returned to the business 14 years ago after being away for a while, he became the key man for complaint resolutions. He'll tell you, "As much as I hate to handle them, I think that handling disgruntled customers or calls has really helped me grow a lot. Nothing to me is more satisfying than not wanting to take the call but the feeling of getting it resolved and the thanks that come along with it. When I hear them say, 'This is why I was told to do business with you guys,' that is golden.
Carey is first to recognize that most complaints stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding of what can be done to resolve an issue, and why it costs what it does to get a job done. As he says, "If it costs $100 an hour here and say $50 an hour somewhere else, we know there’s a reason. Different people, different skills, it might take somebody else two hours to do what we can accomplish with our skilled technicians only an hour." Mike concurs, saying, "The biggest misconception stems from exactly that. That’s why it always circles back to trust and honesty. That’s really important."
Mike says, "We’re very fortunate to have a good customer base. One compliment we always get is, 'OMG you actually called us back!' For some companies, 24 hour emergency service, isn’t always true. We work to reach out within at least 15 to 30 minutes. It’s amazing how many companies that people call who never get a call back or not until the next day at best. So we’re doing something right." Carey concurs noting, "In our business, timing can be critical…especially when the heat goes out in the middle of a sub zero degree night. People aren’t in a good mood when they’re frantic."
The business model has turned in recent years at City Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning as well. Carey has done a great directional turn to design and build rather than just always bidding on every commercial or industrial project that happens along.
It means they have to be prepared for anything though as Mike says, "We can go from fixing your faucet with a new washer to working on an industrial building the next day because we cover a wide scope of work in one local company." Not all companies can say that. Carey says, "We see people coming from everywhere now to do the same thing we do, but they’re here and gone, in and out whereas we really try to invest ourselves in the community. Our people live here, they work here, they play here."
Mike says the quality of their team stems from the company's commitment to the union, and what they represent. He says, "That’s where we get the skilled trade workers, and the younger generation now isn’t bringing that many people into the skilled trades. Our industry has changed a lot, too. We’ve got to have technology and computing skills because going to work on equipment sometimes is understanding the programming and electronics of that system. It could even be that way in your house now."
The union brings additional value in the training the workers bring to the table. Mike notes, "A lot of times the certifications matter, too, especially commercially. We get calls requiring our certifications for lift operations, backflow certifications, all the things we bring to the table, like Med-Gas. The things that we can offer now is another reason you see mom and pop shops come in and disappear because they don’t have the skill base to handle complicated issues. The quality of the technician you get from us and the training is second to none."
Because not everybody operates on the same basis as the Crew in Blue, many times they get called to correct the problems caused by other shops without the proper capabilities to accomplish the task, and Carey says, "How sad, when it could have been resolved had we been hired in the first place to do it right from the beginning," and Mike chimes in with a favorite phrase, "Spend a little bit now and get less…or spend more and get more."
Years ago a furnace would last a lifetime. Carey says, "Now if you get 15 or 20 years, you’re probably about due to get something else. They’re just not made to last, because they can’t afford to make them that way...or, at the very least, you can’t afford to buy them that way."
When you do have an issue in your home or business, the Ross brothers ask, "Please, don’t just pick up the phone and dial every name in the phone book. We’ll respond and help solve your issues. We don’t want to arrive at your house with three other trucks in the driveway because you called everybody frantically looking for a solution. One call is all it takes. Trust, honesty, longevity, family. They are all here." Mike says, "My dad was always talking about family. It was never union versus management in his vision. We’re a family. We do that now, too. I think it’s easier and more accepted by employees now than even back then."
The technology today is amazing, and critical to keep up with. Carey says, "A lot of our guys are working hard to understand the changing technology and getting into it, including the management team." They also recognize quality in their partners. Mike notes, "We have been really true to our manufacturers for decades. We've been using Rheem water heaters since grandpa was alive. We’ve had Carrier forever. We work for them all, whereas some contractors are selling one brand one day and something entirely different the next. Simply showing they’re not really committed to anything. The products we handle are the same products we carried decades ago."
It's a third generation business that still builds trust on a daily basis, but Carey’s got two sons now who are working with the team, putting them potentially enroute to a fourth generation.
When you have issues. Call the Crew in Blue, they've been keeping you in your comfort zone since 1902, and are eternally thankful to the community for choosing them regularly. Three to four generations of providing comfort commercially and residentially in Michigan's Great Southwest.
Call the Crew in Blue at 983-6595 or reach out online at the link below: