Plumb Local

A master plumber and his extended family take care of business

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Robin Benoure (second from right), the president of Benoure Plumbing & Heating in South Burlington, runs the company with his brothers, from left, Bob, vice president; Brad, secretary; and Mike, treasurer. Since their father retired in 1994, the company has grown from a staff of four to 36 employees, many of them family members. All four brothers are master plumbers.

Robin Benoure knows how important tech-nical education is to business and the economy. Now the president of Benoure Plumbing & Heating in South Burlington, he started working summers in his father's business when he was 13 years old. When he was a senior in high school, his dad would pick him up at 11 in the morning to go to work, "and I got credit for it," the Colchester native explains.

"Once you graduated from high school, you signed up for an apprenticeship with the state of Vermont and you would go to plumbing school up at Essex High School twice a week at night, from 6 to 9. You did this for four years. Once you got in your four years of schooling and 8,000 hours of training, then you could apply to take your journeyman's test. That program is still in existence, now run by Vermont Technical College," he says.

After passing his journeyman's test, Benoure had to put in another 2,000 hours of on-the-job training before he could apply for his master plumber's test. "If you're right on top of it," he says, "it's a five-year process. I actually received my master's license when I was 21 years old."

Now 42, Benoure depends on his long years of experience to know how to find solutions to the variety of situations the company faces in its day-to-day operations. A 10-foot-long cork board in the hallway of the company's headquarters is covered with letters, cards and photographs sent by clients who wrote to thank the company in general or certain individuals within the company for coming to their aid.

"You run into a lot of interesting things during the day," says Benoure, "from people having leaking pipes with Sheetrock falling down on them; carbon monoxide detectors going off, which can be a very scary situation; to places where animals have gotten into chimneys and plugged them up."

Cold season can be interesting, he says. "We can work for 24 hours straight just because of the number of people with frozen pipes or lack of heat a lot of people in need. I've been to places where there's so much water in the basement it's coming out the cellar windows."

It's a stressful business, says Benoure in his typically quiet, laid-back fashion, sounding like he's never once raised his voice in anger or frustration. "You know, you work with gas, worry about gas leaks, about carbon monoxide; you worry about a pipe you may have connected causing major damage, especially in a commercial building where there's computers. In houses, a pipe can be in a difficult spot to solder, and you leave and there's a little splinter on a beam left burning; that potential's there."

Benoure hastens to add that this last situation has never happened to his company, but he knows of cases where it has.

Along with his three brothers, Bobby, Michael and Brad, Benoure runs the company their father, Robert, bought in 1966 from his longtime employer, Max Langtot. When Robert retired in 1994, the boys stepped in.

"A kind of interesting thing," says Benoure, "when my father retired in 1994, there was one employee besides the brothers. Brad, being the youngest was not involved then. He was just getting out of high school, so it was just Bobby, Michael and me and one other employee."

Today the company has 36 employees, many of them family members, including Benoure's sons, Chris and Ryan both apprentices a sister, Krista, Bobby's two sons, and all four brothers' wives: Benoure's wife, Patty, an at-home mother to their four children, does all the company's billing from home; Bob's wife, Paula, is one of the receptionists; Michael's wife, Pam, does the accounts payable; and Brad's wife, Sara, is the bill collector.

Sales have grown 20 percent to 25 percent every year, says Benoure. "It's been a wonderful thing at the end of the year to see that kind of sales growth, and we continue to do it by adding more employees and more vehicles."

With growth has come a space crunch, especially difficult with the need to maintain an inventory of myriad parts and pipes. This led the brothers to buy another building that offers nearly four times as much square footage, all on one floor. The new quarters are on Commerce Avenue, right around the corner from their old place on Ethan Allen Road, near the airport. They were moving in at press time.

"My brothers and I bought the building personally, and the business leases it from us," says Benoure. They intend to lease out the old space to another business.

Paula Benoure, Bob's wife, is office manager and helps in answering the phone. Robin looks over her shoulder, while Bob (back left) and Mike look over the detailed schedule that tracks jobs.

Benoure credits the growth to the company's careful attention to both detail and clients. For example, on the wall of one of the offices is a large board on which on-call schedules are plotted out a year in advance. Names are drawn from a hat to determine on-call dates. Another board tracks each job, its schedule and who's responsible for what.

The company does a good deal of work for medical offices doctors and dentists. "Some of that work is done after hours whether on weekends or working from midnight until 5 a.m. because you can't shut off equipment and water during working time," he says. "It makes the client happy."

One happy client is Tim Frost, the owner of Peregrine Contracting, who says he has worked with Benoure Plumbing at least eight years. "We're a general contractor, and they do virtually all of our plumbing and heating work," says Frost. "We do mostly upper-end residential work, so it involves quite a bit of complicated heating systems and a lot of fancy custom bathrooms, where you have custom showers that require specific detailing, sometimes foreign fixtures, which are not always easy to install and don't have standard parts."

"We find a critical part of our business is having qualified employees that care about the company and care what they're doing," Benoure says. "A lot of pride is taken by our people. We have a lot of longtime employees here from the day we hired them back in '94 when we decided to step up and have a bigger company."

The best part of Benoure's day which begins at 4:30 a.m. is meeting with clients, he says. "It's always nice to come up with an idea that works for people. We get a lot of phone calls after we've done a job saying, 'I'm so happy with what we decided to do.' A lot of it is just years of experience and mistakes you've made in the past, and not to make them a second time."

Clients run the gamut from celebrities Benoure won't name names to senior citizens with no heat. "We've done work for Howard Dean," he says, "have done affordable housing in Shelburne, work in the Alpine Shop, the Vermont Gift Barn, Ben & Jerry's, Leonardo's Pizza, the Stowehof, and the addition on Leunig's Restaurant.

The company is generous to the community, having participated in several Habitat for Humanity projects and contributing to such organizations as the Multiple Sclerosis and Cancer societies. "Many a time we'll go to a family we can see is in need and not charge them for helping them out, or we'll give them a discount for what's been done. You can tell when people are hurting and in need," says Benoure.

Over the years, an ongoing trust has been built with repeat customers that sometimes extends beyond plumbing. He tells a story about an elderly couple in Burlington who are longtime customeres. "Several years ago, I got a call early in the morning from Mrs. Smith saying she had no heat. It was a snowy morning, and I carefully made my way into Burlington and knocked on the door.

"I said, 'You have a problem with your heat?' She said, 'I'm not sure.' I went down to the basement, checked the heating system, and saw it was operating properly. When I came up the stairs, she very politely said, 'I don't think Mr. Smith is breathing; could you check him for me?'

"I had a little bit of panic," recalls Benoure, "and I said rather than check Mr. Smith, I should call 911. Fortunately, they came, and Mr. Smith was breathing, and everything was fine."

According to Frost, Benoure is always accommodating, "usually calling you to ask when you need them as opposed to the other way around. If I needed somebody to come out to my house tonight at 6 o'clock, he'd do everything possible to get somebody there. They're the best subcontractor we've ever worked with."

The trade has evolved over the years, as homes have become tighter, requiring air exchangers to remove the stale air, and regulations requiring energy efficiency in all appliances. Contrary to past years, air conditioning is now requested in one out of every three new homes, says Benoure. "Vermont summers are getting hotter and hotter, and we're finding that more and more people are inquiring about installing air conditioners in existing homes."

Robin Benoure's brothers Brad (left) and Bob work with him to deal with general contractors.

One large concern, he says, is that "the number of people going into the plumbing and heating business has dramatically gone downhill. We advertise for help, and it's very rare for somebody to even come down and fill out an application. It's true for other trades, too: electricians, carpenters, plumbers, everybody in the building trades. Projections from economists say this area will continue to thrive and grow, so the skilled blue-collar jobs are definitely going to have some problems soon."

When Benoure did his apprenticeship, he says, "In Plumbing I class, you would have 50 guys, and as you made your way through, by the time you got to Plumbing 4, you would be down to 30 guys. My son Ryan, a second-year apprentice, has 13 in his class, so by the time these guys get to Plumbing 4, they'll be down to eight kids, maybe, left to get their licenses, so I think we need to begin to talk about how to train some of these kids or get them in some kind of schooling."

He confesses he's not sure where to turn. "Essex Technical School is beyond its capacity, and they don't have the shop area to bring these kids in and show them how it's done. The proposed technical center might have helped, he says, but even with that, it would have taken a long time to get people trained and out in the field. We've had a few people come here as apprentices and say, 'This is not for me.' It's a five-year plan, a college commitment, and it's a difficult job."

In the meantime, Benoure carries on, relieved that there are family members interested in working with the company. "Hopefully, as the sons and nephews grow up, they'll be able to eventually work their way out of the field and into the office and take over the dads' and uncles' jobs and give us a little relief," he says with a laugh. •

Originally published in May 2005 Business People-Vermont