Plumb Nice

Master of his trade

by Chris Farnsworth

chuck-arel-rycandon0517When Chuck Arel founded his Colchester company, Rycandon Mechanical, in 1998, he named it after his three children: Ryan, Candice, and Brandon.

Striking out and going it on your own in business can be nerve-wracking. No matter the end result, be it success or failure, the process of becoming self-employed often takes its toll on the brave soul looking to start a company.

Not so for Chuck Arel, the founder and co-owner of Rycandon Mechanical, a plumbing, heating and air conditioning contractor in Colchester.

“It was totally seamless,” Arel says as he sits in his office, which is conveniently attached to his home. “The transition couldn’t have been smoother. I was done [at my job] on Friday and working for myself on Monday.”

Much of the ease in which Arel moved from employee to employer was down to years of establishing himself as a competent, dependable worker.

“I started when I was 15,” he says. “My father said, ‘Time to get a job!’”

That process began at the Essex Vocational School, now called the Center for Technology, where he put in the years of apprenticeship necessary to take the journeyman’s test, the first step toward earning his master’s license.

“One of our projects was building a house,” Arel remembers. “We were installing the heating and I sort of knew … that I could, you know, I’d enjoy doing this.”

Just as important, he learned the basic tenets of hard work, along with a few axioms.

“It starts when you realize, ‘Hey! Everything you do, it’s never as bad as you think it will be,’” he says. “If you have to dig up your septic tank, just go do it. Grab a shovel, don’t whine.”

Indeed, near Arel’s office door a sign displays the creed, No whining. “The word can’t is not in my vocabulary,” he says.

That philosophy kept him moving forward as a young man. Having grown up in Winooski, Arel decided to branch out after school and head for Houston in 1979. But the humidity and the traffic made it unbearable. After a few years he headed home and worked for a local plumber for about six months before the business went belly up. He joined Northeastern HVAC, and four years later, he left with colleagues who started 4 Systems Mechanical.

He ran jobs for 4 Systems, functioning as a contractor and developing important contacts and experience. Then in November of 1999, he took the names of his three children, Ryan, Candice, and Brandon, and created Rycandon Mechanical in partnership with his wife, Sarah, who deals with much of the bookkeeping.

“Billing is the worst,” Arel says with a laugh. “I hate paperwork, honestly. I’m fortunate because my wife handles most of it, but I have to sort of put it all together first before I can bring it to her.”

He met Sarah when she rented an apartment attached to his house. “We became friends,” he says, “and when I divorced my first wife, we started dating.” They married in 1995. Around 2004, Arel blasted a door through the wall between the house and that apartment, which now serves as his office.

Arel says that the most crucial part of his job is garnering and maintaining contracts. “Seventy-five percent of my customers now, I’ve had them for almost 20 years.”

One of his most important contracts was also his new business’s first customer. Bobby Miller, the owner of REM Development and Miller Realty Group, immediately signed a contract with the fledgling business.

“Chuck has worked with us since the 4 Systems days,” says Tim Miller, Bobby’s son. “He decided to go out on his own; he left in the right way; and he looked for some guidance. We were happy to keep working with him.

“He does all of our service work. We know [Rycandon] does stuff right, and we’ll continue to use him. I’d recommend him to anyone. I also respect him as a family man. Our sons both played baseball, though they were at rival schools, and he was always just so involved with it all.”

Another important aspect of Arel’s job is teaching his eventual employees. Plumbing is still a profession that requires an apprenticeship before taking up the mantle, so Arel has to cultivate his apprentices.

“It’s an investment for sure,” he says. “I pay for everything. The schooling’s about $1,200, but when you add in all the time that it takes to train them for four years, 2,000 hours a year, before they can take the journeyman’s test, you’re talking close to about $40,000.”

Adding to the stress, according to Arel, is that apprenticeship is down. That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a dearth of plumbers in the future, however.

“We’re seeing a lot of late bloomers,” he explains. “Some of these kids go into tech and find out there isn’t a lot for them, so they leave to work with their hands.”

Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment among plumbers and similar trades is projected to grow between 21 and 26 percent before 2022.

Tony Wheelock has been working with Arel for 30 years, since they were both at 4 Systems. He echoes Arel’s sentiments about their profession.

“Well, the average age of a plumber now is in his 50s,” he says. “It’s a bit harder to find apprentices who want to start with this kind of work.”

Still, business is good, says Wheelock, as is working with Arel. After running his own plumbing business for a while and tiring of the boom-or-bust pace, Wheelock started doing work for Rycandon in 2011, and became a permanent employee in 2014.

“Chuck’s great,” he says. “He takes care of his employees, and he knows his stuff.”

With experienced tradesmen like Wheelock and a few others, Arel is able to be whatever he has to be for Rycandon.

“I definitely have to wear a lot of hats,” he admits with a smile. “Every day is different. One day I’m bidding on a job, the next, stocking for another one. I’m constantly just driving around, looking and troubleshooting.”

It’s also tiresome work to stay current in his business, which leads Arel to take classes and renew licenses rather often. He already carries six certifications.

“I mean, there’s a code update every three years,” he says. “You can’t mess around. But I get along with the code enforcers; they’re just doing their job; they’re just people.”

That aspect of his vocation, talking and connecting with people, is easily Arel’s favorite.

“I love the human contact,” he says. “Going in and talking with people, it’s the highlight. Maybe it’s about the project; maybe it’s something else. But after 20 or so minutes of talking with someone you can tell what it’ll be like working with them.”

Mark Lundie, property manager with Nick & Morrissey Development, has known Arel for almost 20 years. “Chuck is a great guy!” he says. He’s got a good heart, and he helps the community quite a bit. He volunteers all the time, especially with kids and sports. And you know, he’d do anything to help someone.”

When he’s not running Rycandon, Arel focuses most of his energy on his children. As they grew up, he did everything from coaching their baseball and soccer teams to being an assistant scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts.

Although only his son Ryan is still in school there, Arel maintains the Colchester High School baseball field in his spare time.

“Oh, I love it,” he admits. “Last year we stripped the whole infield and replaced it. Such a cool experience.”

Coaching, in particular, makes him happy, a fact that becomes obvious upon learning that he assists the varsity baseball coach for the high school. “I step back from being called an assistant coach, because I want to be able to take a day off whenever I want to. I’m there almost every day, but you never know what business is going to do; there could be a week I couldn’t be there for days.”

“I really enjoy watching the kids play, seeing them learn and develop,” he says. “There’s that ‘Aha!’ moment, where you see in their eyes that they’ve figured something out.”

Arel also enjoys traveling with Sarah. They often visit their son Brandon in Boston or daughter, Candice, in Austin, Texas. He can see selling the business and moving south after retirement.

“The business is changing,” he says. “Our niche is big warehouse buildings, but we’re going to have to reinvent ourselves soon. A lot of our customers are nearing retirement.”

That might be easier said than done, as Arel has noticed that the younger generation taking over from his long-standing clients seems more interested in, as he puts it, “maintaining rather than building.”

Arel says he believes that part of that phenomenon is the difficulty contractors find building in Vermont, a state with more than a few regulations and hurdles to clear before shovels can hit the ground. It’s a problem he says he won’t miss when it’s time to leave Rycandon Mechanical behind.•