James Kester, owner of Colonial Plumbing, Heating and Air
Originally published: 06.01.18 by HVACR Business Staff
We sat down with James Kester, owner of Colonial Plumbing, Heating and Air, a 2018 Tops in Trucks Fleet Design Contest winner. Kester discussed memorable design, starting his own company and learning to be a successful business owner.
1. Can you tell us a little about your background?
I grew up in a single-parent home. I didn’t know the difference between a hammer and a hacksaw as a teenager. In high school, a math teacher mentioned trade work. I put it in the back of my head andwent off to college for a year. My mother had paid the money. But on the way home from school, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
2. So you left college?
Yes. I applied for a plumber’s helper position in the local town, got hired and quit college. My mother didn’t kill me … she supported me the whole way.
3. So you started as an apprentice?
I went through the process of learning the trade and going to trade school. I ended up working as a plumbing leader at our local Army base. But also I was trying to help friends, and family and neighbors in the evening. After a while, I quit the government job and went into business for myself.
4. What is the learning curve to owning a business?
It’s been a 30-year learning curve. [laughs] I enjoy reading and going to either trade shows and learning from manufacturers or seminar speakers. It’s important never to stop learning.
5. What challenges have you faced?
One has been controlling the growth in a manner that leaves us profitable and still gives us the quality product we’re known for. We can’t just grab people off the street and assume they’re going to do things the way we want them to be done. We’ve got to slowly work them into our system, make sure our customers are pleased and we’re offering what we need to offer to be a profitable company.
6. What is your business mix?
Fifty percent of our business is commercial plumbing installation. We don’t do any commercial HVACR. The rest is 25 percent service plumbing and 25 percent service HVACR and retrofit installations.
7. How have you grown since 1983?
HVACR is growing, but it will always lag behind in the percent of our plumbing work. We try to control the growth, making sure we only grow as fast as we want it to. We had two employees back in 1983 and it has steadily grown since then. We’ve leveled off right now at 50 employees.
8. How did you come up with your winning truck design?
We’re located in central Virginia, which of course has a Colonial theme to it anyway, and then the name of the city that we’re located in is Colonial Heights. You add all of that together and it made sense for us to use the image a Colonial Minuteman … somebody who’s quick to respond.
9. What did your branding look like before?
There was no standard. As a plumber who thought he was a graphic designer, I would put something together here and there, but there was no cohesion. It was always just a spur of the moment, always using the same brush script font, but otherwise no logo or brand to identify us. The vans were white with our name in it. That’s it.
10. Who came up with ‘Service that’s Revolutionary’?
That was actually internal. We’d been using that slogan for about 10 years, but never really blended it with everything. It wasn’t on our vans … we may throw it in a newspaper ad, but more often than not, we didn’t. Now, it’s something our customers expect to see.
11. What made you decide to embark on this branding journey?
We did some brainstorming and research and found Dan Antonelli at Kick Charge Creative. We really liked a lot of the designs he’s done for other companies, so we set up a meeting with him.
12. What was it like working with Kick Charge Creative?
At first, the Minuteman was a bit cartoony, but the more we worked together with him, the more my wife and I liked what he came up with. Once he presented us with the serious, confident looking Minuteman, we were really pleased. It says we’re serious about taking care of you as a customer. Dan picked all the colors and we were surprised with just how much we liked it.
13. Did you do anything special to role out the new design?
We had a Spot-the-New-Vehicles Contest when we first rolled them out, and did that on Facebook and received all kinds of great comments … people saying they chased us down to take a picture of the vehicle. It was a good way to introduce it to the community.
14. What kind of reaction have you gotten?
We have not had a negative reaction yet. All of our customers have been very enthusiastic.
15. Do you use GPS in your vehicles?
We were early on with a company called At Road, which is now owned by Trimble. We’ve been with them for at least 10 years.
16. Do you track leads based off your trucks?
We should. We never had that comment, never in 30 years before. So we should be tracking it. I would say there are dozens of people who have said, “Hey, I saw your truck.” But we haven’t counted them.
17. What kind of ROI have you seen so far?
After putting the 11 newly designed vehicles on the road we have seen an increase in the mention of our new vehicles on social media sites. We can tell that the vehicles are doing a great job of being a driving billboard for us as well because we have stayed extremely busy even during times that used to be a bit slow for us.
18. Has this new look helped with recruitment?
Yes, that’s one area that we were really surprised (and pleased) to see a return on the new fleet was on the increase in the number of applicants for technicians. The vehicles look so professional and we are so excited that other technicians in the area want to join our team!
19. Do your technicians wear three-corner hats?
[Laughs] Not yet. Although, last week I was looking online to see about buying a mascot uniform for things like football games, parades and other local events.
20. Does your background make you more apt to hire less-experienced people?
Yes. Whether I’m at a high school speaking with students or at church speaking with youth, I look for people who have the personality or the desire to learn. They don’t have to be from any kind of technical background for me to be interested. I just have to see they have that desire to learn. And it’s worked out well. We’re partnering with the local high school to put our logo on a banner in what is a brand new vocational program at school, in their shop ... kind of a sponsor type of thing. So these kids will see that new logo every day they’re in class.