Case Studies

Pace Plumbing Corp.

The Building Block(s) of Long-term Success

The Block Building sits near the northernmost tip of Brooklyn, on an unassuming block of the industrious Greenpoint neighborhood. With its granite, steely façade it’s not a flashy building, but it’s solid. And from its location the Block Building offers fast, uncomplicated access to the ever-changing Manhattan skyline that gleams in the background.

The Block Building is home to Pace Plumbing Corp. (Pace), which was founded by Harold Block in 1968. And everything that the building represents can be found at Pace, still a family company that, like its headquarters, is reliable, responsive, efficient and steadfast.

The current Block Building is built literally on top of the company’s original headquarters, which was a low-slung brick warehouse. Where the original office once sat is now the executive car garage and prefabrication shop. This is appropriate, however, because Pace is a company that has successfully transitioned throughout the building booms and busts without losing its identity.

“We’ve been around 43 years, and we’ve gathered the expertise to offer the most professional services,” says Block, CEO of Pace, but assisted in the day-to-day operations by Andru Coren, president, and Adam Levy, account executive. “We have worked hard to have the best systems in place, systems that allow us to monitor jobs constantly to solve issues before they become problems. Now we’ve got guys on the biggest jobs in the city, but we’ll still deal with a toilet stoppage for a regular customer.”

“Yes We Can, Yes We Have, Yes We Will”

Drawing on over four decades and four generations of experience, Pace has played an integral part in complex, large-scale projects that represent icons of New York City and even the nation. The office walls are lined with photographs and renderings of neighborhood-defining buildings in which Pace has been active. Pace is well-established as a premier privately held plumbing and fire protection services subcontractor in New York, New Jersey and Westchester County, and the company has shown an uncanny ability to recognize market shifts and position its operations to satisfy both new and repeat clientele.

The Statue of Liberty. The United Nations Secretariat Building. The Jacob Javits Convention Center. The Thurgood Marshall Federal Courthouse. The World Trade Center. These are just some of the prestigious sites where Pace has been or continues to be a presence through any and all phases of value-added construction and maintenance. No matter the scope of the job, Pace continues to operate with a proactive, problem-solving attitude, unwavering integrity, and the belief that only water and not money, time or effort should go down the drain on any site.

Like most companies, however, Pace cut its teeth on far more humble jobs. Block got into the industry through his father’s small plumbing business, but he soon found he could be more efficient on his own. His initial focus became plumbing for laundromats and eventually restaurants, which, because of New York’s mixed-use environment, transitioned naturally into other aspects of low-rise buildings. However, it was a certain piece of eye candy, not kitchens that put Pace firmly on the map.

In the mid-1980s the Statue of Liberty underwent extensive renovations, and companies throughout the city bid to be a part of the project. “I got solicited to put in a bid and originally I wasn’t interested, because it seemed like such a small amount of profit for so much hassle,” admits Block. “You had to take all your supplies and trucks in and out by barge. But a gentlemen working in the office convinced me that this wasn’t just another project, so we bid and got an initial $40,000 job.”

“Before you know it, another job came up, then another, and soon enough we’re doing $1 million worth of work on the whole island, including the Statue, restaurants, etc.,” continues Block. “From that we got recognition, and we found ourselves in a position where we were considered acceptable to do a different level of work.”

Jobs followed in many cultural landmarks, including the Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Central Park Zoo. Pace was also a key player in New York’s toilet rebate program, which was the city’s attempt to not flush away its water resources, so to speak. “To avoid an expensive infrastructure change to bring more water into the city New York made it the law for all construction to use low-flow toilets, and they financed all existing buildings to change toilets from five- or six-gallon flush tanks to 1.6-gallon tanks,” says Block. “We got into it by accident, but ended up doing Co-op City [in the Bronx], which was the largest site in the city with 22,000 apartments.”

For every success, however, there was a stumbling block. Pace’s new level of work included high-rise residential, but things didn’t go as planned and Block soured on the sector. In the late-1980s, however, Block enticed Coren, who was married to one of Block’s daughters, to move up from South Florida, and Coren saw a potential boom on the horizon.

“I felt that the residential market would be coming back strong and we definitely needed to get back ‘in the game.’ Harold really didn’t have the stomach for it, but I thought that we needed to give it a shot,” recalls Coren. “Much of our success has been from the attitude that our market focus has to remain flexible and able to adapt to various trends as they develop.”

Originally Coren had to contend with general contractors and developers who had been told for years by Block that the company didn’t do high-rise residential. “Because of Harold’s previous bad experiences with high-rise work, he had pretty much let it be known that Pace was not interested in that type of work,” laughs Levy, who is Block’s grandson and Coren’s nephew.

“I had an uphill battle convincing our customers that we did do high-rises and had just taken a sabbatical,” Coren says. “We finally got our foot back in the door on a project on East 34th St. It was 500 rental units with a retail component on the ground floor, and it went so well that Harold lost his reticence to doing high-rise work.

“Harold allowed me to do things differently than we had in the past,” continues Coren. “Instead of trying to front load the job in terms of billing and keeping labor at a minimum from the on-set, we hit the job hard from the get go. We were first on the job and first on the floors as they were poured. This allowed us to be more productive and ultimately more profitable, because we did not have to contend with other trades in tight spaces. It also made for a happy client, because we were driving the job at a fast pace, no pun intended.”

A Steady Flow of Opportunities

Pace would send much of the years 2000 to 2009 working with much of its workforce throughout high-rise apartment, condo and hotel buildings, whether for new construction, retrofit or service calls. A union company, Pace would grow to employ 200 in the field and 35 in the office. During this period the company would implement many means of efficiency that helped propel the company’s reputation for consistency.

To be as productive as possible Pace sought out technological advances to assist in labor efficiencies.  The company developed its own engineering department using CAD [computer-aided design] and eventually BIM [building information modeling], onscreen estimating, and a highly specific accounting system. All foremen are equipped with an Internet-enabled laptop and cellphone, and operate what are essentially satellite offices on-site. Using detailed category sheets, broken down into separate tasks and even building sections, they send in daily reports of what men are doing to allow for cost tracking and to alert the office if there is an unusual dip in production.

A secure company intranet keeps all change order info, billing info, permit status, payment info, job photos, submittals – anything related to the job in a semi-real time environment – and these project folders are updated nightly and can be accessed by both Pace and the project owner. This system is especially a boon for Pace, and is accessible from the boardroom to the break room. And the company is pushing to have as many of its clients take advantage of paceplumbing.com as possible in order to help reshape the nature of communications in the region’s industry.

In addition, Pace maintains its prefabrication shop, where different components are manufactured in a controlled environment, assuring none of the variations that might occur when different journeymen are building parts in unfavorable weather conditions on-site. Drawing on the company’s CAD and BIM capabilities – overseen by Rich Bailey, vice president/director of engineering – Pace calculates pre-purchasing of project supplies and secures substantial contracts for commodities such as copper, assuring the company has resources on-hand to offer projects the best package upfront, without deviations. Entire assembles are engineered and constructed in the Pace facility, and then these frames are transported and dropped in to a site.

However, nothing quite represents the shifts in the industry that have informed Pace like the company’s plan room shelves. When the Block Building was constructed in 2007 project plans were still kept in compounding spools that could ultimately reach eight, 10, even 12 inches in diameter. Today, you look on the shelves and see a single DVD-R that contains everything pertaining to a 100-story building, and even those are disappearing as FTP sites become more common. And Pace has been at the forefront of employing such innovations.

Last, but not least, Pace continues to develop its managerial workforce. “Nobody graduates college as a plumber, so where does your staff come from?” asks Block rhetorically. “The answer is your workforce. Most of the guys in the office started out in the field, they know what it takes, and that’s how we get such good people.” Augmenting the union’s training, Pace offers interested laborers continuing education classes in such areas as BIM and CAD operation.

Aggressively Adapting

Eventually the high-rise boom did cool, but by that time Pace had systematically streamlining its operations and identified its most capable foremen to realize its maximum potential across sectors. Fully capable of engineering and/or executing energy-efficient, LEED-certified designs, and with trusted WBE- and MBE-certified vendors for supplies, Pace is equipped to meet all project requirements. Always attuned to industry trends, listening to the winds whispering from other industries and aided in part by being active in the Association of Contracting Plumbers of the City of New York Inc. (where Coren currently acts as vice president), Pace saw the economic recession coming, and in 2008 began looking to public and government projects.

“We wanted jobs with funding, whether it be federal, state or city subsidizing,” says Block. “We just knew the condo market was being overbuilt, so we shifted gears to not be caught when funding for office and apartment buildings was lost.”

“Ultimately we were right, the market started to collapse,” adds Coren, reflecting on recent construction trends. “And once it did we were in a position where we had secured good, ongoing foundation work, like the U.N. Secretariat building and the World Trade Center Tower 4, and that allowed us to keep active going after larger jobs while never abandoning our base, which is general contractors with smaller, more immediate projects. We don’t neglect our base, but we are always looking for something new.”

Pace currently draws the majority of its $60 million annual revenue from these publically financed jobs, with the rest coming from such showcase projects as the Mercedes House in Clinton Park, a flagship Mercedes dealership for North America topped with a striking terraced tower of rental and condo units. Pace is also in the process of doing interior work for several hotels, and is doing sprinkler work at Carnegie Hall, among other jobs that continue to uphold the company’s reputation.

“We don’t need the practice of plumbing. We know how to do plumbing, so unless we can make sure the job is profitable and the client is interested in the level of quality we bring we don’t take it just to take it,” says Levy.

While Pace is capable of doing virtually any type of local job without any outside assistance, the company is always considering the future. “There seems to be a market shift in the making,” says Coren. “We have started vetting electrical and mechanical contractors, with the eventual goal being a vertically integrated MEP group that can accommodate an entire project’s MEP needs. We believe that the national players will eventually choose to offer a complete package of self-performed work on the larger projects. In that regard we would welcome the opportunity to be a part of a national or international company that had the ability to take us beyond our local market. We bring a lot to the table.”

“Plumbing isn’t exotic,” admits Block. “Most people are happy if the water flows when the wall is up and you turn the faucet. But in the 25 years since Andru joined the company we’ve taken business to a different level, and people recognize the quality we bring to the job. And we are ready to bring that to anything we set out to do.”

Market trends may change, but Pace Plumbing Corp. business cards are still printed with an image of the Statue of Liberty, because pride in a job well done is eternal.

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