Bruce Cohen says 30-year-old B.C. Plumbing thrives on brains, not brawn
Business First of Louisville – by Terry Boyd Staff Writer
Bruce Cohen, owner of B. C. Plumbing, is shown in a customer’s Old Louisville home, where his company installed all new plumbing, including high-efficiency water heaters.
Businessman/plumber Bruce Cohen has one foot in the past and one in the future.
He specializes in older homes, and a significant portion of the revenue at his B.C. Plumbing Co. comes from residential work in Old Louisville, where he’s based, and urban neighborhoods such as St. Matthews.
Cohen sees plumbing as the future because the industry is about water.
With “green” technologies, renewable resources and global water conservation coming to the fore, residential and commercial building systems — including plumbing — will be transformed, Cohen said.
Bathrooms and kitchens are the parts of homes where owners don’t mind spending, whether it’s for fancy fixtures, low-flow toilets, shower heads or high-efficiency water heaters, he said.
Add to that a growing consciousness that wasting water is wrong, even in a cheap-water city such as Louisville, Cohen said. “The battle is between the money I save versus, ‘How much good will I do?’ ” he said. “You do it because you want to do good as much as saving money.”
Plumbing might not be all that glamorous, but try living without it, Cohen said. “You can do without electricity, and you can do without heat. You cannot do without water.
“In 20 years, oil will be forgotten, and water will be where the action is,” he said.
‘The smarter, the better’
Cohen believes new markets for his company will include areas considered cutting-edge today, such as systems filtering and recycling “gray water,” or water from washing machines and dishwashers.
Cohen’s vision is unusual because he’s not a typical plumber.
He earned a mathematics degree from the University of Louisville after attending Temple University in Philadelphia and Kentucky Southern College, which operated where the University of Louisville Shelby Campus is located.
Cohen said he has built his company by hiring brainy people in a trade known for brawn. He looks for two talents: technical skills and people skills. “The smarter the better.”
In a high-dollar trade, he needs people who are as articulate about explaining what they’re doing as they are skilled at installing pipes or cleaning drains, Cohen said.
Of his eight plumbers, two have college degrees.
He could have been an actuary
Cohen entered the trades in the 1970s, working his way through school at United Parcel Service Inc. at night and as a plumber’s helper during the day. After finishing college, he chose plumbing over being an actuary because he liked to be out and about.
Then the recession of 1974 hit, and Cohen lost his job at a plumbing contractor.
So, he bought a pickup truck and went to work for himself while working on his master plumber’s license, the highest skill rating. He incorporated B.C. Plumbing in 1979.
“I was a good, young, cocky, aggressive little plumber!” Cohen said of the early days.
He migrated to Old Louisville, where the Philadelphia native was astounded to find Victorian-era mansions selling for a few thousand dollars.
“I couldn’t believe they were telling me these were the slums,” he said of the neighborhood where he lives today.
As the area gentrified, B.C. Plumbing flourished, working amid 100-year-old buildings and their inherent plumbing problems, Cohen said. “No one wanted to do that work because it was hard.”
During 30 years, B.C. Plumbing has had peaks and valleys.
At one point in the mid-2000s, the company had as many as 20 plumbers.
Last year was an off year, Cohen said, and B.C. Plumbing had total revenue of $1 million. “Typically, we topped a million (each year) for the last decade,” he said.
Cohen said he had to prune back his business, but he quickly added that he is entering a new growth phase.
“I wouldn’t mind building back to where we were,” he said. “The trick is to keep the quality as the volume grows.”