Not Your Average Joe the Plumber
Self-made businessman had his own vision, and followed it
Even when he was told his opinion didn’t matter, John Emery was unrelenting in his belief in doing things right. That belief was rooted way back in his childhood on his family’s New Hampshire farm. “We took care of a lot on our own, doing a lot of work on the house and the barn,” he says. “From a young age I started working with my hands.”
Emery moved to Hawaii after high school to live with his brother, who was working at Liberty House. About a year later, he knew Hawaii was the place to be.
He started out installing lawn sprinklers, but saw no growth opportunities in that line of work. That’s when he decided to take up plumbing: That field offered a number of different specialties, would require constant re-education, and most important, could provide Emery with an opportunity to run his own business.
He trained, got his license and put in years working for contractors as a licensed plumber. But he wasn’t always comfortable with the quality of work being done—in waterproofing, for instance, or the materials being used behind the tiles.
“I gave my opinion,” Emery recalls. “But they told me just to shut up, that I was just a plumber.”
That was when Emery decided to not only form his own plumbing business, but work toward adding on licensed general contracting as well. In 1994 he started Waialae Plumbing out of his Kaimuki home. His only partner was the van he drove to bathroom and kitchen repair jobs.
Two years later he hired another plumber and someone to man the office. Five years ago, Emery achieved his license in general contracting, and the company was renamed Waialae Plumbing and Construction.
Today, the one-man, one-van outfit has grown into a 27-employee contracting company for homes, hotels and businesses. The company does its own contracting, plumbing and even electrical services.
“We have the ability to handle everything in-house,” Emery says. “We can handle entire projects without having to bring in subcontractors. Our advantage is that we’re a one-stop shop.”
Emery is proud of his track record, including work on homes that Cathy Lee extensively remodeled and sold. Most of his work has come from word-of-mouth buzz.
He looks at his employees as individual investments, putting them through license apprenticeship programs to continue their education and training. Passing on knowledge and encouraging his employees to grow fills him with a sense of pride and fulfillment. “I’ve taken kids that worked at K-Mart and Crazy Shirts, and turned them into plumbers, carpenters, tile guys,” Emery says. “I’ve given them a lot of training and provided them with tools to become successful in life.”
Most contractors have workers drive their own vehicles to job sites. Emery provides his workers the tools they need—company vehicles, uniforms—to keep them focused on their work. “I try to go the extra mile to take care of my guys, so they can be motivated to keep people happy,” he says.
It’s in line with Emery’s belief in investing—in his employees, his craft and the materials he uses. He uses copper pipes, despite their higher cost, because they last longer. “I just learned a long time ago to focus on doing quality work and not worry about being the cheapest option out there,” he says.
When Emery talks about the importance of solid plumbing infrastructure in any home, you can hear the years of knowledge and passion in his voice.
“When you call a plumber, you expect him to come out and know every single model of every single faucet that was ever made,” he says. “Some of the higher-end ones are rather complicated. We’re real good at installing the complicated stuff.”
Emery says he’s glad he didn’t listen to the naysayers years ago, and is proud of where his company is today.
“I was basically told, ‘Your opinion doesn’t matter to us because you’re just a plumber,’” Emery says. “But I knew there was a better way of doing stuff.”