Not Just a Pipe Dream

Cleve Smith and wife Jacqueline are carving an innovative path into the future of plumbing with an eye toward taking homeowners off the energy grid.

Coalville, up in northern Utah is home to a unique small business that has been tops in their region for the past five years. CRS Mechanical is a plumbing and mechanical company owned and operated by two-time National Plumbing Competition Champion, Cleve Smith and his wife, Jacqueline. True, they do the traditional plumbing design, installation and repair that one would expect, but the company also specializes in equipment that can take their customers partially—even completely—off the energy grid. When they say that “This ain’t your daddy’s plumbing company,” they are not kidding. The CRS company motto is “You make a living by what you get ... But you make a life by what you give” is a quote from Winston Churchill and it sums up philosophy by which Cleve and Jacqueline run their business. “It is our belief that all of us need to make a living,” said Jacqueline. “But what gives us life is to understand our clients, to give them service that is genuine and in their best interest. To sell them the products they need, but not oversell. We also believe strongly that when you are making a living, it is your responsibility to give back to the community. For us that means donating materials to projects such as Habitat for Humanity, or donating money to colleges or other charitable organizations. Sometimes our entire company donates our time to a cause such as working on houses for Habitat for Humanity.”

When it comes to running the company, the Smiths take their individual roles seriously, each bringing their own talents and experiences to the table. “Cleve is definitely the technician when it comes to the plumbing side,” said Jacqueline, “not to mention our sales chief and dreamer. He is also the problem solver and is responsible for overseeing projects that need to be value engineered. We often find the engineering is overdone, and we can save the clients a lot of money.” One of the secrets of their success is that, just as in the book The E-Myth, they have discovered we each hold different parts of the complete corporate package: Entrepreneur, Manager and Technician. Cleve is the entrepreneur, and the technician. Jacqueline’s role is management. She is the one who counts the money, and keeps people on the straight path. While still an entrepreneur in her own right, her role is to keep the company grounded and to see the pitfalls of certain decisions, so they can be avoided or overcome. “We fight sometimes about how things should run, and it requires us both to see things from the other perspective, but it is a good fit with both of us involved,” said Cleve. “We know that if we didn’t have each other, our business would not survive.”

Right now, survival is the name of the game. Currently, CRS has thirteen employees. They had more before the economy went bad and have every intention of calling back those they had to lay off once business picks up again. Cleve and Jacqueline are not big on outsourcing, preferring to keep as much work as they can in-house, which allows them to control costs, expand the number of products and services, and improve customer service. “In the field we do our own work except for our HVAC. This is subbed out to another contractor who works directly with us to complete our project. This one-stop bidding is nice for a homeowner or contractor, because he deals with fewer sub-contractors. That way, we cover plumbing, radiant heat, snowmelt, geo-thermal, solar water heating, and HVAC.”

Another philosophy near and dear to the Smiths that is reflected in their products and services is self-sufficiency and the personal freedom that comes with it. “People are free when they are not dependant on others. The more you can do for yourself, the more resources you will have for others. Foreign oil seems to be the only way to fuel anything since our government is hell-bent on not using our own abundant natural resources,” said Jacqueline. “If we can help individuals or communities use the power of the sun and/or ground, we will be eliminating our need for foreign oil, and solving a manufactured energy crisis that is felt by most Americans.”

Self-sufficiency, though, can be expensive, the engineering involved in geothermal power, for example is fairly extensive. However, there are less costly things that can be done to reduce their energy dependence. “Some of our less expensive offerings, like the thankless hot water heaters are catching on like wildfire,” said Cleve. “These are about twice the price of a regular water heater, but have 3 times the life, and never run out of hot water. They are reliable, have been used outside of the US for a very long time, and the operating cost is about 1/3 the normal water-heater, and if you have two then it is even less than that. We are hoping this type of product becomes less cost prohibitive in the future as building goes this direction.”

“I believe with the tax credits that the government is pushing,” added Jacqueline, “more people will choose to use these types of products, but it’s a tax credit, so you will still have to have the money up front.” That said, they are in the process of building their first wholly “off the grid” home. The house will have all its heating and cooling by geo-thermal and solar energy and all electricity will be solar. The only item in this home that will require any connection to the public utilities will be the gas stovetop.

All of this is the result of hard work and, yes, talent. Cleve is a 2-time national plumbing champion, an achievement that played a major role in his decision to start CRS. “That’s actually how I really got started in my business,” he explained. “While I was in plumbing school and working full-time for my father-in-law we had a VICA competition. I won the state championship easily, and deciding to go on to the national level. I told my wife before I left that I would win, and I did. Then the next year, since I had already won the stand-alone competition, I convinced three other classmates in other trades to do the contest. We won state again, and then went on to win the National competition. This gave me confidence to go out and begin my business. I had made a declaration of my goal, and then achieved it, so I knew I could do it again.”

To budding entrepreneurs taking their first steps in the business world, Jacqueline and Cleve say take the leap, and then read a lot. “The books we read affected how we ran our business, books like Good to Great, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Richest Man in Babylon, Think and Grow Rich, As a Man Thinketh, and The One-Minute Manager, but The E-Myth was by far the best business book for us to read. Don’t wait until it’s getting hard to pick it up. You will need to create procedures for your job—and every one else’s—early in your company. There are so many things that will come automatically to you, that when you begin hiring others, you will be amazed that they don’t think like you do. You must have these things on paper. Also, as you grow, you may get bigger than your head can handle, and things will fall through the cracks. If you have procedures in place, and a way to make sure you can fill the cracks, you will grow healthy and strong into a solid company. Stay positive. It’s easy to feel like owning your own company is not worth the headache, but the freedom that is enjoyed is priceless. It will be hard, and sleepless nights are part of it, but there is always a way to overcome anything. People that worked for others used to be called “dependants” before they were called employees. Real freedom comes when you create something for yourself. If you cannot own a company, then at least work for a company that will allow you to be an entrepreneur. This makes our country strong and independent.

For more information about CRS Mechanical and their services, visit their website —Charles Cooper

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