Family businesses work when everyone is invested in a common goal. Half-hearted efforts and attitudes, jealousy or near-sightedness are the kiss of death when parents, siblings and in-laws are involved.
But when all are engaged and aligned fruitfully, the result can be an uncommonly strong enterprise with long-term potential.
AC Plumbing, Heating & Mechanical in Cleveland, OH, seems to have written the handbook for success in family business, though that wasn’t initially the plan. Tony Caruso started the firm with his wife LuAnn, in 1980, while also serving as a professional fireman.
Today, their children operate the 14-person company in Bedford Heights, OH.
Daughter Monica runs the office and her husband, Kelly Miller, is head of the HVAC shop. Anthony, like his father, is a professional fireman and paramedic, working 24 hours on, 48 off. When he’s not on duty at the firehouse, he’s the lead hydronic technician. Michael, who has a construction management degree, is the company’s lead plumber.
Under their direction and Tony’s mentorship and guidance, the business has flourished.
“I never envisioned all of this with my children,” said Tony Caruso. “I didn’t plan for them to join the company, let alone see the potential for them to propel us forward. But I’ve always believed this profession was something special. Having them join me has been a tremendous source of pride.”
Today, the company’s reputation for outstanding craftsmanship is validated by long-standing customer relationships, both commercial and residential. Some of those clients haven’t changed since the early years, when LuAnn was still writing invoices from notes that Tony scratched in the firehouse breakroom.
As Tony takes a back seat to day-to-day operations, it has given him time for volunteer work, and to tackle personal projects.
“I’m drawn to old things, especially mechanical in nature,” said Tony. “Volunteering at a historic railway has been rewarding, especially when I can involve my grandchildren. I love to bring things back to their proper vintage and grace; cabooses, automobiles, buildings, etc.”
In part to scratch an itch and partly as a long-term investment, Tony and LuAnn purchased a 100-year-old building near downtown Cleveland in 2017. The Detroit Avenue area is slowly experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Young people are moving back in, small businesses are cropping up, and property values are plodding patiently upward.
Caruso bought the old building as a rundown residence. Police were frequently called to the address for one sort of disturbance or another. But with plenty of vision and know how – not to mention the involvement of a team of mechanical technicians – Tony and LuAnn had other plans.
They’re just now finishing the details on the 5,000 square-foot building. An upscale salon and spa occupies the ground level, with floor-to-ceiling windows along the sidewalk. The upstairs is divided into two apartments, with a third being added behind the salon.
Half of the basement slab received a pebble finish called Natural Stone. No sooner had the top coat cured before water backed up into the basement.
“We thought we’d need to hammer out a part of the new floor to access a clog in the old porcelain plumbing, and install a drain at that spot,” said Caruso. “So we purchased a Watts Pronto!™ floor drain because of the ability to do post-pour adjustment between the concrete and finished floor.”
Then Michael and Zac Wood, one of the company’s plumbers, scoped the pipe. It became apparent that the clog could be remedied without digging up the floor. Jagged edges on the old cast iron pipe within a fitting were catching sewer debris. By snaking the pipe with a heavy cutter tip, the issue was remedied.
In an adjacent basement room without finished flooring, the building had a plumbing stack coming down from the first floor. It was no longer in use, and just in the way.
“We wanted to remove the stack for more storage space,” said Michael. “But in a building like this, where the use of occupied space can easily change in the future, we try not to eliminate sewer connections. We already had the Pronto! drain in the van. It’s a little overkill for an unfinished slab, but it definitely served the purpose.”
Zac hammered-out the floor, installed a new trap, then poured new concrete and installed the drain.
“The real benefit of the Pronto! floor drain is that the drain can be adjusted twice,” said Zac. “The basin can be raised or lowered to match the initial concrete pour, and then the strainer can be adjusted to match the finished floor grade. It comes with a set of shims to get a perfect level. On this installation, though, we only needed to make one adjustment. Using the drain’s integral bubble level, I was able to plumb-in the drain perfectly just by adjusting it after making my PVC connection.”
The Watts Pronto! floor drain is available in either cast iron or PVC, and comes in grate sizes of 5”, 6” or 8”.
“We’ve used a variety of Watts products since I started the company,” said Tony. “Our hydronic installations are covered in Watts valves, and we often use tekmar controls. We also like their backflow assemblies. We picked the Pronto! drain, despite it being a completely new product, based on the quality of products we’ve come to expect from the brand.”
With the plumbing issues resolved at the investment property, the Carusos can focus on finishing the final rental unit. The building is now an integral part of the Detroit Avenue urban revitalization effort, inside and out. Two walls on the building feature giant murals, a theme throughout the area. It’s another source of pride.
“Not everyone at AC Plumbing is family, but they may as well be,” said Tony. “Every member of our team is vital. We hire people that want to provide service. That is, in my judgement, the finest pursuit. The responsibility to our team is never to do less than the right thing. That may include engineering the correct system, performing the proper replacement or repair, or taking responsibility for mistakes. Good business ethics.”
Tony’s quick to note that the industry and market is changing rapidly, and is thankful that his children are proactively keeping pace with it. Clients have become much more astute in regard to what they want in their homes. Systems are now “on demand,” “green” or otherwise designed primarily for comfort.
“The daily challenge we now face is installing a system that never compromises safety, comfort or efficiency,” Tony continued. “In years’ past, things were simpler, and efficiency wasn’t as critical. These factors have truly raised the bar on what it means to be a plumbing or HVAC professional. Fortunately, manufacturers and reps are providing more support than ever before.”
“I feel that being trusted in a customer’s home is the greatest responsibility,” Tony said. “As my career winds down, I feel that my family has that same passion. At the end of the day we can all rest knowing we’ve done what is dutifully right.”