Just like the scene from the classic movie, “A Few Good Men,” where Tom Cruise says he thinks better with a baseball bat in hand, you gotta believe that for Chris Armstrong, his clarity comes from communicating from the front seat of his service vehicle. Most that follow Chris @pstheplumber on the Gram know that his “van chats,” among many of his other social posts, are can’t-miss.
Nicknamed PS for the past 20 years—or a variation of it like Uncle PS, or for his younger relatives that couldn’t pronounce PS, it morphed into “Uncle Pissy,” to now being called “Pumpkin Spice” by Travis Abaire @t.a.p.plumbingandheating—Armstrong seems to just roll with it. “Whatever floats your boat, I guess.”
Owning his company, Armstrong Pro Services, Hudson Valley, N.Y., since 2004, Chris started his business on accident, really. “I worked for a real high-paced service company making really, really good money and it wasn’t for me. It was just blood money,” says Armstrong with hyperbole. “They were working me like an animal and it wasn’t making me happy. Honestly, I didn’t even have the time to spend the money I made.”
Having had enough, Armstrong put in a month’s notice to this company and they fired him the next day. Talk about lame …. turns out, Armstrong always had side work and customers that he dealt with so it wasn’t until months later that people were like, “have you found a job yet?” Armstrong says that he had been too busy working, and that’s where the genesis of doing the work for himself and starting on his own really began. “Back then the Internet what it was today, so I put out business cards in the grocery stores, the hardware stores, and just word of mouth so every customer you get, you get their neighbor, their cousin, their sister-in-law, and it branches out.”
Armstrong Pro Services specializes plumbing and mechanical—new construction, renovation, some HVAC work, pumps. “I really enjoy the vintage stuff; I’m very passionate about repairing the real early stuff on up through the early ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Yet, making that transition from employee to owner, “I had a good reputation with all the other plumbing companies and other local plumbers. They knew that I was of good integrity so they would basically hire me on sometimes for a job for a week, a day. In between my stuff, I would go do their projects or lead their projects so they didn’t have to lose out. They paid me what I wanted, I got their job done, I didn’t steal their customers. In fact, a lot of these companies helped me start my company,” says Armstrong.
As a 20-year veteran of owning his own business, his message to anyone entering the trades? “I would say start young. The more you are interested in learning and soaking up as much as you can, it’s only going to make you better, and earn that much more money that much faster.”
Speaking from experience, an old Frenchman became a good mentor to Armstrong. “When I was 18 years old, he was the first guy I’ve ever seen bend a piece of L copper. He was amazing.”
So how can the industry as a whole in today’s landscape do a better job of attracting young people to the trades? “The industry is already doing better. We’ve got more good people. We’ve got all of these guys that have a big profile on social media and doing really well to not only encourage their own coworkers and their companies and their bosses to do better, but everybody else,” says Armstrong. “The more we show these kids that you can make a good living and you can be proud of what you’re doing, and it’s not just guys out here plunging toilets and getting super dirty, we are doing better at recruitment. You can make a good living in the trades. By continuing to learn, you will be a very critical part of the workforce.”
“Absolute daily go-to tools: the Supco Magjumpers —hybrids and the regular ones—and my Fieldpiece meter are probably two of the most important tools that I’m using on a daily basis.”
Armstrong admits that social media hasn’t helped his business per se, but he’s not presently putting forth the effort on social to do just that. “As far as social media helping my business, it hasn’t, and I’m not trying to make it so,” says Armstrong.
“I’m very busy and I’m definitely a lot more short-handed. We used to have anywhere from 5-7 guys full time for many years. I’m trying to stay smaller, and not that I don’t want more help, but I’m not putting my business out there trying to get business out of social media. I’m do this so I can see people by whom I get inspired—all these guys/gals doing cool shit. I like to see guys like me that are nerdy and passionate about what they’re doing and always striving to get better.”
Bottom line, “I’m on social media so I can see what people are doing. I like helping a lot of people. Sometimes it gets to be a little much but I do like to share what I know to people that need help. It feels good to help people out. I get a lot of people who send me messages and pictures of their jobs. The connections that I’ve made are more important than anything else.
All the people I’ve met on social are good people and have become good friends, and I love the connections. That’s the most important thing for sure.”
How does Armstrong balance work life with home life? “That’s a challenging one for me,” says Armstrong. “I definitely get that you need it, and I am getting older. Listen, I have been doing this well over 20 years. It’s tough—I just worked until midnight on a Sunday and 9 pm on a Saturday. I’m trying. My kids are young so I’m trying to spend more time with them and I’ve got things to get done around the house.”
Armstrong stresses that he’s constantly trying to spend more time with the family, but he says that he’s out there trying to help everybody, trying to do as much as he can. Nevertheless, when it comes that precious spare time, “I’m always at my kid’s hockey games. I like working on old motorcycles; basically, I like working on anything old and fun—restoring tools.”
If he wasn’t doing any plumbing and mechanical work, Armstrong says that he would be doing some sort of fabrication. He enjoys building things so he’d probably be doing some type of engineering, tool making. “I like tinkering, I like to make tools and I like to prototype. I’ve made a lot of tools; I didn’t get patents but I like to build. I have little machines at my house, I have a milling machines and lathes, plasma cutters and everything that you can think of—shrinkers, stretchers, benders, rollers.”
Finally, any favorite tattoo? “I’ve got this eagle on my arm with a fishing pole in one hand with a fish on it and he’s got a pipe wrench in the other hand. It doesn’t really mean anything; it was just a fun, quick tattoo.”