A Brief History of the Dwyer Family and Its Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Businesses

//A Brief History of the Dwyer Family and Its Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Businesses

A Brief History of the Dwyer Family and Its Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Businesses

There are likely not many people interested in the long history of the Dwyer family and their businesses, however, the Dwyer family was instrumental in the development of Alexandria, Virginia–which may be of interest to a few local history buffs. We’re proud of our past and stand by our name. Dwyer isn’t just a name, it’s a legacy.

This history was written by Richard Dwyer in 2004; minor editing was done by Nathaniel Cochran.

The Early Days: From Farming to Steam Fitting

In 1860, Richard Joseph Dwyer, II, who was an excellent horse trainer and rider, emigrated from Tipperary, Ireland and settled in Upperville, VA. His son, Richard J. Dwyer, III (b.1866), also raised and trained horses, working on both the Oxnard and Delaney farms in Middleburg, VA.  He was very successful financially, which allowed him to buy his own farm in the rolling, rocky hills southwest of Leesburg, between Middleburg and Hamilton. Richard J. Dwyer IV “Dick, Sr.”, the late founder of the original Dwyer Plumbing, Inc., was born in 1892 in Middleburg, and grew up on this family farm.

Dick, Sr. left farming in 1917 for wartime military service, joining the United States Navy. He was a Chief Machinist’s Mate who quickly learned the steam fitting trade in the boiler rooms of the ships to which he was assigned. He was honorably discharged in 1919. He then mastered pipefitting in the union local, working in a Baltimore guncotton (explosives) plant and at the old Washington shipyard.  In 1922, Dick, Sr. and a partner started a plumbing and heating business, called Southern Plumbing Co., in Alexandria, VA. At the time, “union-only” politics dominated City Hall attitudes and practices! Since he was friendly and did excellent work, he was respected by the union officials and the City inspectors, as well as by his customers. When he later left the union, it was on good terms. He was allowed to work without “problems”; and he could still get the City approvals and permits that he needed. He occasionally said that he “… came from a time when they made the ships out of wood and the men out of iron.”

I. The R.J. Dwyer Proprietorship

The partnership ended with the sudden disappearance of the heavily-indebted partner, so in October, 1923, Dick, Sr. simply re-named his small firm, “R.J. Dwyer”. This small plumbing and heating business was initially located in the free-standing garage in the alley next to the Alexandria Firehouse on Prince St.  The business was later moved to 121 King St., which was owned by Dick, Sr.’s friend, Herbert Bryant. {The Il Porto Restaurant now occupies that space. Bryant business signage can be seen on the 2nd level brickwork near the Wharf and the Landini Bros. restaurants towards the middle of that block.}  The King St. trolley tracks made it convenient for the employees to travel to their jobs in downtown Alexandria.  Dick, Sr. gave them their day’s fare money each morning. In the 1930’s he replaced his black Ford Model T pick-up with two Model A’s for business use, which were painted red and lettered with the company name and its phone number: ALex-1200.

II. The Family Partnerships

Dick, Sr.’s son, the late Richard J.Dwyer,V “Dick, Jr.”, joined him in 1944 following mechanical engineering studies at Cornell and Catholic Universities. The father-and-son partnership was, not surprisingly, called, “R.J. Dwyer & Son”. By then the successful and growing business was operating from the building at 117 N. Fairfax St.  {Law offices now occupy the space.} Dick, Sr. had purchased the building in the 1930’s to put his business, “…on high ground above the periodic Potomac River floods.” Each evening the company trucks were parked inside on the main level, end-to-end.

In 1949, veteran Navy electrician Frank Marion Becker, Jr. started Becker Electric Co. This firm initially operated from a 2nd floor office and the rear alley basement shop in the 117 N. Fairfax St. building. Frank rented the space from his father-in-law, Dick, Sr.  Frank was married to Dick, Jr.’s sister, Jean; and his own sister, Mary Catherine, was married to Dick, Jr. He is still active in his very successful electrical contracting and service business; which is managed by Bill and Pete Becker, two of his six sons.

When Dick, Sr.’s other son, the late William Carlin Dwyer (Bill), joined the co in 1951 following completion of his service in the United States Navy, the partnership became, “R.J. Dwyer & Sons”. In 1953, Richard J. Dwyer VI (Richard), at the age of six, happily started accompanying his dad to work on Saturdays, and weekdays when school was not in session, to work in the shop pushing a broom, cleaning fittings and doing other assigned tasks. In his subsequent years of Saturday-and-Summer employment, which continued through college, he worked in and learned several of the trades. He also learned a lot about managing the business and serving its customers. In 1954 the successful and still-growing business was moved for the third time, to a large, newly-constructed facility at 310 N. Fairfax St. The partnership now had a sheet metal shop, a pipe processing shop, a fleet and equipment repair garage, nice offices, sufficient parking and a showroom! The three owners worked hard six days a week managing the business, and trying to attract and retain a top-notch workforce with which to serve their company’s many customers.

III. Dwyer Plumbing, Inc.

In 1957, Dick, Sr., Dick, Jr. and Bill incorporated their large-and-growing plumbing, heating and cooling service and construction business; naming it, “Dwyer Plumbing, Inc.”  In 1958, they purchased a site for the development of a second location, between Duke St. and Colvin St. near S. Quaker Lane, in an industrial area of the City. By 1959, a state-of-the-art sheet metal fabrication plant, larger pipe machine shop, a larger fleet and equipment repair facility, warehouses and contractor’s storage yards were built and in operation at the site. Because of continued business growth and activity, and the noise impact on the surrounding downtown residential community (most of whom were customers, which the family didn’t want to lose), the rest of the business was moved out of Old Town in 1964 to a modern office and storage building at 3230 Duke St., thereby consolidating all activities at one location again. As the plumbing and mechanical sub-contractor of choice to the general contracting firm Eugene Simpson & Bro., Dwyer Plumbing Inc. contributed to the commercial development and growth of most of Alexandria.

In the mid-1960’s Dwyer Plumbing, Inc. was the first mechanical construction and service company in the area to offer its employees the retirement benefit of a Profit Sharing Plan. The company also used the latest automated business accounting machines, and developed its own systems (and later, its own programming) to track job costs in detail. This precise and timely financial data contributed to very effective management of the work in process.  Dwyer Plumbing, Inc. successfully grew with two divisions, Service and Contract; and at one point employed over 145 people.  In 1976 Dick, Jr.’s son, Richard, left the real estate law firm he was with, and returned to employment there as the General Manager. In 1980, Dwyer Plumbing, Inc. was split into two new companies: Dwyer Mechanical Corp. (Bill’s construction firm); and the R.J. Dwyer Service Corporation (Dick, Jr.’s service and installation firm). Dick, Jr. served as the director and Vice President; his son, Richard, was the President; and his nephew, Pete Becker, a CPA, was the Secretary and Treasurer. This management team remained until the company was later sold.

IV.  R. J. Dwyer Service Corp. (t/a Dwyer Service Corp.)

This company, like its owner-managed predecessors, was highly successful because of management’s continuous efforts to attract, train and develop a large workforce of professional craftsmen. Employees had an attractive 401-K/Profit Sharing Plan among other benefits, including Apprenticeship trade training. The Company President, Richard, served two terms on the Virginia State Apprenticeship Counsel; three managers were Apprenticeship-related Training instructors, and the general manager was a training committee advisor. At one point, the company was the Sponsor of 44 Registered Apprentices. The goal was to train, coach and mentor a great workforce to assure the consistent delivery of excellent customer service. Dwyer Service Corp. could offer its customers everything from a homeowner’s faucet or furnace repair to hospital surgery room mechanical renovations and licensed medical gas system installations. It served its residential, commercial, institutional and government customers entirely from its Duke St. facilities. Its 40 red service vans were seen and recognized everywhere in northern Virginia. It mailed postcards to homeowners to remind them of maintenance needs and pricing specials, rather than buying expensive display advertising. It kept its costs down, and passed the savings on to the customers. It tried to treat every customer like a good family friend, and depended on the referrals of its customers to build the business.

The firm’s service and maintenance operations grew in the 1990’s under the coaching and management of general manager Jack Cunningham (who started employment at Dwyer Plumbing, Inc. in 1969). He had a hand-picked team of managers including Dan Cochran (D.S.C.’81), who managed the plumbing service, installation and excavation department,  and John Castro (D.S.C.’ 85), who managed the service department, and was assisted by faithful dispatcher Ed Parlette (D.S.C.’82), and by cheerful Linda Hall (D.S.C.’84), who blesses the present company’s service operations with her dependable concern and attention. Commercial construction was under the management of mechanically ingenious Wil McGuin (D.P.I.’58), and later, honorary family member Sherrie Ross (D.P.I.’72). {Sherrie was tough-minded enough to be successful in the commercial construction business. Many thought that she was a Dwyer; and the Dwyers thought of her as one of their own.} Steve Riker (D.P.I.’80) who for over two decades used his very innovative mind to single-handedly keep the fleet of more than 65 hard-used vehicles and equipment running, if not ready to go. {Later they all went, and regrettably Steve went with them.}

All employees were trained in “The Dwyer Way”: Always Perform Outstanding Craftsmanship and Provide Excellent Customer Service. Service was to be delivered on time, and the work was to be done right the first time. Richard encouraged everyone to take advantage of opportunities to advance themselves, especially those who desired to experience the American Dream of Financial Independence by going into business for themselves.  At last count, over 12 companies’ owners could point to Dwyer Service Corp. as the genesis of their successful career path to business ownership. Richard always remained unconcerned about the impact of competitors, saying, “We don’t have competition…except ourselves. We need to work harder and smarter than others at serving the customers. Effort equals results.”  Jack Cunningham’s management team got results: the active customer base grew to close to 28,000; approximately 7,400 of whom were served by residential service and/or maintenance agreements, including commercial maintenance agreements.

In the late 1990’s, there was intense consolidation activity in the plumbing/heating/cooling industry.  Dwyer Service Corp. was an acquisition target for many of the major consolidators.  It had great market penetration and good will because of its great management team and technically superior workforce.  Its business practices were fair and ethical (there were never any suits, claims or liens); and it was an investor’s financial dream. The officers of Dwyer Service Corp. had decided to listen to, study and learn from the offers made by the consolidators; but the corporation was to remain family-owned.  Nevertheless, in early 2000 a stock purchase offer distinguishable from all the rest was received.  The company making the offer was an L.L.C. owned and well-financed by a respected regional utility company and a select venture capital firm. From the business plan that was discussed in connection with the offer, it appeared that nothing was to change at the local operational level, only the ownership.  But most importantly to the family owners of Dwyer Service Corp., the sale appeared to be a great deal for the employees, all of whom would be retained and receive a most generous benefit package including the best education and training; and it also appeared to be a great deal for the many loyal customers, who would discover one-stop shopping for all home and business building services and construction! So the family shareholders unanimously decided to sell. In May, 2000, the stock in R.J. Dwyer Service Corp. was purchased by Primary Service Group, L.L.C., which traded as Primary MultiCraft.

Primary’s subsequent problems and slide to insolvency began with its aggressive company acquisition schedule which resulted in very rapid growth. The situation was compounded by four successive inexperienced presidents in three years who didn’t understand the personal and local nature of the service business. Consequently, Primary imprudently centralized some critical customer service functions that would’ve best been left de-centralized. The reader may have personally experienced the impersonal customer communications from the Beltsville, Maryland call center, the mis-scheduling, lost paperwork, delayed billing, etc.; and sensed the corporate confusion.

Sadly, in less than three years, on February 10, 2003, Primary Service Group, L.L.C., along with 14 named firms including R.J. Dwyer Service Corp., sought and obtained Chapter 11 protection in the United States Bankruptcy Court, District of Maryland, Greenbelt Division (Case 03-11612-PM).  Subsequently, Primary sold the following assets to another area HVAC company: the R.J. Dwyer Service Corp. name and hourglass logo, its long-time phone number; residential customer files; service agreement records, etc. Consumers should be aware that this competitor/asset purchaser has used “Dwyer Service Corp. …The Original-Established 1923…” and the long-time D.S.C. phone number in phone book and mass mail advertising in an effort to attract the unsuspecting consumer to it—a different company! Callers to the  phone number, which is presently answered with the asset-purchaser’s name, have been told that Dwyer Service Corp. is out of business or doesn’t exist or is now  the other company, etc., etc.!?!

It’s true that there is no Virginia corporation presently publicly operating with the name R.J. Dwyer Service Corporation, nor with the name Dwyer Service Corp—names which that competitor bought but didn’t protect from falling into the public domain—Dwyer Plumbing reacquired these names but does not utilize them.  But the whole truth is that presently the Dwyer family’s only owned-and-managed heating, cooling and plumbing company is DWYER PLUMBING, INC., a business you can trust.

IV. Back in Business with Dwyer Plumbing, Inc.

In late 2002, Richard decided to come out of retirement and re-establish the outstanding reputation of the DWYER family name in the plumbing, heating and cooling service and installation business. Richard and his successful, business-minded sister, Kathryn Dwyer, formed a new Virginia corporation using the family’s first corporate business name: DWYER PLUMBING INC. (t/a Dwyer Plumbing Corp.). This firm, alone, carries on the family’s business traditions and practices, as noted above. It started operating on January, 2, 2003, with Dan managing the plumbing operations. Two months later an HVAC manager joined the company to start up and manage the heating/cooling service and installation operations.

The Dwyer family now believes that only active and committed owner-management can assure the continuation of its name recognition and reputation, and its business success story. The current Dwyer Plumbing Corp. is operated in the same way that the earlier family-owned-and-managed companies were: THE DWYER WAY. And, you can trust that.

By |2016-10-19T12:58:04+00:00May 14th, 2013|History|1 Comment

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  1. Tony Brown January 21, 2018 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    I had the great pleasure of working for Bill from about 1977 – 1984 as a sheet metal helper and a mechanic (tin knocker :). Dwyer Mechanical was booming then, working on many commercials projects. The plumbers , sheet metal mechanics, A/C engineers, the shop workers, the welder, and everyone, were the best! Those times were some great memories, and I really enjoyed all the hard work (and it was hard), the friendships, and the pride of working on some really interesting and varied projects. When I was 28, I decided that working in the elements Summer and Winter was not something I wanted to do the rest of my life, and went to college to obtain an engineering degree.

    The best memories of all was working for the one and only Mr. Bill Dwyer! You may not realize how good and generous a man he was. He had a bit of a wild side (he enjoyed life to the fullest), but I was the recipient of, and saw his generosity many times. I remember one extreme Winter when we were laid off for about 3 months because work slowed down due to the weather and time of year. We collected unemployment which was better then nothing, however, when we returned to work, Bill paid each and every one of us FULL pay for all the time we were not working. Unbelievable! Many other times, I remember him doing other similar things. There was a really good fellow who worked for Bill for many years as a back hoe operator (a good man). Bill, out of the blue, gave him (wish I could remember his name), his 2 year old blue Cadillac. I know that meant the world to the gentlemen who received it. He quite often threw parties for all the employees after a big job was completed. That’s just samples (and doesn’t do justice) to the quality of Bill. He was the best boss I ever worked for. He was funny, kind, generous, professional, interacted with his employees all the time, and he is missed – even after all these years.

    I just wanted you to really know what it was like to work for, and with Bill. Every single employee felt the same way. I didn’t realize it so much at the time, but after reflecting back after leaving the company, I realized how good a man Bill was!

    Tony Brown

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