In this issue, we kick off a year-long celebration of Plumbing Engineer’s golden anniversary. That’s right; Plumbing Engineer is turning 50 this year. To commemorate this milestone, we will reflect back on how the plumbing engineering industry has evolved while forging ahead to provide our readers insights into the latest developments in the plumbing engineering world.
What some of our readers may not realize is that Tom Brown, the chairman of the board of PHCPPros, has been intimately associated with the magazine for more than 45 of those 50 years. Though he retired in 2011, the operation is still a family business. His daughter Cate Brown has been involved with the organization for more than 24 years; she currently serves as vice president and principal of Plumbing Engineer. His other daughter, Laura Schulte, has been involved as a sales service manager for the last five years.
In this exclusive interview with Principal and Publisher Brad Burnside, Tom Brown delves into how he started in the business and ultimately decided to purchase Plumbing Engineer, along with expanding the PHCPPros portfolio of assets to include The Wholesaler and PHC News.
Brad Burnside: You were named publisher of Plumbing Engineer in 1984. Tell us about your involvement early on with the publication.
Tom Brown: When Ed Scott, who owned Scott Periodicals, purchased Plumbing Engineer from California publisher Miramar Publications, he made me the publisher of Plumbing Engineer.
Before that, I was a salesman for Domestic Engineering and Wholesaler. Originally Miramar started Plumbing Engineer at the request of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE) because the organization wanted its own magazine. Initially, it was published quarterly and then came out six times a year after Ed bought it.
BB: When did you buy the publication, and from whom did you buy it?
TB: I bought the magazine from Elsevier Publishing Co. in July 1990. The first issue that I published under TMB Publishing (now PHCPPros) was the July/August issue and, at the time, it was still the official magazine of ASPE. We had a very close working relationship with ASPE, Executive Director John Shaw and the presidents of the organization.
That year, ASPE held its biennial convention in Cincinnati. As luck would have it, we were able to garner 86 advertising pages, which made for a very successful issue and ensured our financial success early on.
BB: What were your thoughts on improving the magazine when you took over as publisher?
TB: When Ed Scott owned the magazine, we both felt the advertising rates were too low. After a spirited conversation, I recommended we double them, and Ed went along with my brash decision. I was responsible for many of the accounts running in Plumbing Engineer. After the change, we received no pushback, thankfully.
Beyond increasing ad rates, the following improvements were put in place when I served as publisher between 1984 and 1990: First, we hired an editor for the magazine. Previously, the editorial was put together by the Miramar staff; they did not have a dedicated editor for Plumbing Engineer.
Dave Hanks became the editor of Plumbing Engineer and even served in this role for a short time after I bought the magazine in 1990. Dave did a good job of not only getting new contributors to the magazine, but sectionalizing and departmentalizing the magazine so it read better and was a lot more pleasing aesthetically. He also graphically improved the magazine through the redesign. As a result, the content clearly improved. We also increased the frequency from six to nine issues. Those were all pretty significant improvements.
As publisher, I was responsible for implementing those changes along with the staff. We had a good staff that worked for us, and we had a lot of fun with it.
BB: Once you officially purchased Plumbing Engineer in 1990, how did the magazine evolve?
TB: When I first started in 1990, the staff was myself, our editor Dave Hanks and a rep on the West Coast by the name of Diane Spangler, who did a bang-up job for us and is still a good friend.
About a year after I bought the magazine, probably in ’91 or ’92, we increased the frequency from nine issues to 10 issues. About a year or so later, we moved it up to a monthly magazine.
We then hired Art Klein to replace our editor Dave Hanks, who became sick. Art worked for me for five or six years. During that time, I also bought Wholesaler magazine and then started PHC News, so my duties had broadened quite a bit. When Art left, we hired Tom Klemens to serve as editor, and he was with us for quite a while.
In all those years, we worked very hard at increasing the ad volume and keeping the magazine on target to serve the market as best possible. In 1990, the number of engineers reading the magazine was right around 16,000 engineers per month. Between 1990 to 2000, we increased circulation to approximately 26,000 engineers.
Overall, we increased the frequency of the magazine, grew the circulation by almost 50%, and increased ad volume significantly.
BB: Talk about your early days as an independent, when you ran Plumbing Engineer with just one editor.
TB: Our mission was to be as hands-on as possible within the plumbing and mechanical systems industry. We participated in all the trade shows serving the industry and worked them very hard. We maintained very strong contact with not only manufacturers in the industry, but also the manufacturers’ representatives, contractors, wholesalers and engineers. Anybody who was involved knew us and knew our magazines.
One of our publishing missions is to be good industry citizens. Serving the industry is not just a business and a way to make money, it’s our ultimate goal. Quite honestly, that’s why we’ve been successful. We worked the conventions very hard, introduced ourselves to all sorts of people and maintained those friendships. It was a labor of love for all of us and one of the basic reasons for our success.
BB: What is unique about Plumbing Engineer magazine?
TB: When it came into being, there were a couple of engineer magazines serving the industry; one was Actual Specifying Engineer and the other was Consulting Engineer. They served many disciplines within the mechanical area — heating, HVAC, refrigeration, plumbing and piping.
When Plumbing Engineer originated, it was very vertical and aimed at engineers who worked on the specification and design of plumbing systems in industrial, commercial and institutional buildings. We did not cover HVAC, refrigeration and electrical. It was aimed at the commercial plumbing market.
We were very niche relative to these other magazines, and we covered the niche in much more detail than they could. That was one of the reasons why the magazine was successful. I used to tell my accounts, if they want to be specified, specify Plumbing Engineer.
BB: In the 1990s, Plumbing Engineer faced some new competition when a few publications focusing on plumbing engineering and specifying started being published. How did you address new competition?
TB: When I was 10 to 15 years into the business, we had good magazines but we had very strong competition. At the time, Business News Publishing published Supply House Times, Plumbing and Mechanical, and PME (Plumbing and Mechanical Engineer), which was a direct competitor to Plumbing Engineer. In fact, BNP started PME because it saw the success we were having with Plumbing Engineer.
How did we compete with them? Well, first of all, we were very loyal to our staff and salespeople. And, quite honestly, we outworked them. We weren’t flashy, but we were consistent in our mission to serve the industry and make a living along the way. We were not a big corporation with big corporate aspirations. We were a small business.
BB: You’re still a small business, relatively speaking. When did you start going digital and seeing the internet as an important part of the magazine?
TB: I have been retired for about 11 years, but the digital aspect of the business was starting to make its mark when I started entering retirement, so that came after I was gone from the business.
In my last years, we would do surveys for contractors, wholesalers and engineers and found that most of our readers wanted print magazines; they didn’t want to read them on a computer screen or other type of computer media. Today, I would say our readers still want it in print.
BB: How did you decide to continue to print your publication? None of the competition prints their magazines anymore.
TB: We were fortunate that we had a revenue stream that would support print magazines. Print publications are far more effective than digital magazines. Being in the media business, there’s always this conversation about why you still print magazines. Well, that’s because 90% of our readers want to receive the magazines in print. I’d tell them our primary revenue stream is print, so that’s how we operate.
BB: In total, PHCPPros consists of three publications. You purchased PE and Wholesaler. Why did you decide to start PHC News?
TB: I originally had been on a magazine that folded called Domestic Engineering, which was owned by Scott Periodicals. At the time, it was the No. 1 contractor magazine. We sold out to Elsevier, who ultimately folded the magazine. There were two other magazines being published at the time in that arena, but we saw room for a third and started PHC News in 2000.
BB: Describe your involvement in TMB Publishing/PHCPPros since your retirement.
TB: I make suggestions whether they’re warranted or not. I talk business with Cate, Brad and Dave and share ideas. I was in the industry a long time and still have a lot of friends in the industry who I stay in touch with, so I am still fairly knowledgeable.
BB: What has been your proudest moment in Plumbing Engineer history?
TB: My proudest moment was when I signed the documents to purchase the magazine from Elsevier because I then became my own boss. I was 51 years old when that occurred, so I was not a young person. There was a lot of risk, but it’s the American dream: risk, reward.
My loans were personal and collateralized, and the home I lived in was on the line. I was very lucky to have been able to pay the 10-year note off in an accelerated fashion. We were out of debt in a little over three years.
It’s the American dream. You work hard, you see an opportunity and, if you believe in it, you take what you’ve got, put it up against that and hope it works. And it did. I was very fortunate to have worked with a lot of great people in a great industry.
BB: Are there any people worth calling out during this 50th anniversary year?
TB: My good friend Phil French, who was president of ASPE when I bought the magazine. He’s a wonderful gentleman, a great friend and still a great guy. Also, all the people who worked for me over the years and still are at PHCPPros — Steve Letko, Morrie Beschloss, Dr. Don McNeeley, Ron George, Steve Smith and Ruth Mitchell.
My wife and I formed great friendships with people for whom I worked: Bill Peel and Ed Scott.
We also formed great friendships on the customer side: Pat Kelly from Haws.; Jack Villendre at Precision Plumbing; Joe Woodford and Bob Zeller at Woodford Mfg.; Bob Clendennen from Tyler Pipe; Chuck Allen and Bill Sloan from Sloan; Norm Lougee at Chicago Faucets; Fred Rexford and Dick Swain from Elkay; Bob Murdock at Murdock Mfg.; John Rawley at Central Brass; Dan Filipowski at Zurn; Joe Keegan at Watts; John Diohep at Symmons; Greg Wilcox at Leonard Valve; Will Denham at Speakman Co.; Bruce Martin from WCI; Harriet Lewis from Gerber Plumbing Fixtures; along with Don Morris, Charles White and Jim Basinger from Morris Group International.
These guys were unbelievable people — great business people and great to do business with. They were extremely loyal, and the manufacturers’ reps who we’ve known over the years have been wonderful and supportive.
I was in the plumbing industry for about 45 years, so I formed a lot of friendships and had a lot of great times. Some times were better than others but we managed to get through. At the end of the day, I can smile and say I gave it my all and didn’t leave any rocks unturned. Hopefully, we did the right thing.
If you work hard, things will work out. Thank God they did for me.
BB: What do you hope will be the legacy of Plumbing Engineer?
TB: I would hope the legacy of Plumbing Engineer and all our magazines is serving a great industry in a comprehensive fashion. We used to liken the industry to a three-legged stool. It was supported by engineers, contractors and wholesalers, who were the legs. You could buy the whole stool from us or any of the three legs, but the legs we had supported the industry. It was a little corny, but it made some sense.
There aren’t many trade magazines anymore that are as old as Wholesaler or Plumbing Engineer, which is celebrating five decades of publication. We are very proud of that legacy, and I hope the company will remain in the family.
We are also in our 33rd year as a privately held company. That’s pretty impressive, too. Putting it all together, we’ve had a nice pattern of success; hopefully, it’ll continue in the future.