One man. Four employees. Three vans. Fast forward to 2017, and you get a staff of 120 talented people who provide exceptional service for more than 200,000 happy customers, and 100 bright, orange trucks that are so clean “you could eat off the floor.”
This familiar, stellar service from scratch recipe is what John Ward used to start Applewood Plumbing Heating & Electric in 1973. Applewood has since become recognized as a “top workplace” in the Denver area.
For the first 20 years, the company primarily provided residential and light commercial new construction plumbing and hydronic heating services. Then, in 1992, the team revamped itself, focusing on plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical repair and replacement services for the homeowner. Applewood did not follow a linear story line; there were some major setbacks along the way. In the early 90s, inflation pushed mortgage rates to 18 percent, and new construction took a drastic, irreversible hit, nearly taking Applewood with it.
“I was limping along with nine new construction crews and lots of debt to my suppliers when one of our biggest projects went bankrupt as we were trimming it out. Then 1, 2, 3 — a remodel contractor we worked for stiffed us on three huge and expensive projects,” Ward, president, recalls.
Ward is a master plumber who graduated from Red Rocks Community College, where he also went on to teach plumbing courses for many years. It was through his relentless hunger for learning and appreciation for the trades that he was able to shift Applewood’s focus all those years ago.
“I went to a Frank Blau seminar, and in one short day he changed our lives. I took the medicine, did the math and got out of new construction a few days later. I laid off all my plumbers except one,” Ward says.
Ward also contributes his company’s successful realignment to his work with and support through the Nexstar Network. He helped found the Nexstar Legacy Foundation, which provides trade scholarships and promotes the trades.
“Being a member of the Nexstar Network for 25 years has given us the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of industry giants,” Ward explains. “We were mentored by Frank Blau, George Brazil, Jack Tester and many more. We learned and implemented many of their best practices.”
With this new focus, Applewood put together a solid team that was able to meet customer needs consistently. The team also implemented a strong training component for technicians to keep them on top of new technologies, safety procedures and the role they play in customer satisfaction. Another major change was in its hours of operation, which are from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., 7 days a week.
“This shift reduces the need for customers to pay overtime charges. It has endeared us to our customers,” Ward says.
Applewood has also increased its employee satisfaction over the years. “We offer 100 percent benefit coverage. When many companies were moving away from this, we increased to cover the employee and their family,” he says. “We value our employees and their families, and this was one way we could demonstrate that commitment.”
Vice President Josh Ward, John Ward’s son, has worked alongside his dad since the beginning. Also a master plumber, Josh Ward runs day-to-day operations for Applewood. He has performed, managed and grown all functions of the company, which includes technology, dispatch and customer service sides of the business. Continuing his father’s example, Josh Ward is equally involved in the community as an advocate and supporter of education, community programs and growth in the trades. Their close relationship and mutual appreciation of the trades has helped foster growth and connection across the company.
“We share special milestones, recognize accomplishments and celebrate together,” Josh Ward explains. “That kind of camaraderie builds a strong culture that is supportive, encouraging and challenging to be the best we can be every day. We’re very proud of this designation in our community and industry.”
Applewood’s technicians, who are 100 percent licensed and certified, are among some of the top technicians in the industry. And wouldn’t you be too if you had to meet more stringent standards than those of a police officer?
“Our hiring standards are some of the toughest in the industry — stricter than the Denver Police Department, in fact,” John Ward explains. “We look for individuals who are exemplary tradesmen but understand customer service, too.”
Mentorship and skill-sharing are engrained in the company culture. “We believe our culture speaks to how our technicians work together. We are supportive. We mentor fellow workers. We share best practices. And, we do all that while having some fun,” Josh Ward says.
This sharing of best practices carries over to the larger trade community. Each year, Applewood supports future technicians through its scholarship program with Red Rocks Community College, providing three $1,000 scholarships, one in each plumbing, heating and electrical fields.
Applewood also supports its community through its "The Caring Community Giveaway" program, which has been in existence for more than 12 years, and has helped thousands of people, contributed to the growth of dozens of small, local nonprofits and has encouraged employees to be involved in community service. Applewood has donated more than $150,000 over the years to build nature trails, provide resources for disadvantaged individuals and those struggling with illness, create veteran memorials, assist high school athletic teams and more.
“Applewood is fortunate to have the ability to provide financial support to the time and talent of those working tirelessly in the community. This is one program we have never cut, even in tough economic times,” John Ward says.
Trucking along the road to success
The Applewood team believes in acknowledging its wins. With the recent release of its 100th truck, Applewood has much to celebrate.
“I’m not sure I ever imagined we would have 100 trucks on the road at the same time, but that has become a reality. Pretty exciting,” John Ward explains. “This truck symbolizes our commitment to doing excellent work and providing the best service, and our longevity in the business. You don’t reach these kinds of milestones if you’re not providing top quality and treating people right.”
The Applewood trucks that blaze down Denver blocks have become a symbol of success. But why go with orange?
“When I started the company years ago, I didn’t want to look like all the other service trucks on the road. They were white. I chose orange because I am color blind, and that is a color I can see, so I figured everyone else could too! It stuck and has become a visible part of our brand,” John Ward says.
Anyone who has built up a fleet business knows that there is a lot that goes into it. Cleanliness and safety checks, changing tires, making oil changes, stocking trucks with necessary tools and equipment, the list goes on.
Josh Ward explains, “When you have 100 trucks traveling the streets of metro Denver, you have one busy warehouse crew who maintains our fleet and keeps things moving smoothly … Each of our technicians takes a great deal of pride in their truck.”
The technician behind the wheel makes the Applewood trucks what they are. The company will continue to extend its roots and grow its family.
“We’re always looking for top plumbers, electricians and heating professionals to join our team. We continue to grow each year along with our long-standing customer base,” Josh Ward says.
John concluded: “We couldn’t have the kind of success we do without top people. And, that comes back to the family-like culture we have here among our employees. We work really hard, but we also work well together and have a lot of fun.”
For more information, visit ApplewoodFixIt.com.