102 Years Young
Harris Water Main and Sewer Contractors: A family firm with a dynamic history and heritage
Brett Kogel grew up in the family business, as did his dad, Steven Kogel. Together they serve as fourth and third generation owners and as Vice President and President of Harris Water Main and Sewer Contractors (Harris). The company was established by Brett’s great-grandfather in 1918, making it New York’s oldest subsurface water main and sewer contractor, according to Brett.
“There’s no substitute for longevity in the business and the industry knowledge that comes with that,” says Brett, who gained business management and marketing experience at other firms before joining Harris 12 years ago. He says that working for other firms before joining the family business helped him to recognize opportunities to maximize the company’s marketing efforts and operating efficiencies. He came on board as a consultant before moving into management roles as Estimator/Project Manager and Director of Operations before becoming Vice President six years ago.
Sources of Pride
“I quickly realized that one of our company’s core strengths—longevity—wasn’t being marketed well,” says Brett. “Today we promote our 100-plus years as a family-owned business, and we regularly share this on our website and in brochures, and via social media platforms. We’re proud of our history.”
Another source of pride: the company’s ability to incorporate technological solutions into its day-to-day business. Now paperless, the company’s customer relationship management (CRM) software is used to generate daily job reports, complete with photos. “Our field supervisors can log in anytime, anywhere to update and track a project’s progress in real time. This has resulted in reduced communication errors and downtime by about 50% because we’re able to react faster and more efficiently when there are problems,” Brett says.
Another technological advancement comes in the form of vehicle-tracking software to eliminate excessive truck idling scenarios. “Not only does this waste a ton of diesel for us, idling for three minutes or more is illegal in New York,” Brett says. “Now device-equipped trucks enable the generation of usage reports showing instances of excessive idling and also show when trucks are and are not on the move. If a job is completed at 2 p.m. and the truck doesn’t return until 5, we need to know why.”
Another recent improvement: tracking and reacting to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Department of Transportation (DOT) guidelines and regulations. “We now have formal policies and processes to stay abreast of changes, and when there are violations, we have mitigation procedures to help avoid future infractions,” Brett says.
With its business divided equally between emergency repairs and new construction, Harris has plenty of successes in both areas.
For example, there was the 2018 emergency at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States District Courthouse in Manhattan where difficult-to-reach, leaking water pipes presented logistical challenges.
“A portion of the pipes ran parallel to the building before running straight out to the street to join the municipal water system,” Brett explains. “Because of this, we had to get the DEP’s permission to perform the work because the code doesn’t allow for pipes to be offset by more than 5 feet and these were offset by 30 feet. Also, the bluestone (limestone) surface just outside the courthouse and before the public sidewalk had to be removed and replaced. The work required staggered around-the-clock crews for four days, and the work had to be done in such a way that the courthouse was able to remain open.”
As for a new-construction success, Mike Kayne, Vice President of New Construction and Business Development, points to the EVGB luxury apartment building in the East Village neighborhood of New York. Completed over the course of a year and ahead of schedule, the $500,000 plumbing project involved the installation of three sewers, four fire-water service lines, two domestic-water service lines and fire hydrant relocation. Mike draws attention to one challenge that demonstrates the company’s problem-solving capabilities. “We found that the city’s steam main had offset and was abutting the city sewer,” he explains. “It was determined that the initial design for a drill-in connection was impossible. The result: a redesign with a new riser connection to get up and over the steam main.”
Another new-construction project, The Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, took Harris 19 days to install four sewers and three water mains. “The most challenging part of the job, which involved work on three separate streets, involved the installation of one of the sewers,” Mike says. “It called for a new sewer riser connection where the city sewer was over 20-feet deep. Anyone who has ever been involved in an excavation of this depth in New York knows that this can be extremely dangerous and requires highly trained crews.”
“Having experienced employees in the field and knowledgeable office staff allows us to meet unforeseen challenges such as these and exceed expectations when it comes to emergency jobs and new-construction projects,” Brett says, noting that six of the company’s 50 full-time employees were honored recently for each having been with Harris for 25 years or more.
“Ours is a culture of friendly and mutual respect,” Brett notes. “We engage our employees on a daily basis, recognize their achievements and celebrate our accomplishments as a company.
“Looking ahead, we look forward to expanding our new-construction business in what has become a growing market for non-union contractors, of which we’re one of the biggest,” Brett says. “We’re also the city’s only subsurface water main and sewer contractor with a father-son ownership team, both of whom are licensed plumbers. We regularly take refresher courses to ensure that we stay current on changing codes and regulations.”
Brett continues, “When it comes to our internal operations, we know we’re not perfect and have an endless list of ideas and areas for continuous improvement. Having said that, we also know that we have the history and experience that allows us to capitalize on expanding market opportunities.”