From Horse & Wagon
The story of five generations of Coleman Plumbing & Heating Co.
In 1906, downtown Phoenix had dirt roads. Horse and wagon was still the main mode of transportation around town. Arizona wasn’t yet an official state. And Coleman Plumbing & Heating Co. (Coleman Plumbing) was founded by Jack Coleman’s grandfather, L.W. Greer, as Greer & Stark Plumbing.
This family company now spans 112 years and five generations. Today, Coleman Plumbing is run by Jack’s son, Mark Coleman, who serves as vice president.
Plumbing is part of the Coleman DNA. Growing up, Jack, who lived with his grandparents, recalls his grandfather telling him, “You’re going to be a plumber, not a machinist.” Jack started his apprenticeship in 1950 and got his journeyman license in 1955. But instead of immediately joining the family business, he worked for four other companies first. At the time, his uncle was running the company, then called Greer & Stark Plumbing.
It wasn’t until 1975, when his uncle decided to retire, that Jack officially took over the family business, renaming it Coleman Plumbing & Heating Co.
Not long after taking the helm, Jack bought the property where the business is currently located, 2410 S.19th Place, near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Back then, Phoenix Sky Harbor was, as Jack describes it, “just a puddle-jumping place.” After he bought the property, Jack began to closely examine the address and records.
He then discovered that the property he had purchased for his family business was located on what had once been his great-grandmother’s ranch, adding yet another layer to this family legacy.
Jack, now 87, has retired from day-to-day work, leaving the company in the capable hands of his son, Mark.
Like Jack, Mark didn’t immediately join the family business. After graduating from high school, he received a baseball scholarship, first attending Mesa Community College then transferring to Arizona State University.
His baseball career ended abruptly after he tore his rotator cuff during his junior year. Coleman Plumbing had a lot of work at the time, so after finishing the fall semester in 1979, Mark began an apprenticeship to help his dad out with the business. He became a journeyman plumber in 1983 and has been in the family business ever since.
Combined, Jack and Mark have more than 100 years of plumbing experience spanning six decades.
Past and Present
A lot has changed in the 112 years since Coleman Plumbing was founded as Greer & Stark, from the day-to-day business operations to the plumbing trade itself. Jack still has his grandfather’s rolltop desk, adding machine, typewriter and Rolodex in its original wooden box—all relics of the past. An old advertisement for the company shows the original, four-digit phone number. And if someone were to look in one of the original ledgers from those early years of business, they’d find expenditures for horse feed.
“It started with horse and wagon,” Jack says.
In the early days of indoor plumbing, Coleman Plumbing provided clawfoot tubs and high-tank toilets, predecessors of the modern fixtures found in today’s bathrooms. Plumbing work is also vastly different in the 21st century, down to the type of tools that are used. Even from the time Mark began his plumbing career in the early 1980s, a lot has changed. Mark recalls, “When I started out, they didn’t have the mini-excavators like they do today. All we had was a pick and a shovel.”
Today, excavator equipment certainly makes digging a ditch easier and quicker—particularly in the Phoenix heat. Piping has also come in a variety of forms throughout the past 112 years, from lead pipes to cast iron to today’s PVC. The improvements in piping, Mark says, also make the work easier.
The scope of Coleman Plumbing’s work has also shifted. What began as a focus on residential work has expanded to include a wide variety of commercial projects across the state of Arizona. Coleman Plumbing regularly provides services for hospitals, high schools, Walmart, grocery stores and the Salt River Project, which delivers water and power across Arizona.
One of Coleman Plumbing’s most notable, longtime customers is ISM Raceway in Phoenix. Coleman Plumbing did the plumbing for the original skyboxes and grandstands located at turns one and two at the racetrack and has been servicing the racetrack for more than 20 years.
“We work all the races,” says Mark. “We’re the ones on call for the whole weekend when the NASCAR race is happening.”
Planning for the Future
Coleman Plumbing—which employs up to 30 people, depending on the amount of work and the size of the job—prides itself on recruiting its next generation of plumbers through its union. The Local Union 469 has a five-year apprenticeship program, which teaches students everything from welding and HVAC to plumbing and CAD drawings. For the up-and-coming generation, the program is the perfect pipeline to Coleman Plumbing, which has a history of hiring from the apprenticeship program.
Coleman Plumbing has produced highly skilled plumbers, including two who went on to hold the position of head plumbing inspector for the city of Phoenix.
The plumbing field is built on older, more experienced plumbers teaching the younger apprentices the skills of the trade, passing on their knowledge to the next generation. Mark credits his skills, knowledge and love of the trade to the generation of men—like his father—who came before him. “They taught me everything I know about plumbing,” Mark says.
Now, it’s Mark’s turn to pass that knowledge on to the next generation—one that includes his son, Joshua.
Joshua has just begun his apprenticeship to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, great-great-uncle and great-great-grandfather, as the fifth generation of Coleman Plumbing to carry on the family legacy.