Plumbing’s enduring backbone

By Warren Robertson

For a man who never intended on going into plumbing and began his career in construction, Mike Piper has definitely managed to become a dominant face in the industry.

MikePiper2 mainSitting in his office above the stairs, tucked away from all the hustle and activity below, Piper is a disarming presence. With an easy smile and a casual, relaxed air, he candidly admits that he may be a poor interview subject.

“I have had some medical problems recently and have been struggling with my memory; I probably won’t be able to give you exact dates,” he says.

Mike Piper has thoroughly enjoyed his time in the plumbing industry. Credit: Warren Piper

Upfront and honest, with a warm likeability that comes only from genuine humility, the statement is characteristic of the Piper that his employees have come to know over the past 20 years at Independent Plumbing Suppliers (IPS), and which customers and friends have appreciated for decades more in the industry.

“Unfortunately, my childhood wasn’t great. My mom and dad broke up and I was forced to leave school with a standard 8,” he begins, clearly unconcerned with developing the aura of the mighty CEO that seems to consume many leaders.

“I joined the Post Office straight away, as I was hoping to be conscripted — called up to the army straight away and be paid a salary. In those days, only one in three were called up — and I wasn’t,” he says.

At that stage, with few choices, Piper joined a buying company by the name of John Williams and worked there for a few years while studying his intermediate CIS. Shortly upon completion, he was offered a job by Grinaker and was transferred almost immediately to Richard’s Bay where he worked as an office manager.

“I was quite happy there. I enjoyed the job. I was involved in figures. I think I even had time back then to play a bit of golf,” he explains.

The work he did was clearly excellent, as over 11 years, he built a formidable reputation, eventually joining the board of the “Zululand subsidiary” of the company. Grinaker was busy with a construction project, building a highway at Empangeni, when Piper got what he considers a “lucky break”: being offered the position of managing director of Incledon Johannesburg.

“My very good friend Hylton Kinloch recommended me for the position. So I flew up to meet Irvine Brittan and David Gevisser at their tiny, dingy offices in Cape Towers (I am going back a few years now), and Irvine offered me the job,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I don’t know if I had to put education on my application, but if I did, I am sure I lied.”

At the time, he couldn’t have known it, but that move was Piper’s giant leap into the plumbing industry that would become a defining element not only of his working life, but the lives of the people around him and members of his family.

He quickly established a reputation as a reliable and effective leader, and when Brittan-Boustred was having “a bit of a hiccough”, Brittan asked him to take over there.

He is quoted in the ‘Boumatters’ company newsletter at the time as saying, “The company is very sound and is well known in the Transvaal with a reputation second to none. It has an excellent staff with some outstanding people … provided it is properly managed, it can only go from strength to strength. So, on my head be it.”

His head must have been safe, because under Piper the company built a massive warehouse in what was then undeveloped foothills and is now Kramerville, Sandton, by the M1 highway.

Things were stable, growing, and looking good, but life took a sudden and dramatic turn when Piper’s brother, an entrepreneur in the pool industry, committed suicide.

“I couldn’t understand why he did it. He was well off; things seemed to be going well. I have never found out why he did it,” he says sadly. “That is what made me want to change my life.”

Along with two friends, Bruce and Bryan, who owned B&B hardware, and James Moncour, Piper bought plumbing supplier Jack Hobson.

“I was there for much of my son’s childhood, before we were approached by Boumat who wanted to buy us. Vainly, I sometimes like to think they wanted James and I back. So, we sold, and I was appointed chairman of all the plumbing companies in Gauteng.”

“While I enjoyed my time there, I found they grew rapidly and, as they did so, things became increasingly corporate,” Piper says by way of explanation for his next, most important move.

“I spoke to Barry Chipps, who was a sales director at the time, and I said, ‘Let’s start a company’,” Piper says.

While he always credits the people around him with his success, there is little doubt that Piper has an inherent ability to acknowledge his own strengths and weaknesses and augment those weaknesses by partnering with the right people.

“I am a numbers guy. Good at administration and at keeping things on track,” he says later, while also admitting, “I have never been a good salesman.”

As a sales director at the time, Chipps was the perfect partner for getting the fledgling company off the ground.

“We were starting from scratch. We didn’t have money per se, but fortunately I had quite a good reputation in the industry, and people like Derick Todd, well, he had a lot of respect for me and he said, ‘Go for it’. He gave me credit from the outset. And we did. We found these premises, and that was Independent Plumbing Suppliers 20 years ago,” he says.

When asked about the biggest factors that contribute to the success of IPS, Piper is quick to credit his staff and the people who have bought from the company over the years.

“It’s people you know. No one is a success by themselves. We all depend on others, and the staff here, and the people around us, have always kept us going. Without them, there is no IPS,” he says, explaining that the thing he is most proud of is the number of staff who remain at IPS and who have been with the company since the start.

“We look after each other. Anthony joined us in 2000 when we had just opened. Frik van der Berg joined us in 2007, Geraldine in 2006, Lucille Kotze in 2006, Mike Cresswell in 2000, Mandla Mbokazi in 1999, Patrick Nkabinda in 2004, Ruben Rambau in 1999, and Warren Piper in 2003, so we have a lot of stayers here and I have enjoyed it. I have enjoyed all the people who have worked here,” he says.

Recently though, things have been winding down for Piper, who says his medical issues are catching up with him and he is struggling to work as hard as he would like.

“I have emphysema. I used to smoke like a trooper. Used to smoke 70 a day, but I gave up overnight cause I used to sit here with an oxygen mask and it wasn’t fun. But you know, it’s self-inflicted, so I am not moaning about it,” he says.

He still comes in every morning to unlock at 5:00 as he always has, but now heads home at midday, leaving the company in the hands of his son, Warren.

“I am very lucky to have a son who is as dedicated to this company as I have always been. He knows his way around, and while I am still here and contributing, making decisions, I have little doubt that on the day I do step down, he will be able to keep things going,” he says, admitting that perhaps one day he may even retire, even if it’s just to a small independent office in his own home.

“This industry has been my life. I used to play golf when I was young, but I haven’t had the time for years. I have loved the industry — enjoyed being a part of it very much — but it’s moving on. It’s cut-throat now. I miss the days when we were competitors but could still sit around and have a few drinks as friends. There used to be a lot of fishing trips and hunting trips. That doesn’t happen so much anymore — not that I was game for those; I have never shot an animal in my life. It used to be a lot friendlier in the industry. Now it’s a young man’s game,” he laughs, looking at Warren, who has been sitting quietly to one side, filling in the names and dates that his father’s failing memory fumbles for.

“Warren is ready. I give him a bit of a hard time every now and then, but hopefully he takes it from where it comes. Really, Warren is almost running the company. If he makes a decision now, unless I have a very good reason, I let him do it,” he says.

“This business is my dad’s life. It always has been. Work, work, work,” says Warren.

“But that’s the thing,” Piper says, “I have enjoyed what I have done. So much. I have had two lovely companies — Jack Hobson and IPS — and I have had fun.”

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