As far back as he can remember, Derek Zeolla, general manager and licensed plumber at Zeolla Plumbing & Heating Corp., was running plumbing jobs with his father in downtown Boston as early as seven years old. Derek’s dad was a Boston service plumber that ran a 1- to 2-man shop. “It’s not like this was common, I was just growing up around it,” says Zeolla (@zeollaplumbing).
Derek’s father eventually stopped working as a plumber in the late ’90s. Around this time, while still a teenager, Derek dropped out of school had a baby at the age of 18. Moving forward, “My brother, Doug, and I convinced our dad—also named Doug—to get back into the trade, but before we worked as a family, he sent us off to get experience elsewhere,” recalls Zeolla.
According to Zeolla, they worked all over the city and jumped around recklessly from company to company, some jobs together, some not. “We always found a way of getting together with a new employer, one of us would talk up the other,” says Zeolla. “It’s funny looking back on that thinking how little we knew back then. My parents were coming off of a divorce and my father was starting to take on some service stuff in our new town Stoughton, Mass. where we grew up and went to high school. Eventually, he had enough work for both of us and we stayed pretty busy,” says Zeolla.
And that’s how Zeolla Plumbing & Heating Corp.—residential service plumbing, drain cleaning, heating, and boiler installation—came to be. “We have built a solid reputation in our area through more than a decade of answering the phone and showing up. Man, we have come a long way since then,” says Zeolla.
The Family Dynamic
Working with his father, brother and one of his cousins most of the time were the best memories in the field for Zeolla. “I can’t explain it, but something about sharing the bond of working together, figuring out problems together, feeling the pride was the best, and I hope to share that with my two boys one day,” says Zeolla.
But with life, things change. “As many know, my brother passed away. This was tough, and even before that, my father took a step back from the business and went to Florida (but still flies back to Boston from time to time to help out). Add to that, my cousin and I haven’t talked in years so it’s not the same out here anymore,” says Zeolla.
Zeolla says he is blessed that his wife Arlene has filled a void. “She is the savior in the office, and I have a great team.”
Derek also hired his younger cousin Justin last year and he has been phenomenal. “I was out with him today clearing drains on a Sunday and it brought back that feeling again of working with family. Working with a Zeolla,” says Derek nostalgically.
And while Derek puts his father center on the Mount Rushmore of mentors, there were some other people outside the family that were strong influences on Derek. For Zeolla, one of the best was a Greek guy named Alex, who, when Derek was looking for work, took him on for a couple of years. “He taught me how to get shit done; he taught me how to move.”
Alex was a great mentor yet has since passed away. “Which brings me to, am I a role model? I don’t know, but Alex has two sons. One has come to me looking for mentorship, and it’s just so crazy how things come full circle because now he works with me and he is already just like his father when it comes to plumbing skill.”
Zeolla hopes to be a good role model for him, including and all his younger guys he works with. “I will never steer them in the wrong direction, that’s for sure. This is too important to me,” says Zeolla.
One of my biggest challenges isn’t the pipes, says Zeolla, it’s the people. “I say this phrase a lot, and I love people in general, and I love my customers, but sometimes when it comes to understanding what we are doing in their homes, it can be challenging. It’s very important to explain things and make sure they feel comfortable. It’s a delicate balance between taking control of a situation and saying, ‘hey, look, I’m the professional here I need you to trust me,’” says Zeolla.
Again, the pipes are the easy part! “I’m lucky that I have great customers. The rewarding part is helping people out, getting someone’s heat back on, clearing a main drain, getting the hot water back, or being told that you are appreciated is probably the best. That ride home to then seeing your family after you helped another family, that’s the reward.”
Derek and his wife love to travel, and they take their kids literally everywhere they go. AHR Atlanta was their second time leaving them overnight in five years. But basically, there is no leisure time without the phone ringing and Derek coordinating with his six guys, and customers. “My wife and I are like running a telethon while ‘trying’ to be on a vacation. We love it and we are good at it, but she knows I can’t be away from the field long. It’s my therapy and I get depressed if I’m not turning wrenches,” says Zeolla, a self-described workaholic.
As far as spare time close to home, Zeolla enjoys fishing, hiking and hanging out at his cabin nestled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “Summer weekends there with my boys are what I work toward every week. When my brother passed, I wanted to find a place to escape, and I found something special,” says Zeolla.
The Skilled Trades
According to Zeolla, “We” need to push our way into middle schools and high schools to get “our” message heard. Kids need to know that they have options at a younger age, says Zeolla.
“Listen, school isn’t for everyone. You might be told you aren’t good enough, or your attention span is too short, or you can’t listen to lectures all day, but put that kid in front of something hands-on, something he or she can feel—and feel the pride of building something—the sky is the limit. Once you get that feeling of being productive and important, you will open doors you didn’t even know were there,” says Zeolla.