Businessman wasn't hindered by his very humble beginnings

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It's easy to overlook the old well pump on display in the small lobby of Universal Plumbing Inc.

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Larry Jones, owner of Universal Plumbing, poses for a portrait in front of his childhood home.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Larry Jones, owner of Universal Plumbing, poses for a portrait in front of his childhood home.

The aquarium, the candy machine and the framed Scripture quotation command much more attention than the cast-iron relic partially obscured by a potted plant.

But talk a while with Larry Jones, the owner of Universal Plumbing, and you'll realize the obsolete tool mounted on a simple plywood stand is something he holds sacred.

The pump was used to draw water at Mr. Jones' boyhood home on Meadow Street, an address in the heart of a black neighborhood that was, and still is, one of the poorest in Augusta.

As incomprehensible as it might seem today, the house just two blocks from T.W. Josey High School was not hooked up to running water until the late 1950s. While much of America was listening to Elvis Presley and watching I Love Lucy, the Jones family was tearing down a backyard outhouse and tossing an old well pump into a crawl space.

"It's a reminder to me," said Mr. Jones, 55, who muscled the handle many times as a boy. "I remember being really happy when we got rid of it."

His reunion with the long-forgotten pump came five years ago. He found it while inspecting pipes under the Meadow Street house where his mother, 82-year-old Laura Frances Jones, still lives.

Mr. Jones was moved to liberate the pump and memorialize it. To understand why is to know that no matter what happens in Mr. Jones' life, he can never forget where it all began.

Dead end street

Universal Plumbing is the city's largest plumbing service contractor, and its owner is known and respected in both black and white business circles.

"I think he's got a great company," said Rick Busby, the vice president of Busby's Inc., the market's largest heating and air-conditioning service. "He's one of the nicest, most professional people I have ever met."

Mr. Jones is a common sight at the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce and Augusta Technical College, where he serves on both organizations' boards. Those who haven't met him probably have seen his face in Universal Plumbing's TV commercials.

Before he became what people would refer to as a "business leader" - before he ever picked up a pipe wrench - Larry L. Jones was an ordinary black child in a poor neighborhood.

"Anyone who needs an example of a success story need only think of Larry Jones and how he started out," said James Kendrick, the owner of Augusta Blueprint, who has known Mr. Jones since he was a boy.

Mr. Jones' father, David Jones Sr., had a second-grade education and toiled days at the Merry Bros. brickyard and later as a delivery driver for the Richmond County Board of Education. His mother left school in junior high. She would often take young Larry along on housekeeping jobs, where she scrubbed floors for white families in the city's Hill section.

The two-bedroom home Mr. Jones shared with his four brothers and sisters is within walking distance of his company's office on Olive Road. Aside from the paved streets and late-model cars in the driveways, his childhood neighborhood is virtually unchanged from his youth, including a street sign he dislikes to this day.

"Every day walking home from school I would see this sign, 'Dead end,'" he said, recalling how the sign was a symbol of his surroundings and a potential harbinger of his future. "Two things bothered me: I was born black and poor. But all of the things I didn't have gave me a hunger."

Football was the outlet for his youthful energy. The 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound teenager with big hands was a standout defensive end on the Josey High team.

"Playing football has helped me in the business world, because you don't always win," Mr. Jones said. "You get knocked down, you get back up and keep playing. As long as you're not knocked out, you don't give up."

Mr. Jones still maintains an athletic build, and has "no doubts" he could have been a professional football player. He received scholarship offers from three small colleges but never pursued them. The man who today has 2 Timothy 1:7 ("God hath not given us the spirit of fear ...") framed in his office lobby was simply afraid.

"It scared me because I had never been anyplace," said Mr. Jones, whose big childhood adventure was going to Broad Street on Saturdays.

His parents, to whom college was a foreign concept, did not push him to parlay his athleticism into academia.

"My parents never sat in the stands to see me play football," he said. "They were just trying to survive."

What David and Laura Jones did, however, was make sure all their children finished school. In the mind of his mother, whatever Larry Jones achieves in business will always be trumped by his high school diploma.

"I'm proud of all of them," Mrs. Jones said, looking at the cap-and-gown pictures that have sat on her mantel for more than 40 years.

Providence

After graduating from Josey in 1969, Mr. Jones supported himself by working a variety of odd jobs; everything from mixing mortar to managing the Kay Jewelers store at Regency Mall, which is where he met his wife, Eljenette, a nurse.

An old high school buddy, Thomas Kelly, who eventually became the chief financial officer at the Medical College of Georgia, helped Mr. Jones land a job as an MCG "collections specialist," a fancy term for the person who interviews patients to determine how much they will be able to pay on their hospital bill. The work wasn't always fun - many of the patients were rural or poor, or both - but Mr. Jones was good at his job, and he got to wear a tie.

Though he had job security, he was still doing odd jobs on weekends, including working for the father of a roommate's girlfriend, who was a small-time plumber. Mr. Jones and the roommate mostly dug ditches and did other grunt work. On one particular job, however, the plumber asked the young men to install a toilet for an elderly woman from the neighborhood.

The job turned out to be a life-changing experience.

"She was so incredibly grateful," Mr. Jones said. "She just kept saying 'thank you, thank you.'"

Compared to his day job of setting up payment plans for people who couldn't afford medical treatment, solving someone's plumbing problem felt as good as the day his family's well pump was replaced by a spigot. When he saw an opening for a plumber on the MCG job board, he applied.

"It must've been providence," he said. "Because I got the job."

MCG's physical plant department is where Mr. Jones learned his trade from a taskmaster of a boss, who tolerated no shortcuts to quality. Mr. Jones found the work to be his biggest challenge yet, equal parts cerebral and physical. Some of his peers, however, looked down on his decision to move from coat-and-tie to coveralls.

"It was like I wasn't up there anymore," he said. "I went from a knight in shining armor to a handyman."

After he felt he could advance no further at MCG, he began studying state plumbing codes during nights and weekends so he could take the test for a Georgia master plumber's license, a license that would allow him to start his own plumbing company.

Mr. Jones cried the day he received the notification letter saying he passed the exam.

Ringing phones

In 1985, he started a company with little but his faith.

"I had my license, I had the skills, I had the desire," Mr. Jones said. "The only thing that would have kept me from the next level was fear of failure."

He sold his wife's Ford Mustang to buy a pickup. A $25,000 loan from the CSRA Business League helped him buy tools, print business cards and open a small office.

"The phone hasn't stopped ringing since," said Mr. Jones, who spent his first few years taking a separate vehicle on all family outings, just in case he received an after-hours call. "My kids used to hate my pager."

Before he died, Mr. Jones' father spent his retirement years helping him get the business off the ground.

"He was always here," Mr. Jones' sister Claudia recalled. "He did whatever needed to be done."

When Universal Plumbing was founded, there were no black-owned plumbing contractors in Augusta to serve as a role model. Mr. Jones said many of his industry peers expected him to fail. He recalls rivals who laughed at his old truck and an ornery plumbing supply distributor who went a step further.

"I was giving away a bunch of T-shirts that I had printed up," Mr. Jones recalled. "This man said he wanted one. I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah, I want to put it on my wall and throw darts at it.'"

Even today, when Mr. Jones and his white superintendent, longtime employee Gene Howell, visit a job, it's not uncommon for customers to assume Mr. Howell is the boss. Mr. Jones does not take offense to such episodes, nor does he let them affect his outlook on life.

"I don't drag that big bag around," he said. "I'm grateful for the trials, the tests, the hard times."

Mr. Jones wears a tie when making public appearances, but at work he dresses like the plumber that he is.

"He'll jump in a ditch and get dirty with us," employee Corey Pate said.

Needless to say, Mr. Jones doesn't consider himself country club material. The only action his golf clubs have seen is chipping balls into the woods behind his west Augusta home.

"He's the same Larry I've known my whole life," said Terry Elam, the president of Augusta Technical College, who played high school football with Mr. Jones at Josey.

Universal Plumbing's 12-employee operation is very much a family business. Mr. Jones hired his oldest brother, David Jones Jr. (who was Augusta's first black motorcycle cop), to run his warehouse operation not long after he retired as captain of the Augusta Police Department. Younger sister Claudia is the office manager, and Mr. Jones' daughter, Jamelia, works as a receptionist when she is not in class at Augusta State University.

Mr. Jones' mother drops by from time to time to pick up his dirty laundry.

"She's still taking care of me," he said.

Giving back

Mr. Jones has a long-term goal of setting up Universal Plumbing branch operations in Waynesboro, Thomson and Atlanta, though he acknowledges that his company is "as big as I can handle at this point."

The up side of running an established business is that Mr. Jones has more time to devote to civic involvement, including his most passionate pursuit: mentoring to low-income youths.

Though he comes from the same streets, he acknowledges that times have changed. To a materialistic generation that defines success as having an iPod or $150 sneakers, Mr. Jones' tale of making actual sacrifices to buy a pair of $2 Converse Chuck Taylors at Southgate Shopping Center rings hollow. He is preaching achievement in an age of entitlement.

"Out of 10, five aren't going to listen," he said. "It's a totally different value system these days. They don't know that stuff is just stuff. It doesn't really describe who you are."

He also shakes his head at the level of violence that permeates his old stomping grounds.

"When I was young, if you had a tussle with someone, the next day you would be best friends again," he said. "You wouldn't go looking for them with a gun."

He wishes more people could visit Africa, where he spends two weeks every December in Nigeria.

"It's a strengthening thing for me," he said of his trips. "You learn a lot about yourself and what is really real.

"The people there are just so satisfied with what they've got. It really puts you in awe. It makes you want to give more, it makes you want to share more."

He and Claudia are thinking of creating an organization to redevelop blighted property. If the venture gets off the ground, Mr. Jones already has the first neighborhood picked out: It's a place where a little boy used to pump water in the backyard of a home on a dead-end street.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

LARRY L. JONES

Born: June 8, 1951


Education: Graduated T.W. Josey High School, 1969; attended Paine College, 1970-71


Family: Wife, Eljenette; son Nicolas; daughter Jamelia


Civic: Member of the board of directors of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, Augusta Technical Institute and the Georgia Plumbing Trade Association for Continuing Education; advisory board member for T.W. Josey High School, Augusta Construction Advisory Board and Augusta Youth Development Campus; co-founder of Community Bible Fellowship

UNIVERSAL PLUMBING INC.

Offices: 1650 Olive Road, Augusta


Owner: Larry L. Jones


Business: Residential, commercial and industrial plumbing service and repair


Motto: "Quick response, flat rates"


Employees: 12


Founded: 1985


History: Mr. Jones started the company at his house using his own money and a $25,000 business loan. After business picked up, he leased a small office on 15th Street. The business moved into larger offices on Olive Road eight years ago.

Comments (7) Add comment
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butterflygina
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butterflygina 03/05/07 - 11:31 am
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This is a wonderfully

This is a wonderfully inspiring story. I'm glad he is giving back in the way of mentoring. I think he would be of a benefit to some of the boys and young men at the YDC.

sinkawink
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sinkawink 03/05/07 - 01:54 pm
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Mr. Jones is a definite

Mr. Jones is a definite inspiration to all.

2mortime
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2mortime 03/05/07 - 08:43 pm
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Mr. Jones embodies the word

Mr. Jones embodies the word humility. He has been the same quiet and resourceful person that I’ve known throughout my life. It has been my privilege to know him.
Hicks

ccssncfl
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ccssncfl 03/06/07 - 09:57 am
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Fantastic article! I haven't

Fantastic article! I haven't met Mr. Jones yet, but I am certainly looking forward to it. I would definitely love to see more articles like this one in the Chronicle.

mgroothand
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mgroothand 03/06/07 - 11:05 am
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A role model that should be

A role model that should be emulated all over this country. I wish the A/C would repeat this story in all their newspapers. In this time of continued racial strife this is refreshing and uplifting to read.

AsItIs
1
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AsItIs 03/06/07 - 11:07 am
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An excellent role model for

An excellent role model for us all!
Nice article!

JLady
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JLady 03/06/07 - 12:16 pm
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What an inspiring article! I

What an inspiring article! I am a native of Augusta and Mr. Jones comes from my generation. I am very proud of him. I used to live on Sunset Avenue and 15th St. I think that's the right street. It's been at least 30 years. I live in Florida now.
But I always enjoy reading the Augusta Chronicle on line.
God Bless the Jones Family and may they continue to prosper.

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