Michelle Cernak was an Air Force brat. Born with ambition. At the age of 13 she emancipated herself, got on a Greyhound and headed off to make her own way. She went to school, worked and started a small business. She was a numbers geek.
Even as a stay-at-home mom, she managed the books for her husband’s business. Finally, kids off to school all day, it was her turn. She told her husband Bryan, “I want to do something - and I’d like that ‘something’ to be with you.”
When she and Bryan finished building their home, an image stuck in her mind. The butt cracks of plumbers haunted her memory.
“You don’t want cracks in your pipes or your plumbers,” said Cernak. Opportunity to rid her memories presented itself. She and Bryan bought the company - the source of those haunting images . That was 10 years ago, and together they have turned it into what it is today. Plumbers at Westark Plumbing no longer show butt cracks.
Bryan had a background in plumbing and construction. Michelle had a background in bookkeeping, human resources and marketing. Together, they are a winning team in the management and growth of the company. She is the owner and he is the service manager.
“We work together really well,” she said. “He calls me the boss here and I call him the boss at home. But, really, we are just a team. And that’s how I treat everybody working here.” No matter the different roles --dispatcher, assistant, guys in the field--she looks at everyone as a co-worker. “We all work together to make it happen. They all help me build and make the industry more appealing.”
Cernak has high standards for herself and others. This shows in Westark Plumbing as well as the industry itself. The plumbing industry has not had a good reputation in the past. That is why she has worked hard to bring together all the ingredients of good business to the field.
“It’s not just fixing a toilet,” she explained. “You have to have skills, professional mannerisms, good customer relations, a good presence at the door and be able to communicate. The trades industry is under a lot of codes and regulations, you have to go to school for four years to actually touch water, sewer or gas and you have to work with a company that monitors your training while you go to school.”
Cernak has seen a shift as people begin to understand that it is less expensive to call a plumber than it is to attempt to fix things themselves, frequently creating a larger problem. The industry must also meet health and city codes, and workers must have state and city licenses and permits.
“It’s also about making people feel comfortable to have you in their home and to treat them with respect,” she noted. She treats customers and co-workers like family, and she does not believe in being bossy or micromanaging. “People fly when you give them a little bit of hope and direction. And let’s have fun with it.”
To meet her in person, is to find her well-spoken, funny, with incredible leadership ability, independence, astute discernibility with knowing how to motivate others, and a big heart when it comes to her community. She loves to volunteer and involves her work and home family in helping the community.
“I just feel like if I work hard here, if I do a good job with the company, it allows me to get out there and give back,” she said. It is also appealing to recruiting dedicated workers.
Some of Cernak’s guiding humor and philosophy shows up these days on Westark’s promotional materials. The t-shirts are printed with Just Say No To Crack. Her business cards are printed with Plumber Girl. And she added with a grin, “You don’t want cracks in your pipes or your plumbers.”
By Candise Montemayor
Candise Montemayor is a seasoned journalist and freelance writer/photographer who has been published in newspapers and magazines throughout Arkansas,Texas and Oregon. She has taught several young adult creative writing classes in the Fort Smith area. She is passionate about community involvement and contributes part-time to the Fort Smith Public library as a teen specialist in the youth services department.