Plumbing is not a dirty job
The eighth of 10 children born to Mortimer and Edna Neil, all his life Stenton Neil has been driven by one thing - he never wanted his family to be hungry.
Born and raised in the small town of Benbow, St Catherine, he describes himself as consistent, charismatic, ambitious, personable and hard-working. These are traits he credits to his survival mentality that were developed because of the harsh realities of his impoverished youth.
Today, the managing director of S.W. Neil Plumbing and Sales & Services, tells Outlook that his career in plumbing began in the washroom of the small Balatta Avenue apartment he shared with his young family - wife, Beverly, and four daughters.
Armed with a tool box and a hunger for success at the age of 19, Neil set out for any and all the neighbourhood's plumbing odd jobs. He admitted that he didn't always want to be a plumber, discounting it as a 'dirty job'. With his desire to leave the impoverished background of his youth, he preferred a career in what he described as "prestigious".
His brief stint as a waiter at the Flamingo Hotel gave him what he thought he wanted - a career which allowed him to dress up in a vest, shirt and tie, and enabled him to 'rub shoulders' with the wealthy Jamaicans and revolving tourists. Although he was serving them, he tells Outlook that working at the hotel developed his personality and gave him the charisma and finesse he needed later to woo a wealthier demographic to his plumbing business.
But Neil soon got weary of working for people at the hotel, and his brother, Vivian, encouraged him to put everything into the plumbing business. He enrolled at St Andrew Technical High School and learnt to read plans and about the theory of plumbing, building on his practical knowledge.
He credits his wife, Beverly, a former banker, for being able to streamline his plumbing business with her accounting and administrative skills. He recalled to Outlook how he met her. "I was friends with her sister's boyfriend at the time. We would get together occasionally, and one day I saw a photo and asked who it was. Her sister told me, and I told her to set up a date because this is the woman I am going to marry. The rest is history."
Coupled with his practical skills and his wife's business acumen, they were able to secure contracts with various banks, nursing homes, and children's homes. Renowned plumbing engineer, the late A.D. Chung, was Neil's mentor for years, and gave him an advantage in the industry by teaching Neil everything he knows. S.W. Neil Plumbing and Sales & Services was incorporated in 1985.
Being one of the first bathroom suppliers to import state-of-the-art bathroom fixtures from China in the late 90s, gave the business an advantage in sales and service. In the early 2000s, an expansive showroom on Constant Spring Road brought new customers from all walks of life through his doors. Noticeable was the support of local celebrities in the entertainment industry who wanted what they saw on shows like MTV's Cribs. The economy was good and business was flourishing.
Today, now that the market is saturated with various bathroom suppliers, it highlights Neil's expertise as a plumber, as customers from all across the island return to S.W. Neil to install, repair and service equipment they have purchased not just from him, but other suppliers.
S.W. Neil has become one of the most visible businesses of its kind in Jamaica to date, serving Jamaican for more than 30 years with an exceptional track record for quality products and superior service. Neil's daughter, Danielle, who is also marketing and sales manager, notes, "Over the years, S.W. Neil has grown from a small business, carrying mostly pipes and fittings, and doing mostly minor plumbing services, to having blossomed into a large-scale operation - tripling staff and offering the widest range of products from rubber washers to the most massive and luxurious whirlpool baths and steam units. Such immense growth, mostly through word of mouth, can only come through years of providing excellent products and offering excellent service to customers."
He tells Outlook that he has always taught his girls "the importance of being independent, and that they are complete as they are; and treating everybody the same, no matter where they come from." Taking a cue from his experience, he also advises them that, "Whatever you decide to do ... take a leap of faith and grow your wings on the way and do your best. Be a leader, not a follower, and last but not least ... before going out, I always tell them, 'If you can't be good, be careful!'"
Recently, S.W. Neil Plumbing has returned to their original location at 29 Mannings Hill Road. As Beverly says, "The location is blessed, has always been blessed, and we continue to trust in the Lord for his continued blessings."
Today, S.W. Neil employs students and graduates from The HEART Academy to teach them more about the trade. Neil admits that him giving back is in honour of what he learnt from A.D. Chung. He notes that many of these students leave and start their own companies, which gives him immense joy, because it means they were inspired by his leadership. He admits that he doesn't train students who are looking to be married to his business, but students who want more out of life and have the same drive he did as a youth.
When asked what he is passionate about, Neil says, "I am passionate about my horses, I still remember the first horse I ever owned - Prowler was his name. I am also passionate about my birds; raise them, don't shoot them, I always say! I'm also a music lover, and I still collect vinyl records and regularly play them for entertainment. I love my family and my simple life of doing what I love, which is and will always be plumbing." With a smile he adds, "Plumbing is not a dirty job after all."
Creative director: Natalia Oh
Photography: Christanya Julian