These plumber’s daughters are carrying on the family business

Melissa and Michelle Cary, of M. Cary & Daughters Plumbing, began helping out their father on plumbing jobs as children. Now, they run the business, adding other women plumbers—a rarity in the industry—to their team.

Two plumber’s daughters carry on the family business
Melissa (left) and Michelle Cary of M. Cary & Daughters Plumbing

Photograph by Audra Melton

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Michelle and Melissa Cary, as told to Rachel Garbus.

Melissa Our dad was a commercial plumber in Manhattan. He built the first Twin Towers, Columbia University—he even worked on Barbra Streisand’s house. His brother in Atlanta kept telling us about the opportunities here.

Michelle We moved down here from Brooklyn in the summer of 1978. I had never felt heat like that in my life; I thought I was going to drop dead in the car.

Melissa It took a while for Dad to get the business going because he was this Yankee plumber in the South. So he started making flyers with the little tear-offs at the bottom with his phone number.

Michelle Melissa and I got involved because in the beginning he couldn’t afford help, and we wanted designer jeans. George Ash and Gloria Vanderbilt were big back in those days. So, he told us, “You want them, you better get on a truck and earn them.” We spent our summers staying out of trouble, working, and making money. We were 8 and 10 years old, but when you’re ripping out walls and not getting in trouble for it—it was pretty fun.

Melissa I got my plumber’s license at 19. I was the youngest female plumber in the Southeast, maybe even the country. Michelle joined a few years later. Dad sent us out to work with everyone; we were supposed to learn the best and the worst of every plumber. He added us to the name in the ’80s.

Michelle We had beige business cards with brown raised writing: “M. Cary & Daughters.”

Melissa Dad never really had a doubt we could do it. Our mother is an extremely capable woman. They used to renovate houses together. She worked in the business too, in the office. But our grandfather gave Dad a lot of grief for putting us in the company—he had that old-fashioned mentality, “girls have no place doing that.” And guys on the job sites would give us a hard time at first, until we put them in their place. Once I had a guy chase me around the plumbing supply store saying, “I won’t believe you’re a plumber unless you show me your license.” I said, “What makes you think I have to prove anything to you?”

Michelle Melissa was interviewed in Ms. magazine in 1987, and all of a sudden we became some feminist symbol.

Melissa We’ve had other women plumbers come join us. Female plumbers are 1 percent of all the plumbers in the country, so for us to have four [in our company], that’s real percentage points on the board. And we’ve trained up most of our other plumbers, the guys—we call them “homegrown.” We have one who came right out of high school, when he was 18. He’s been here about 12 years. People stick around. We do Thursday lunches all together—it really is like a big family.

Michelle We do a lot of work at battered women’s shelters, because they need the person coming in to be a woman. We have women homeowners, girls who live alone, who call and request a woman plumber.

Melissa We also do a lot of outreach in the community—we work with the MLK Service Project for elderly or indigent homeowners in the metro Decatur area who need home repairs. Thousands of volunteers come to fix their homes during the MLK Day weekend, but we do it all year long. Daddy always said about older folks: They put in their time, so you gotta take care of them.

Michelle Our marketing is all hot pink and sparkles—we just decided to have fun with it. Our slogan is “Armed, Licensed and Fabulous.” We posed all the women plumbers in prom dresses—they were not excited at first, but it came out really great. We have hot-pink hard hats. Why not? We have fun.

Melissa Mom and Dad are retired now, but they still come by. Dad refuses to get hearing aids—he says he’s surrounded by women all day, so it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to hear anything! My son, Josh, just started working with us as a plumber full-time after graduating from college. He’s 24. He can take over the business, eventually. When we’re dead.

This article appears in our February 2024 issue.