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Chicago plumber finds rarified air in western North Dakota

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath Anthony Medina sits in his van on Feb. 17 in Glen Ullin. Medina, a master plumber, moved to southwest North Dakota from Chicago and has started MJ Plumbing.

GLEN ULLIN — A plumber by trade, Anthony Medina remembers the day several years ago when he realized he would likely have to leave his native Chicago to find work.

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“I did my apprenticeship out of Local Union 130 in Chicago and got my license in the city,” Medina said. “Things got really slow there three or four years ago. One July day, I’m sitting at home on a beautiful sunny day, just looking out the door thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I hadn’t worked in a month and I had four kids and a wife to feed.”

Knowing he needed to change something, Medina said he went online and the website to search for job opportunities.

“I kept getting North Dakota, so I called a few companies,” Medina said. “Next thing you know, I’m driving up to North Dakota about a week later.”

Flash forward to mid-February and Medina has his own up-and-coming company, called MJ Plumbing Inc, which, he said, has been steadily picking up steam since he started it out of his Glen Ullin home.

After owning his own plumbing company in the Windy City for eight years, Medina left his family in Illinois in July 2011 and headed for Minot, where he got his first taste of what Bakken-driven employment was all about.

“I was working with a bunch of guys up in Minot and they were hacks,” Medina said. “I got tired of that. The guys I was working with weren’t doing the quality type of work that I was accustomed to — the way I was trained. It was frustrating. I voiced my concerns to the owner who I was working for and he said to either put up with it or go my way, so I went home.”

Medina wasn’t in Chicago for long, however. A devout Catholic, Medina said what happened next was a string of events that led him back to North Dakota — this time to the small town of Glen Ullin in Morton County — which, he said, is exactly where he’s supposed to be.

“From October to November of 2011, when I went back to Chicago, again there wasn’t one plumbing company that was hiring,” Medina said. “I’m thinking at that point, ‘Man, I should have sucked up my pride and kept working in Minot.’ I answered another ad on Craigslist and I ended up calling this guy for three weeks straight. Finally, I got ahold of him and he says, ‘You call me four or five times per day. What do you want?’”

Though the opening moments of their initial conversation weren’t that productive, Medina soon convinced the contractor that his skills could be a valuable asset. While working in Minot, Medina had also been studying to be a master plumber, which is a classification many working in western North Dakota don’t have.

“I was down to my last $300 after I bought the plane ticket to come back to North Dakota,” Medina said. “I gave $200 to my wife and had $100 in my pocket. I told my wife that I hoped to come back with more. After a while, money began to come in. In America, you can still survive and prosper, as long as you’re determined, willing and have a passion for what you do. That’s the key because the passion will get you to that point.”

Soon, Medina had his own company and — though they were reluctant at first — moved his wife, Theresa, and children Juliet, 14, Jasmine, 11, and twins, Markus and Matthew, both 7, to Glen Ullin. Though he said it was hard at first, Medina and his family — through church and other activities — began to become part of the community.

In an effort to capitalize on the booming Bakken market, he recently purchased a home for his family in Beach and they plan to move in May. Medina said he plans to service a large swath of western North Dakota and portions of eastern Montana.

Anthony takes care of plumbing-related needs from sewer camera to boiler system repair for both residential and commercial properties, and Theresa handles the office manager duties of the business.

The Medinas plan to be stay busy and be around the area for a long time.

“When I first went to Minot, I slept in a tent for a week,” Anthony said. “Now, we’re living comfortably. I think it’s all been a part of God’s plan and I thank God every Sunday at church. I fought hard to make this happen and we plan to stay here in North Dakota.”

The signature of the MJ Plumbing operation is a logo featuring the likeness of the Air Jordan logo — Michael Jordan’s triangle silhouette going up for a one-handed slam dunk — only it’s the NBA great holding a wrench in one hand and reaching for a toilet with the other.

In Chicago, Anthony’s company went by the moniker J & M (for the names of his children), but he found that title was already taken in North Dakota when he contacted the Secretary of State’s office. Needing a Plan B, he thought of Jordan, whom he watched pile up championships and MVP awards while a member of the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s and ’90s.

“All of a sudden, it all just dawned on me about the MJ thing,” Medina said. “I thought of Jordan and I thought about what’s now our slogan, ‘Taking plumbing to new heights.’ I had to fight Nike for almost two years to get them to release the logo. I finally got a lawyer and the lawyer started battling with them and that’s the only way they released the logo.

“I love the logo. I love basketball and I watched Michael Jordan play all the way from his rookie year. I remember jumping up and down on cars in Chicago after his first championship. The Bulls won championships all throughout my 20s. It was the best time in the world.”

Partly because of his experience working in Minot — he said he is still owed money from work he did there — Medina said he’s more interested in working in homes and on projects involving smaller businesses.

“I decided to go the service route and it’s worked out well,” Medina said.

“There are a lot of questionable business practices going on out here and I don’t want to be a part of that. I’m more determined to take care of the local person and that local business that’s going to be here when this oil leaves. It may take a while, but it’s going to disappear eventually and I’m still going to be here.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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