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Home | DALLAS / FORT WORTH | Spotlight | Spotlight - Max “Sonny” Friedman, President, Atlas Plumbing Company, Dallas, TX

Spotlight - Max “Sonny” Friedman, President, Atlas Plumbing Company, Dallas, TX

image Sonny Friedman (center) welcomes two Challenge Air co-pilots.

DALLAS/FT WORTH - His in-laws convinced him to buy a plumbing business. His childhood friend convinced him to help buy a plane. Fortunately, Sonny Friedman said yes to both, and after 50 years as owner of Atlas Plumbing and 25 years with Challenge Air, Friedman is glad he listened to good advice.





How did you become involved in the plumbing industry?
    I graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in zoology. I had planned to be a dentist; that didn’t work out – no invites to attend from dental schools! I had a sweetheart that went all the way back to high school. We were young and stupid and wanted to get married. I had proposed to her during spring break of my senior year; you couldn’t live together then. I asked my future mother-in-law and father-in-law for her hand, and they were fine with that, but the question of how I was going to support her came up. Did I mention “young and stupid?”
    As it turns out, my mother-in-law inherited a used-to-be-very-profitable plumbing business, but it was no longer profitable. Her father owed the bank $1 million, but got tired of going to work. The bank called Mom in hopes of not having to foreclose, and she said that she would make an effort to keep it going. She started going to the office and made some headway.
    I had proposed but I really didn’t know what I was going to do to support a family. I knew I didn’t want to go to Vietnam and considered joining the Navy or Air Force. That’s when the proposal after the proposal came, the proverbial “Silver Lining” story: “Come to work at Consumer’s Plumbing, learn the business from the bottom up and the sky is the limit!” So that’s what I did; I went to the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors’ (PHCC) school at night and later got my plumbing license.

Did you end up serving in the military?

    About a year and a half later, I learned that I was about to be drafted, and I found a Naval Reserve Unity that would take me. It was good. After nine months of active duty training, I returned to Dallas and was a “weekend warrior” at the Grand Prairie Naval Air Station.
    When I returned from my nine months of training in July of 1967, my in-laws informed me that they had been approached by the owner of Atlas Plumbing to purchase his four-truck company. My brother-in-law was finishing SMU with a Finance degree, so the plan developed for he and I to be partners at Atlas. The other company continued to function, but never became profitable enough to achieve the “Silver Lining.”  The opportunity for Atlas with Joe, my brother-in-law, worked out until his father-in-law gave him the “Silver Lining” story, and in 1970, he sold me his interest and moved to Houston.

What have you learned in the past 50 years of owning Atlas Plumbing?
    I’ve learned that from a business standpoint, you can charge whatever you need to charge as long as you provide value. If you don’t provide value, you’re not going to be successful, no matter how much or how little you charge.
    You also have to understand business, and that was my major obstacle, because I had a degree in zoology and not business. The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association provided me with the tools I needed to learn the business of business. I went to seminars and conventions, listened to speakers and took courses that the PHCC provided. When it boils down to it, I owe my success in business and what I have been able to gain from being a member of the PHCC.
    Our strength is our people and how we treat people. Our 12 employees look professional and they act professional and that’s why we’re successful.

What challenges have you faced?
    Right now, we’re busy, but we don’t have enough people! Every time I talk with someone, I bring it up, because you never know whom he or she may know. Right now, our industry has 100,000 job openings – and they’re not limited to males!  How do we attract these people to our industry? We are not doing enough at this time.

You’ve owned Atlas Plumbing for 50 years. What feelings are you experiencing at this milestone?
    I enjoy the satisfaction of the accomplishment and that of being a good employer of very special people. We only employ 12 people, but we are a family and we care about each other in that way. Our clients are the most important people in our business.
    I have been blessed with a wonderful, fulfilling life that was only made possible by having a successful business.

How did you become involved in Challenge Air?
    One of my best friends growing up, Rick Amber, got an appointment to Annapolis. People don’t come out of military academies the way they go in; they come out overachievers. Ricky goes to Annapolis and graduates with a degree in aeronautical engineering and he gets his wish to fly Mach-2 airplanes off of air-plane carriers. He’s living his dream on the carrier Hancock off the coast of Vietnam. He was returning from his 109th mission, flying an airplane that was very unfor-giving over seas that were very rough, and the stern of the carrier was going up and down 20 ft. On his final approach, the lights on the back carrier, telling him if he was on or off the glide slope, went out, and he had no more fuel to go around; he had to put it down. The ship came up and he hit the back of it. The plane exploded; he ejected through the explosion and into the ship and broke his neck.
    He lived through it and went through rehab in California for two years, but he couldn’t feel anything from his chest down. That was the end of his navy fighter pilot career. But he was still the same guy, except instead of going Mach-2 at 30,000ft, he’s going wheelchair speed at 3 ft. Rick wouldn’t have you feeling sorry for him. He came over for dinner regularly after that, and we got to know what life was like for him. He went back to school and got another degree, this time from SMU and went to work as a caseworker for the Environmental Protection Agency. He was an advocate for people in wheelchairs. He played basketball and later tennis, at which he was ranked No. 2 in the world, also playing in the Olympics.
    Rick’s many-faceted career finally brought him to teaching science and math at a private high school in North Dallas. He offered an aviation ground school to senior students as an elective course. Rick had gotten back into aviation and was earning pilot certificates while also teaching ground school at a flight academy at Addison Airport. They were trading him flight hours instead of pay. He got all of his licenses back, including his air transport license, which he wanted to use commercially as a charter pilot. He also got his certified flight instructor license.
    Still active on the tennis circuit, Rick was teaching kids in wheelchairs to play tennis. He asked the parents if he could take the kids up in a Cessna and they said, “Sure.” One child was up there with Rick, and two were in the back seat. At altitude, Rick allowed the “co-pilot” to take the controls. It’s really easier than driving a car. Rick witnessed the impression that flying the plane made on the child, the step up in their self -confidence and the pride in the accomplishment.
    Challenge Air was formed with that as a mission: “You’ve just done something that you never dreamed you could do; you flew an airplane! So now what else are you able to do?” After that, Rick called me and said that we were going to buy an airplane.

Did he talk you into it right away?

    I said, ”We are not buying an airplane. You are buying an airplane with your check, not mine!” But in any event, we did do that and we started flying kids at no cost to them and their families in 1992. The organization grew and grew and we started to get some notoriety. As of today, we have flown over 35,000 flights. We start in Fort Lauderdale in January, go to San Diego, Seattle, Kansas City, Denver, Conroe, Chattanooga, Atlanta and a fall event in Dallas, and we’ll be in McKinney in the spring. As funds become available, we’ll be able to expand more.

Has Challenge Air evolved since you first started it?
    Oh yes, very much so. We went from flying about 25 kids a day with one pilot, to flying 150 kids a day with 30 volunteer pilots.
    One day in 1995, we learned that putting three kids in a plane is not the best way to go because the kids in the back don’t get the same experience; so we changed it. Each child gets their own airplane and two people go with them. Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers sit in the back seat. It’s a shared, family experience that they remember and talk about years later.
    Ricky passed away of cancer in 1997, but his wish was for Challenge Air to continue. Before he passed away, we put a board of trustees in place and hired office staff to run Challenge Air. We are fulfilling Rick’s legacy.
    Challenge Air for Kids and Friends is a 501C3 not for profit agency. The kids do not pay anything for the Fly Day experience; the funds are donated by individuals, companies and charitable organizations – no government money. Because I have a connection with the plumbing industry and am also a member of Rotary, I invited these organizations to participate, and they have taken Challenge Air and me to heart. If you’re around me for five seconds, I’ll tell you about Challenge Air. You don’t have a choice. Challenge Air is my passion.
Share an experience you’ve had with Challenge Air.
    I’ve got so many stories after 25 years, that I could tell you stories forever. Our Challenge Air kids have every condition imaginable – autism, spina bifida, Down Syndrome and on and on.
     I have found that even children who have blindness or partial blindness are able to fly the planes, which I think is the coolest thing in the world. Last year, one child who was totally blind arrived with a big frown on his face, because he didn’t know what was going on or how this was going to affect him; he had never been able to see. I took him around the plane and, holding his hands, we felt every surface on the outside and inside of the plane. I told him that at 1800 ft. the pilot was going to give him the controls, and he said, “But I’m blind.” I said, “Yes, I know.” I told him that he was going to feel pressures as we went up, down, and banked the plane to turn left and right. Of course, I had a little talk with the volunteer pilot; he was as pumped up as the kid was apprehensive!
    Off they go to fly, and then they come back and I meet the plane. The kid has this huge grin, and all I could see was teeth from ear to ear. He said that he really flew it! What is this kid going to be like in two years, five years from this experience? This is the mission of Challenge Air.   
    I remember one day at Love Field in 1993, a group of 25 kids we had were all going through chemotherapy. I loaded three of them into the plane with Ricky and I stayed on the ground with the parents; I do ground school, which is an orientation that the kids have to go through before they fly. I tell them what the day is going to be like and how the airplane flies.
    While talking with these parents about their lives, I realize how lucky and blessed my life is. I can’t believe how they find the strength to do what they do every day. All of the weight that I was carrying around on my shoulders took flight like a bird that day and has never returned. There are all different shades of faith, but theirs is at the top of the heap. I have never been the same after talking with them and listening to them share their lives with me that day.
    At the end of each Fly Day, my 74-year-old body is exhausted, but the feeling that I have is so warm and fulfilling. I thank Rick at every Fly Day for the amazing life that he lived and what his legacy has meant to so many people, including myself.

What is on the horizon for you?
    I haven’t found anything that I like better than my job. I get to do almost anything I want to. My wife of 52 years and I have been working the “bucket list” for the last 20 years. We will just have to see what opportunities come our way.
    Atlas Plumbing Company is located in Dallas. –mjm

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Author Info

Melissa Jones-Meyer dfweditor@constructionnews.net