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Home | HOUSTON | Spotlight | Spotlight - David Stone, American Fire Systems, Inc.

Spotlight - David Stone, American Fire Systems, Inc.

image L-R: Cody Huff, David Stone and Craig Branstetter got together and started American Fire Systems, Inc. over 15 years ago.

HOUSTON - Stone has encountered many successes and struggles in his professional career, but 15 years into starting American Fire Systems, Inc., he is able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Stone also heads the Fire Sprinkler Contractors Association of Texas, along with being involved in other associations.





Where did you grow up?
    I was born and bred in Houston. I spent my whole life between Spring Branch, Bear Creek, and Cypress. We live out in Hempstead now; trying to stay one step ahead of the city but it’s still chasing us.

Did you go to college?
No, I went to work and got married young. My wife and I have been married 32 years and have kids and grandkids. I got married when I was still in high school. I went to two trade schools, but no college.

Do you have any marriage advice?
    Say “yes, ma’am” a lot, get used to saying “I’m sorry” and “it’s OK,” and even if you’re not wrong, admit that you were wrong. The first five years are always fun and the second five years is when people get a little complacent. Then there’s a point where you turn the corner and become best friends. Between kids and grandkids, we stay pretty busy. We’re best friends.

How many kids and grandkids do you have?

    I have three daughters and nine grandkids.

How do you like being a grandparent?
    It’s better than being a dad. If I would have known grandkids would be so much fun, I’d skipped straight over the kid part.

What has it been like seeing Houston grow?
    I’ve watched the whole thing grow out in this general area for the last 30 years. Now when you look back, you remember where things were but you have a hard time remembering what it looked like, if that makes sense. There used to be, in Jersey Village, a big rice mill over there and I know about where it was but now it’s hard to remember where exactly.

Are you in awe about how big it has gotten?
    Yeah, you look on the I-10 corridor and there used to be shopping centers over there that are totally gone because of the freeway expansion. You don’t think they have room to build something, but five years later, not only did they have room but they made it bigger than you ever expected.

What do you do away from work?
    Hobby-wise, my wife and I are really involved with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on the calf scramble committee and on the World Championship BBQ Committee, as well as being a director of the show. We stay involved with a couple of other charity events. We do one for the Navy Seal Foundation, and I show cutting horses. That keeps me busy too. Besides that, I try to get in some hunting, fishing and work. That’s about it. It keeps us busy.

Does Texas have the best BBQ in the country?
    Absolutely. Hands down. You go to other places in the country, and they have different styles. I cannot take anything away from them, as far as being good BBQ. I think Texas has the true definition of real BBQ.

Where does giving back stem from?
    I think it comes from growing up with not very much at all. My wife and I married very young so we know what it is like to not have enough food for the table that night. I think once you receive your blessings and the hard works pays off, then you start realizing you have to give back.

Can you think of a turning point where you realized that you were doing well enough to give back?
    About 2005 my wife and I, right after we opened up our company, started going to a new church and started a building campaign. Being involved in the church, watching it grow and the pastor challenging us on our tithing, I would think that would be the biggest turning point of our life.

What led to you starting your business in 2002?
    I worked for big corporate America and we were going into the best year we’ve ever had.  Then they decided they were going to change the compensation structure. American Fire is owned by three partners. One of my partners was in my ear 24/7 about us leaving and doing it ourselves. That was probably the biggest catalyst.

Are Cody Huff and Craig Branstetter still involved?
    Cody is our Operations Manager, and Craig is our Sales Manager.

When you started your business, Houston started to really grow. What was that like?
    We had thought about leaving six months earlier, and that is when 9/11 happened. The whole country shut down and everyone was worried about money and stock market. We decided it wasn’t a good time to do anything. Five months later, it was now or never. Timing-wise, we were blessed with a lot of work in Houston. We did great until 2009 and in 2012, we tripled in size. We haven’t looked backed since.

How hard is it to manage a company that is growing like that?

    It’s extremely hard. In 2007, we had some substantial growth over a two or three-month period. We were putting everyone we had to work. If you had a pulse, you went to work. We lost a ton of money over that time. We slowed down and went back to what we knew and tried to manage it. As we started growing in 2012-13, we were very intentional about hiring the right people and looking about what we needed tomorrow.

What was the biggest lesson you learned during that time?

    Take your time and hire the right people. That’s the single biggest piece of advice I could give to any company out there. Take your time in the hiring process, do multiple interviews and hire the right people for the job. In the horse industry, you don’t buy a cutting horse to use as a roping horse. You don’t buy a roping horse to be used as a barrel horse. You go buy a horse for what you need. Don’t hire someone who has good skills and mold them into something different. Hire the right person for the job.

How did you get involved in rodeo?
    My wife and I were calf scramble donors for several years, and I asked my committee representative if he could get me on the committee. I ended up getting on calf scramble and BBQ the same year. I just kind of worked my way up from there. Neither my wife nor I grew up around cattle or livestock. Being around the rodeo introduced us to people that were, and as a result, ended up buying horses of our own. We got into cutting horses, trail rides and that kind of stuff.

Now that you can look back, what was the biggest mistake that you made?

    I don’t really know. I made a lot, but every mistake is a chance to learn. Obviously, I try to look at the positive side, even though it may suck at times. If you lose money on a job, you learn how not to lose money on the next one. I don’t think there’s one mistake that stands out from the rest.

How important is attention to detail in your job because a mistake has potentially fatal consequences?
    Ours is not a comfort system or luxury. It’s a life safety system. We do different portions of the system. If any one piece of the system fails, it can be devastating, at that point. At the core, our base business is fire sprinklers, and it’s very critical that they be installed with the upmost attention to detail. They have to be perfect every time. There is no room for error. We actually have a couple of people that are dedicated to training and quality control. Our project managers are required to go out and survey the jobs on a regular basis to make sure they are getting installed right. From that prospective, there’s no room for shoddy work. I see plenty of it out there that we have to go back and fix. On the positive side of that, we get to learn from other people’s mistakes.

Are you mainly commercial?
    Yes, we do mainly multi-family and commercial projects. There is not a big call for single-family in the Texas market yet, just because of building codes and legislation. It’ll pick up in popularity.

Where do you see the business going in the future?

    We opened up our Austin office about 18 months ago and just opened up our Dallas office 30 days ago. Our goal is to try to cater to the customers that build across the region, as opposed to just the local customers. We want to try and build for the developers. We are trying to build a company that can do more work for that customer base. Our goals are customer service, at the end of the day. It’s what brings us business back. We want to try and do more work for the customers that we have.

As president of the Fire Sprinkler Contractors Association of Texas, you have members across the state. How do you get them all together for events?
    We are competitors but we have three major events across the state and the first one of the year is the Skins and Fins at Clear Lake. We do a fall golf tournament in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and all of the proceeds from that tournament go to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital. Last year, we raised right at $100,000 for the hospital. We do the Christmas banquet in San Antonio. We try to get the three major areas involved. The Christmas banquet is just a chance to get everyone together. The Skins and Fins is about the same thing, but we always weave in our vendor show, so that our suppliers can show us their new products in one area.
If you could have dinner with three people, who would you choose?

    That is a super easy one for me. My biggest heroes of all time have been my grandfather, my great uncle and my dad.

What would the conversation be like?
    We would just talk about everything that has happened since I haven’t been with them. All three of them were my best friends at certain parts of my life and at the same time. We would just catch up.

What would you serve?

    A big, thick Texas steak with just salt and pepper .–cs

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Author Info

Chris Schoonover chris@constructionnews.net