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Home | HOUSTON | Spotlight | Spotlight - Steve Williams, Houston Water Heaters

Spotlight - Steve Williams, Houston Water Heaters

image Steve Williams, Owner, Houston Water Heaters, Sugar Land, TX

HOUSTON - Steve Williams is two things (at the very least): a very hard worker and a very interesting person. He could give the Dos Equis man a run for his money. Williams started Houston Water Heaters about 10 years ago after a wild and crazy career in plumbing and just about everything else.




Where do you hail from and what was it like there?

    I’m from Port Arthur and went to school there. Janis Joplin was about 4-5 years ahead of me. Everybody knows her there. In fact, there’s a museum for her there now.  That’s Port Arthur’s claim to fame.
    My first job, I was 11 and working in the school cafeteria for my lunch. When we were 13/14, we were working on ships, mucking them out when they came in, to get the rust out of the bottom. We’d be breathing gasoline fumes like you wouldn’t believe. OSHA would not let you near that today, but we did it in those days. It’s amazing I still have lungs. Then we’d load the food on them for the trips. We’d skip school to do it.

What were your early career goals or experiences?

    Port Arthur was a refinery town. The formula was: you got out of school. You got a job at the refinery with someone you knew. You had to have a connection with someone who worked there. It was a union operation. So you got the job at the refinery. You got married and you had kids. And you stayed there until you retired 30 years later with the gold watch and a pension. And it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to wind up like that. I didn’t like the refineries; you could smell them for 30 miles away back then. And I wanted out of the town so I knew that was not my path.
    When I was in the ninth grade I was in Mr. Weldon’s science class. We had the windows opened (this was before air conditioning) and a garbage truck pulled out front. Guys hopped off and started emptying the cans. Mr. Weldon stopped what he was doing because it was noisy, and he said, “See this, boys? You stay in school and finish and get your diploma and you’ll never have to do that kind of work.” I noted that. I graduated in ’72. My first job out of high school, I was a garbage man. It’s ironic that was my first job. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. If we got our work done, we could go back to the shop and play dominos. But to do this, you’ve got to run to accomplish that. You’re flying just as fast as you could go. We’d fill that truck up twice. So it was hard, hard work in the hot summer. But it helped develop my work ethic.
    [The garbage collector job] was a necessity type of job that I drifted into accidently, and it became my future. I stayed on it for nine months.

After moving to Groves, Texas, what happened then?

    I met a guy who taught me plumbing while I worked for the city, and we would go to people’s houses, and if it wasn’t the city’s problem, we’d tell them we’d come back at lunch and do it on our time and charge $20, or whatever. That’s how I started learning plumbing; he was a pretty good plumber. He taught me how to talk to people. Often times we’d make more money at lunch than we did the whole day at the job.

Was there a problem doing this?
    It was known. It was overlooked because it didn’t interfere with our work.

How did your time working for the city of Groves go?
    I worked there five years and this plumber I worked with told me, “Steve, Get out of here. If you stay here another five years, you’ll never leave the city and you’ll be like me - 60 years old and still working here and it’s a dead end.” I took his advice and in ’78 I moved to Houston.

When you moved to Houston, that’s when you started working as a plumber?

    I considered myself a plumber. I got a job at Buckshot Plumbing with B.T. Harding. He had one eye and a patch over his eye like a pirate. It was my first real plumbing job. I was so excited - I got to take home a plumbing truck. I think I made $8 an hour. I quickly found out that I didn’t know diddly about plumbing. I had moved to the big city where there was real plumbing, and the little stuff I knew was nothing compared to what I needed to know. Nonetheless, I stuck with it and learned it and eventually got a plumbing license, then a master’s license. I hated plumbing; always have. I still do.

So why do plumbing?
    It’s been good to me. It’s paid the bills. I did it to make a paycheck. And I like people. There are two kinds of plumber: There is the construction plumber where they go to the same job every day, and I have done some of that, like St. Joseph’s Towers here in Houston. I was on the copper crew. I would solder pipe for eight hours a day, and it’s so boring you’d just want to kill yourself. The kind of work we did was service work, and when you do service work, which I love and did most of in my career. You go to people’s houses, or businesses, and they have an issue or problem and you have to solve it. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of detective work. It’s kind of fun; you get to travel the city and you’re never in the same place twice.

How was your sense of job satisfaction?
    I had a saying at the time, which I now reject, but thought at the time: You’re only as good as your last job. You can have a good job and leave the customer happy and your boss liked it and everything went well. Or, you can have a bad day and you would go home feeling that way. I have since learned that you’re the same person regardless of the job you had today.
Have you done anything strange while working as a plumber?
    I’ve done it all. I’ve gotten the diamond ring out of the bathtubs. I’ve gotten false teeth out of toilets. I was called to the Astrodome one night: an old man had vomited in a toilet and his teeth were in there and I had to get them out.
    I worked at Roto Rooter in the ‘70s. They had an actual dive suit and you could check it out if you needed to crawl under the houses that were on beams. When the sewer stopped up, it flooded underneath the house, and you had to crawl under there to get the cable in the line. And you’d check out the suit, zip it up and swim through the waste and do what you had to do to get the line open. It’s a tough life.
    I never was a big fan of plumbing, but it did what it had to do for me and I made the best of the situation I had.

Tell us about your other work experiences prior to Houston Water Heaters.
    I’ve been in business for myself since ’91. I had a company called Centerline Plumbing, and it was just me and a truck. I got laid off and only had $35 in the bank, but I had some friends in the business who pushed some work my way. Then I went to work for Lowe’s. That’s where I saw that the money was in the product, not in the labor. The big-ticket item at Lowe’s was water heaters. I decided one night to open a water heater company.

What was it like, starting your own company?

    It’s very difficult to tear yourself away from a safe place. Having a plumbing job and working for someone, then having your own business, is scary. I can’t deny it.

When did you start Houston Water Heaters?

    Early 2009.

How did you do when you first started?

    No one else had a strictly water heater company when I started. I was the first in Houston, and I think, in the country. The first year we did a half a million dollars. But we’re doing over two million a year now.

How is life now and what are your future plans?
    I started late in life with children. My youngest is 9 years old and I’m 65. I’m going to be dragging the stone for another 10 years at least, and I’m looking forward to it. As long as you have your health, you’re in good shape, and I do have my health right now. I’m in pretty good shape.
    I’m so blessed; my life couldn’t get any better. I’m old enough to retire; I could do it. But I love to work. I’d be bored to tears sitting home. I could go another 10 or 20 years. At some point, I’d like indulge the other side of my personality, which is the arts.  I like music and writing and reading. I’d like to be sitting on a beach somewhere with a book. 
    Houston Water Heaters sell and installs water heaters, with its headquarters in Sugar Land. -dsz

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Dan Zulli dan@constructionnews.net