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Home | SAN ANTONIO | Spotlight | Spotlight – Rick Watson, President, Surmac, Inc.

Spotlight – Rick Watson, President, Surmac, Inc.

image Rick Watson has taken on some very unique jobs since he founded Surmac in 2003, and he plans to continue taking on problem solving projects across the country for years to come.

SAN ANTONIO – At 66 years old, Rick Watson shows no signs of slowing down, and neither does the company he established more than a decade ago, Surmac Inc.

    The specialty contractor’s business is doubling every year, and its business model affords it a recession-resistant edge with many niches to sustain itself. The company’s first concrete repair job earned an award from the International Concrete Repair Institute.
    At the average retirement age, Watson is constantly traveling all over the country for Surmac’s variety of projects, because he truly enjoys his job.

Where did you grow up?
    I was born in Columbus, GA and moved to Texas in 1957, and then San Antonio in ’59. Except for one stint of about 15 years where I lived in Houston, I’ve lived here ever since.

Why did you move around so much before settling in Texas?
    My dad worked for Red McCombs on the car dealership side. So, we moved every year or two. I guess we were looking for a good place to live, depending on the economy and how it was, going where we could afford to live.

Tell me about going to school in Texas.
    I was in the first class to graduate from Churchill High School. Previously, I had gone to both Lee and MacArthur. When Churchill opened, we were given a choice to go our senior year.
    After high school, I attended West Texas State University in Canyon near Amarillo. I never finished. I was up there through my junior year and then I moved back to San Antonio and went to work in the painting business.

Why did you start out in painting?
    In college, we used that as a means to supplement our income, painting houses on the weekends, and it was very enjoyable. So, when I got back, two of my friends and I formed a partnership and started a painting company in San Antonio.
    Over the years, through our connections back then, we actually grew the business very large very quickly. And then we split up back in the mid ‘70s. Each of us went different directions, and I went into the high-pressure water jetting end of the business. I did that for many years.

Tell me more about that.
    I brought the process of high-pressure water cleaning to San Antonio back in the early ‘70s, and that was before pressure washers. I started introducing that business to the people here in San Antonio, cleaning buildings. Doing industrial work led off of that and morphed into a marine division.
    We had contracts in Houston cleaning cargo ships with water blasting when they would come into port to change cargo. Then, that morphed into cleaning airport runways. I had connected with Robert White, cleaning the airport here in San Antonio. He and I became friends, and I worked for him on and off for several years and eventually bought his company when he got sick.
    We traveled around the United States cleaning airport runways for years. We actually brought about the original process of how to remove the rubber from the airport runways.
    Then, during my time living in Houston, I met an old-time waterproofing contractor and hired him, and our business suddenly took a turn into the waterproofing area. So, we had that and high-pressure water cleaning going at the same time. We were very successful with that in Houston.

What brought you back to the San Antonio area?
    My wife, Elaine, is an attorney, and she had her practice over in Houston, doing very large class action environmental lawsuits. And basically, one day, she came in and said, “We don’t live in Houston anymore. We live in San Marcos now.” [Laughs.] That was in 2000.

Is she still in environmental law?
    No, she retired. She’s just taking it easy in Wimberly where we live now. She’s gotten into hypnotherapy for pain management, helping people with post-traumatic stress and things like that. She’s doing that to keep herself occupied. She’s still a young woman.
    Her law practice just burned her out completely. On her last case, she had about 20,000 clients. It was a big case in Bryan. She retired as soon as she settled that case around 2000. She said, “No more Houston.” Working all those years was so stressful on her that she didn’t want to do it anymore. So, we came up here and bought a house in San Marcos, and then eventually, we moved over to Wimberly back in 2003, and we’ve lived there ever since.

How did you meet your wife?
    She was a friend of my dad’s wife at the time, my stepmother, and we met about 45 years ago. She was still in high school, and I had just come home from college, and I saw her over at my dad’s house one night. Of course, my dad warned her not to go out with me, that I was trouble. Of course, that just made her want to go out with me more [laughs]. It actually worked out really well. It’s been a great partnership. This December will be our 40th anniversary.

What do you like to do together?
    We like to travel. We’ll drive to California, to Georgia where I’m from, to Tennessee. We just went on a cruise recently – first cruise I’ve ever been on – and we went down to the Caribbean for a week. We’re planning to go on a river barge cruise in Europe this year for our 40th anniversary.
    Also, we were married at Trinity University where she was going to school, and we had our reception at the St. Anthony Hotel. Coincidentally, Surmac has been working on the renovation of the St. Anthony for the last three years – we did all the exterior renovation and we’re building the pool decks and the cabanas – and my wife and I are thinking about having another party there because it should be open by our anniversary.

Do you and Elaine have any children?
    We have a son, James, who is in the business. He does our website and handles our technical stuff, and about two weeks ago, he just had twin babies, Jayce and Brodie.

Did you move to Wimberly the same year you founded Surmac?
    Yes, Surmac came about in 2003 when we consolidated.
    I was very apprehensive about moving back to San Antonio after living in the fast pace of Houston and the opportunities that were there, but through a stroke of luck and a really great string of events, things changed beyond my expectations of what I ever thought it could be.
    I had my shop in San Antonio and lived in San Marcos. I hired a salesman named Art Dresch, who helped us change the direction of the company into industrial repairs, concrete repairs. Then, through him, by a chance encounter, we got into the hotel restoration business.
    As we were changing directions, we decided to form a new entity to better encompass all the different things we were doing. We’ve become more of a problem solving company, specializing in solving problems related to concrete failure, water penetration – we still do a lot of coating work.
    But we’ve morphed this into a nationwide business. I’ve always called it “the sleeping giant.” A lot of people around here – even our peers in the business – don’t know of us. We don’t solicit work as most of the companies do here. All of our work is basically word of mouth.
    We work in all 50 states. Today, we’re in Boston, Palm Beach, Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle and Indianapolis. We’re managing a nationwide business from a single location.

Are you planning to retire soon?
    I feel that we’re really just hitting our stride. At a time when most people are retiring, we’re expanding. I have no plans to retire at all. I’m looking for more things to get into and more things to do. We just bought a new warehouse. We’re moving into a much bigger space. We’ve outgrown this location. It’s actually developed far beyond anything I ever imagined it would.

What’s your favorite part of what you do?
    The satisfaction of solving problems. We’re usually called in when people have given up or cannot find a solution for a particular problem, and we’ll get the call.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
    Probably the biggest challenge is convincing people that we could solve their problems through sometimes unorthodox methods. And persistence has paid off on that.

What do you count as your greatest accomplishments?
    Probably the best thing that I ever did was to meet my wife. When my son was born was obviously a very happy, proud time.
    The other things are job-related. Some of the jobs that we’ve been involved in – I was very proud that we could get projects like that. Working as a consultant on the Saturn V rocket restoration, and then participating in the Titanic restoration, doing work at the Playboy Mansion – those were probably some work-related highlights.

Is there anything you would like to say?
    I owe a lot to a lot of people. Our success is due to having employees who have been with me – some of them almost 30 years. I’ve had a lot of help from different people that have given us advice and guidance and kept us on track throughout our careers. –mh


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Mary Hazlett mary@constructionnews.net