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40 Years In The Pipeline

Viewed one way, a person could draw a straight line from where Sam Dowdy began his career, through the 40 years he and his wife, Rhonda, the company’s CEO, shepherded S&D Plumbing, to today.

Along that line, an observer would see this credo again and again: leverage the trades to improve lives and leave the world a better place than they found it.

“One day my mom wakes me up and said, ‘you’re going to go to work today working for a plumber’,” he remembered. “I was 15. I showed up on the job site and there was this short Italian guy …really a nice guy. I loved working for him. He took me in and taught me the trade and my world changed.”One reason his life changed that day is that the Galveston school district had an Industrial Trades program. Dowdy said the program allowed him to keep working as a plumber from the summer of his sophomore year through the rest of his high school career.

“My boss was a union plumber,” he said. “All the hours I put in in high school went towards my union training. When I graduated from high school, they gave me two years of credit for a four-year union apprenticeship. It propelled me through my training because everything I was doing had value.”Dowdy leveraged that training into a career, but it was Rhonda who wrestled it into a successful business.

“I knew to account,” she said. “I could take care of the details, so we just combined skills …we were young and there were a lot of hard knocks to come over the next 40 years but we always remained a team. We never gave up.”

“I knew how to go put plumbing in the ground or in a building and Rhonda knew how to collect the money and write the checks,” Sam remembered. That teamwork — along with core values like a commitment to quality and grooming employees for a better life — kept the couple grounded and moving forward.

About 25 years ago, the Dowdy’s followed a line to Taylor to get a permit for a commercial job and realized that the community was a fertile field — there was only one plumber in town.“I thought, I can be a plumber anywhere,” he said. So, he and Rhonda packed up and moved to Taylor, opening their first brick-and-mortar storefront.“That made it real,” said Rhonda.

They lived in that shop for a while — Sam, Rhonda, and four kids.

“In the early days, it was really tough,” she said. “There were ebbs and flows in the business, but we never put the business ahead of our family. We were baseball coaches, basketball coaches. Always there.”

She noted that the majority of S&D’s growth began when they moved to Taylor.

She said that S&D was a company of 10-15 at the time. Even after Sam, Jr., the couple’s eldest son, split off the commercial plumbing business several years ago, the residential arm runs 25 trucks and employs about 40 people today.

Even as they worked to provide opportunities for their high-achieving employees, she said they have also worked very hard to keep the business in the family.

“Our family is founded in the trades,” she said. “The majority of the kids are working in the trades or associated with the family business. Everyone is working as a technician or has an apprentice card.”

She said that it is important to them that family members earn their way through the trades but also that they learn — and even teach.“In order to have a business for 40 years and remain relevant, you have to change with the times,” she said. “Sam is still our visionary but, we kept the business in the family and the new generation started pushing us to come up with new ideas.”

Those new ideas included things like inventory reduction, inviting women into the trades, and paperless billing.“That really changed our lives,” Rhonda said.

“As I’ve stepped back to pursue other things, Rhonda and the women here are becoming more and more recognized,” said Dowdy.“Plumbing is a male-dominated field but, also, plumbers are aging out,” said Rhonda, who has led the company since Dowdy stepped away from the day-to-day management of the company. “There is so much opportunity out there. More and more, I want to attract women. We want to provide opportunity … not just jobs but careers.”

“Women have been overlooked,” said Dowdy. “That’s a mistake, and an opportunity for everybody.”And, while the next chapter looks to cement the couple’s core value of improving lives and leaving the world a better place, no line can be truly straight. There are always unexpected twists and turns along the way — tragedy, economic downturns, disappointments — that help shape the journey. Dowdy’s oldest daughter lost her life in an accident about 20 years ago, a tragedy that applied powerful torque to his trajectory.

! It used to be businesses was business and I’d come in and get things done and I’d get paid and if someone didn’t pay … well, the fight was on,” he said. “I re-evaluated my life and realized that it can’t be about money. It must be about relationships. That is something that my daughter reminded me of. She was all about touch and hugging and, uh, that just wasn’t my nature.”

Here is where the line transforms into a pipeline, and how Dowdy bent that line to turn one of his core business beliefs into something broader.HB 5 — a state law passed in 2013 that encouraged school districts to re-introduce industrial trades into the curriculum — had just been signed into law and, according to Dowdy, it was new thinking of an old way. But the question was this: “How are we gonna introduce this back into the school system?” I called Tommy Hooker over at Thrall and said I just need two, three kids who love to work with their hands, and don’t really have the interest in going to college … doesn’t see themselves there. Give them to me and let me give them a chance to see what the plumbing world is. What is the worst that can happen? There’s no damage that can occur just by introducing somebody to the trade.”

He said his first graduate finished the Plumbing Pipeline Program in two years and left high school making $40,000 a year. Once he completed his apprenticeship, that student brought in $70,000.

“Not only are plumbers and electricians aging out, but this kind of training can also lead someone to make a very good living,” Dowdy said. “A good plumber right now has the opportunity to make six figures a year. It’s a very valuable trade.”

Dowdy said that there is a disconnect. Some schools will accommodate trade education but too few work with the student to achieve a common goal.“That’s what I’m trying to connect with the schools, to get them to understand that just teaching to a certification will only help the school,” he said. “It’ll give the student a look into a career path but, if you get a student who has a real interest and wants to pursue it, why don’t you give that student an actual pathway so that he or she can enter a four-year program they can start when they are 16 years old?”Despite institutional inertia, the Dowdy family has kept that pipeline open and has plans to expand it.

“I’ve reached the point that I’m tired of explaining things to people and waiting for them to do something,” Dowdy said. “Instead, I’m going to change the Plumbing Pipeline Program and turn it into an academy.”

Dowdy recently bought about seven acres at the corner of Carlos G. Parker Loop and Mallard Lane in Taylor. On that land, Dowdy will build a complex centered around the trades. He said S&D Plumbing will be the anchor and he expects to add HV/AC to the company’s list of services. Along the way, Rhonda said the company expects to double the size of its team.

That will also be the basis for the academy.

“We want to create a school for plumbing and air-conditioning,” Dowdy said. “We want to partner with the local schools and recruit kids who want to get into the trades. We can provide a full education but want to take it a little bit further. We want to teach entrepreneurship and leadership. How to write a business plan. How to be a professional and run a successful business.”

Throughout the complex, there will be space for other trades-oriented businesses — welding, electrical, anything that revolves around the trades — as well as office space and some retail.

“This will be very intentional,” he said.

He said he will invite other small businesses to support the complex: a coffee shop, restaurants, cleaners, perhaps a barbershop, creating a different sort of opportunity for local entrepreneurs.

Opportunity is a line that wraps around the couple’s core values and draws them to leave the world a better place than they found it.“If we can grab a kid early and teach them how to be a professional the way I was taught to be a professional, then we can better the trade. You can also better that child’s life and, if you take it further, you can literally change a path of generational poverty just by affecting one kid’s life. That’s the kind of legacy we want to leave.”

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