BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff
Twenty-three years ago, David Williams joined Raven Mechanical in Houston as an apprentice. He’s now senior project manager and has no plans of ever leaving. Vice President Greg Larson was an apprentice 21 years ago when Bill Jones, president of then three-year-old Raven Mechanical, was his instructor. Jones got Larson to join him.
Then there’s air conditioning technician Bill Halpin who has been with Raven for 20 years. Office Manager Hayley Sweeten has been there 15 years, shortly after graduating high school, and Senior Estimator Peyton Hill has been there nine years.
“It just feels comfortable, like working with your brothers,” says Foreman Jimmy Meshell, and that may be truer for him than others since General Superintendent Mike Meshell has been with Raven for 21 years.
Because of the family atmosphere and the outstanding team assembled by Bill and Patty Jones and the professionalism with which it conducts its business, Raven Mechanical LP is our Mechanical Contractor of the Year.
That longevity doesn’t count Patty Jones who has been at Bill’s side at Raven since they opened the doors Oct. 15, 1979, or sons Raymond and Stephen who have worked at Raven the equivalent of 15 years, although both have helped out in some capacity since the company started when they were 8 and 11.
“Patty and Bill are unique,” Larson says. “Bill cares about individuals more than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Hill worked as a lead plumber for four years when he told Bill Jones that he wanted more challenges. Jones brought Hill into the office and taught him estimating and provided additional training such as HVAC classes. The Jones’ efforts to make all their employees better through such opportunities for training is one way they respect their people, Hill says.
Bill and Patty Jones make their employees feel a part of decision-making, Hill says; there are no closed doors and everything is discussed. They’ll help with personal problems and offer advice like a parent. That doesn’t mean, however, that employees are not held accountable, Hill adds. If there’s a problem, Bill Jones will hold your feet to the fire.
Raven is more than a big, happy family — it’s also highly professional. The company mantra is safety, quality, quantity.
“When Raven walks onto a job, the [general] contractor has a sense of security,” Hill says.
At the construction site for St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Pearland, Texas, Ron Slavin, superintendent for general contractor Fretz Construction, recounts that the plumbing inspector said that Raven’s plumbing rough-in was so good that he wasn’t going to worry about the plumbing on that job.
“Raven responds quicker than anybody else,” Larson says. “We had clients on a fast-track job call on a Wednesday and said that they got the permit. They asked, ‘Can you be here tomorrow?’”
The driving forces
Raven Mechanical is what it is because of the unique talents and personalities of Bill and Patty Jones.
He was born 57 years ago in Rusk, Texas, the same town where his father had been born. His family moved to Sweetwater and lived there until Bill was 5 or 6, and he considers himself to have been raised in Odessa. He moved to Houston at age 15.
Both Bill and Patty Jones grew up poor; they married when she was 18 and he was 19. Bill was an unfocused apprentice at the time, but he went to the top of his class and he says that Patty was the reason.
She recently had graduated from high school when she met Bill. She figured that she would just be a stay-at-home mom, but she knew they would always have a good quality of life because they were willing to do whatever was necessary. Bill Jones recalls that they were able to save $1,000 that first year even though he was making about $90 a week.
When Bill decided that he wanted to open his own company, Patty says she was scared. Bill had a steady job and they had a good home in a nice neighborhood. Bill told his boss he was quitting and he was too honorable to solicit any of his employer’s customers. Patty says the billings for their first month in business were about $100, although Bill recalls that it was about $65 for a single service call.
His sons will tell you that up until the ’90s Raven was all Bill Jones, but Bill was too modest to call it Bill Jones Mechanical. He knew a year before he went in business that it would be Raven as in Raymond and Stephen.
The perfect merger
This was a perfect merger of two smart, talented and determined people. Even as a young journeyman, Bill not only knew the mechanics of the trade, but he could estimate, bid, buyout and manage a project. Patty knew that a customer’s first impression of Raven would be over the phone or through the mail, so she took on that task and spent time retyping correspondence to make sure it was perfect. (Raymond recalls that his first job at age 11 was stuffing envelopes with letters announcing Raven’s formation.)
Raven has had its stumbles along the way in terms of people, projects or operating procedures, but the company has done everything it can to maximize its opportunities for success.
Raven performs commercial construction all over the Houston metropolitan area. It focuses on projects that require a certain amount of expertise including new school construction and medical office buildings. It also establishes relationships with trade partners, such as Fretz Construction. Fretz has been building churches in Houston for 75 years, and Raven performs almost all its mechanical work.
Raven also has a special projects department that performs short-term jobs and warranty work. Most of its work is in medical office buildings, says department head Ray Oswalt, because that requires expertise competitors don’t have.
Stephen Jones says that his father always brings 110% to everything he does and that the company micromanages its projects, a reflection of Bill’s drive to do things right. Consequently, over the last 20-some years, the company has developed a series of checklists for its field people so that little is left to chance.
It begins with a six-page pre-planning meeting checklist. (Stephen says he’s seen plenty of subcontractors drive up to a job with no clear idea about what they’re supposed to do.) The checklist includes contact information for everybody, including the nearest hospital. It covers the general scope of work, Raven’s scope of work, materials, plans and specs, drawings, pre-fab items, the schedule, major vendors, subcontractors, who the inspectors are, procedures for changes and a list of other checklists. One important list recaps all the relevant documents the foreman will need, from his below-slab tool list to close-out documents and O&Ms.
A groundwork checklist includes 16 items, such as all risers capped, all risers staked, water test on, spot backfilled and so on.
A lengthy top-out checklist covers more than 30 items, including testing of all systems. It covers all those little details that could cause problems down the line, such as nail plates on, water closet carrier nipple correct length and hangers sized properly for insulation.
A fixture checklist covers 18 items such as flush valve heights, aerators cleaned and wall cleanouts on.
Foremen are required to fill out a daily job log that is a duplicate carbonless form. The job log covers most common occurrences, including crewing for Raven and the subcontractors, equipment rental, deliveries, milestones, delays, inspections, changes, safety and thefts.
A walk through the company’s jobsites shows that thoroughness with everything perfectly square and with textbook joints.
The company has also maximized its opportunities for success with its participation in trade associations. Raven is active in Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors ¯ National Association and a member of its Construction Contractors Alliance. Bill Jones has served on the board of the Houston chapter of Associated General Contractors, and the company belongs to Air Conditioning Contractors of America and Associated Builders and Contractors.
The company, and Patty in particular, has used all the knowledge available from those associations. Bill notes that Patty was on the verge of becoming an interior designer, a talent she still displays in their home. Although she may be the arty type, through the years she’s acquired the knowledge of somebody with a degree in finance or a CPA.
She has help from Office Manager Hayley Sweeten and the payables and receivables clerks. She also recently farmed out the trade payroll to a service. She personally handles insurance, bonding, monthly and annual financial statements, payroll for the office staff, OSHA compliance, human resources, profit sharing and contract language. She uses a CPA, who, she says, has taught her a lot, and a labor attorney drafted the company’s personnel policy manual.
A word about that profit sharing. Bill says that 2003 was a tough year and he actually went around apologizing to people because he was only able to put $750,000 into the profit sharing fund for Raven’s current payroll of a few more than 110 people. Most years it’s a $1 million or more.
Raven will have revenues of about $17 million for 2003. The firm typically bills $20 million or more with as many as 150 employees.
The company has gotten its family atmosphere from Patty, Bill says. She notes that everybody in the company has shared the marriages and divorces, adoptions and lots of babies. She cries when she recalls difficult times that employees and their families have experienced.
Growing up poor makes you compassionate and aware of other aspects of life, she says, and it reminds you that there’s more to life than money. It also shows, however, that there’s no excuse for not living up to your potential.
New management team
Bill and Patty plan to ease out of the company in three years when Bill turns 60. He is the kind of guy who might have become national president of PHCC if he pursued it, but says he’s not interested. A few years ago Bill bought 160 acres north of Houston where he raises cattle. And after all these years, the two of them would rather spend time with each other as much as anything else.
They’ll turn the company over to Greg Larson, Raymond and Stephen, along with key employees such as Williams, Hill and Sweeten.
Larson is qualified to do plumbing on the space shuttle. In addition to being a welder and having his master plumber’s license, he’s also certified to work on jet engines. Larson dabbled in aircraft mechanics when he became bored in the field. Bill sensed that and brought him into the office and taught him estimating and project management.
Ray enjoyed attending the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he graduated with a degree in management, but he said he was eager to get into the real world. He also took courses in economics, philosophy and theology.
Ray sees the company as a combination of a small town and a large family. He regards everybody there as his cousins. The problem is, he notes, just like family, they don’t cut each other any slack. Bill, in particular, will never let his boys coast.
A leader, Ray says, creates a good management team by setting everybody up for success, which is what Bill has done.
“The company is a monster,” Ray says his dad has told him. “You have to keep it fed and shackled.”
Stephen went to college for two years and says he hated it. He has the same type of passion for contracting that his father has and can do anything in the field. He’s a master plumber, he has a medical gas license, and he holds a Class A Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Combination License.
Bill and Patty know that the next generation will change things and that’s OK. Bill knows that his management team will be good because he picked them and trained them. He’s told his sons that his semi-retirement will be good for the company.
“At the end of the day, you have to look at yourself in the mirror,” Stephen says, “and know that you were honest, and that you’ve treated your people properly, and you’ve been upfront with people.”