It was 1966, and John Downs had just graduated from college. His father Fred did all he could to talk him out of joining the family business, but John didn’t listen. Now, 48 years later, at age 69, he’s the man in charge at Dallas Plumbing & Air Conditioning Co., leading the company into its 110th anniversary.
“My father said it’s hard to mix family and business. It’s true in one sense, but you do have that family bond that ties you all together and keeps you here, whereas in another environment, that’s not family, you might not stay,” said John Downs, who took over the company when his father died in 1981.
Now, John runs the company of 95 employees with his brother, Mike, 54, vice president, new construction plumbing; and daughter, Cindy, who currently serves as vice president of human resources, waiting in the wings to take over once John heads to retirement. All four of his children work at the company.
“Our employees are our most important asset,” John Downs said. “We hope we’ve created a sense of family here. Of course, we have family involved, but we have other employees who have spanned more than one generation. The other key is customers. Our philosophy is the customer is always right, even when they’re wrong, and I think that’s served us well. And we have second- and third-generation customers.”
The company, which does about 35 percent of its work in the HVAC field, tries to be as flexible as possible.
“We do almost anything in plumbing and air conditioning — residential and commercial,” John Downs said. “Of course, service is a big part of our business. So we pretty much go with the market. The last few years, residential hasn’t been too good, so we’ve focused more on commercial. If that swings back, we’ll swing too.”
That flexibility has helped the company get through all sorts of economic hardships. Cindy Downs said economic uncertainty has been the company’s biggest challenge, but they try to shift directions in terms of what type of work the company bids on in order to avoid staffing reductions during economic downturns in certain markets, she said. They’ve made cutbacks wherever necessary, including bringing janitorial work in-house.
Staying in Tune
A big reason the company has been able to make it to 110 years is how the family members in the organization have learned to separate business principles from personal interactions.
In any family business, it can be easy for business matters to bleed into personal life, but John Downs has made it a priority to not let that happen. He recalled a time when he and his brother were discussing business at a family function and were scolded by their father. Since then, maintaining that separation has been essential.
“We make it an unwritten rule to stay away from the topic of work when we are together outside of the office,” said Cindy Downs. “This can be challenging, but someone always chimes in and says ‘no talking about work.’ We love and respect each other and try to have fun.
“Working with family can be challenging and definitely has its ups and downs. We see each other five days a week, so getting together for the holidays is not as exciting as it may be for families that don’t work together.”
Never Selling Out
While many attempts have been made, Downs and crew have resisted all outside offers to buy the company.
John Downs recalled one time, in the late 1960s — and again more recently — when the offer seemed too sweet to turn down.
“About 10-15 years ago, when all the roll-ups started, we were approached by just about every one of them, and we had serious discussions with a couple of them, but we just couldn’t do it,” he said. “We’ve been our own company for so long. When you lose a certain degree of control, you almost have to step out and away. We decided it just wasn’t a good idea for us.”
John Downs added that it was tempting to a certain extent, but all of the offers came in with cash and stock options, which wasn’t exactly lighting anyone’s world on fire.
“If someone came to us with all cash, I don’t know if we would’ve taken it or not, but we would’ve taken a closer look at the offers,” he said. “I’ve got acquaintances who have gotten caught up in some of the stock aspects and ended up buying their own companies back because it just didn’t work for them. At this point, I’m really glad we didn’t do anything, especially with the next generation coming up. We’re making a living for our family. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Next Generation
When John Downs does step away from the company, he is more than confident in the abilities of Mike and Cindy Downs to lead the business. He said, many years back, he never would’ve left for more than a week at a time. Now, he and his wife stay young by going on vacations for three or four weeks at a time, which he says has been great for him.
“I delegate a lot more now than I used to,” John Downs said. “With the fourth generation coming along and really grasping what we do, I don’t have to worry about much of anything. I have really great people, who happen to be family, and they’re doing the job very well, which takes a load off of me. I’m only working three days a week now; I’m kind of phasing myself out.”
Both Mike and Cindy Downs have both earned their keep.
Mike Downs started at the company immediately after graduating from Texas Tech in 1981. He began in the new construction department, doing paperwork, filing things, and anything else that needed to be done. Now, with that experience, he said, when the time comes to take over, it will be a little scary, but he knows he’s ready.
“I’ve been here long enough,” he said. “I know how things run here, and Cindy and I have been close for a long time; we get along very well. I don’t anticipate any problems.”
After filing paperwork all day long while in high school, Cindy Downs began working for the family business full time in the early 1990s.
“In 1991, I was working for a commercial contractor in San Diego and decided to move back to Texas,” she said. “I sent my résumé to my dad and asked for commercial contacts. At the time, there was an opening in our showroom. I don’t remember how long I thought about it. After all, I knew nothing about plumbing. My experience growing up was playing in the warehouse with my brothers on weekends while my dad worked, and filing that one long summer. I did accept the position and do not regret it at all.”
As Mike and Cindy Downs prepare to take over, they would like to increase sales in their service repair business by offering additional services in the next 5-10 years, and they would like to be a major source in the service and renovation market further down the line.
“We hope to have succeeded in expanding the services that we currently offer,” said Cindy Downs.
Make no mistake about it, everyone is more than pleased by the job John Downs has done since taking over the company, and appreciates the work he’s put in to have the company ready for the next generation.
“He took over when my father died, and it was tough for a while,” Mike Downs said. “He was young, I was really young, and we kind of learned as we went. He’s brought such great stability. He’s consistent — what you see is what you get with the guy. There’s no difficulty as far as dealing with him, no moodiness or anything like that.”
That passion has helped Dallas Plumbing find its way through many hard times that other companies succumbed to. Getting through those fairly unscathed is one of John Downs’ greatest accomplishments, he said, and it gives him hope the company will be around for another 110 years.
“We’re here after 110 years,” he said. “I’ve been here for almost half of that. You look around at our industry and you don’t see many companies that have been around for 110 years. I’ve had friends who have lost their businesses in these downturns, or had some extremely tough times. It wasn’t easy for us, but we’re here and we’re healthy, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Publication date: 5/19/2014