Plumbing isn’t an easy business to revolutionize. Historically, the construction industry has been slow to adopt new technologies and innovate compared to other sectors. While other industries have been transformed by breakthroughs in data analytics, AI and the Internet of Things, the construction sector has been hesitant, in many cases, to embrace these advances. As a result, it has missed opportunities for improved productivity.
However, this is not the case with Williams Plumbing and Heating, a staple of Montana’s Gallatin Valley for more than four decades. The company has been extremely successful integrating advanced tools and software so its construction projects can be better visualized, planned and managed to reduce errors and unexpected costs.
Working on some of the largest projects in the state of Montana, while also being one of the state’s largest employers, Williams, headquartered in Belgrade, with locations in Big Sky, Billings and Missoula, is a forward-thinking company, dead-set on modernizing the old-school stereotype of the industry.
Williams recently completed construction of its brand-new flagship facility. Combining a high-tech fabrication center with engineering workstations, team gathering rooms and an in-house learning center, Williams’ new headquarters is a state-of-the-art plumbing and fabrication facility. Walking through the halls, you’ll notice full conference rooms, engineers editing three-dimensional construction models, and master fabricators operating robotic welders and plasma tables. The entire facility is run on a cutting-edge, renewable geothermal energy system that controls the temperature of the building with the heat of the Earth 300 feet below its foundation. It’s not your grandfather’s plumbing facility.
But before all of this, Williams actually began life as a more classic plumbing company.
History of Williams
Ken Williams, who is currently the company’s chairman of the board, founded his business in 1979, with just a single employee: himself. He wanted to provide residents of the Gallatin Valley and beyond with quality plumbing and heating services, while retaining an emphasis on relationship-building with clients.
By 1981, Ken had grown the fledgling business to a four-man team, with a small compound containing an office and workspace in Bozeman’s cannery district, and a few brown Datsun pickups.
While Williams Plumbing and Heating started working solely in the residential sphere, they expanded quickly, incorporating in 1984. Over the next few years those nondescript Datsun pickups became instantly recognizable in the area. By the early 1990s, Williams was getting a lot of demand for commercial-scale projects, leading Ken to begin forming the necessary elements for a commercial division of the business.
By the early 2000s, Williams had become one of the largest companies in the Gallatin Valley. But the real legacy of Ken’s company wasn’t just about growth in good times. Williams Plumbing soon got plenty of opportunities to prove their commitment to their community and their care for their employees.
While the Great Recession of 2008 was tough for everyone, it was especially bad for the contractors and the building market. As the recession took hold, many homeowners and businesses faced severe financial constraints, leading to reduced demand for plumbing and heating services. Developments were put on hold, and consumers were tightening their belts, leading to a significant drop in new projects.
Commercial Pays Off
Williams’ earlier decision to double-down on commercial projects suddenly paid off more than they could ever have dreamed. While other businesses were laying off their employees en masse, Williams uncovered an opportunity to support an oil and natural gas boom in North Dakota and expanded their geographic footprint.
Before long, the company had 45 full-time employees based out of Wilson, N.D., one of the epicenters of the Bakken Boom. Current employees at Williams credit the salvation of the company to this quick pivot, along with all the jobs that Ken was able to save.
“Ken was able to pull us all through with pure grit,” says Mark Watkins, director of sales at Williams. “He has always felt that his primary responsibility is to his employees and their families. If the company hadn’t made it, a whole lot of people in our community would have had a much harder time of it.”
Having ridden out the intense economic instability of the Great Recession, Ken and his team felt strong.
“If we could weather that, we could weather just about anything,” Mark adds. As it turned out, they wouldn’t have to wait too long for another opportunity to prove their loyalty to their employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an entirely new set of challenges. Right from the beginning, Ken and his son, Quin, president and CEO of Williams, committed to significant investment for the safety of the employees, while also ensuring that the company could continue to function.
Being designated as essential workers during the pandemic meant that Williams employees could continue to work, but Ken and Quin knew that they had a responsibility to make sure that their employees were also safe. So, they sat down and wrote a COVID response plan that was so well designed that it was later adopted by the Montana Contractors Association.
The company required their employees to limit contact to a single partner of their choosing as much as they possibly could, in order to slow the spread of infection through the company. They developed an app for contact tracing and instituted mandatory daily meetings of management for each project site, to continuously monitor conditions on the ground. Then, they bought “an ungodly number of used pickup trucks” to allow each two-man team to drive to the sites without cross-contamination.
The twin challenges of the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic built Williams into the company that it is today. But Williams’ success has also come from great business direction choices that have led it to further enhancements to plumbing, HVAC, engineering and civil construction.
Williams believes in a more cohesive design-build approach to project delivery complemented by off-site fabrication, which seamlessly integrates design and construction processes under a single contract and entity. The method is well-known for streamlining project timelines, as the collaboration begins from the onset, reducing the chances of design alterations during the construction phase.
By sharing information across departments, Williams utilizes the feedback from its field team to close the gap between design and construction. The goal is to make the installation go as smoothly as possible, so they not only design with fabrication in mind, but also provide more detailed drawings that help to reduce the work of the contractor. Once design and coordination are complete, all the parts are fabricated in their new headquarters facility. Quin compares this process to “designing and then fabricating a LEGO set.”
First, Williams engineers design the system and model the component parts virtually. Once the model is coordinated with other trades, it is split into assemblies and formatted into individual spools (similar to a single page of Lego instructions). Then, the digital instructions are sent to the equipment and their fabricators turn raw materials into custom-made parts, folding sheets of metal into entire HVAC systems, cutting PVC piping to exact specifications, and welding steel into complex shapes. The pieces for each project are staged together, and then shipped off to the worksite. This means that when Williams sends a team out to install on a project, all of the components that they need to complete that project are fabricated, organized, and prepped to go into the building before they even set foot on the worksite.
The approach saves a tremendous amount of time and avoids some of the most common delay-causing problems in construction such as inclement weather, quality control, supply chain issues, lack of stock, and component part assembly. They’re even able to fabricate entire mechanical rooms for large projects at its headquarters, allowing a crane to later drop the finished modular room into the building, all ready to be hooked up and turned on. This workflow greatly reduces construction delays.
On the civil construction side, when Williams takes on a project, they scan the future building site with LIDAR-enabled drones that create a virtual map of the landscape. This eliminates the need for extensive surveying, and allows their team to plan the entire project from their computers back at headquarters. Once the project is planned, that virtual model is loaded into their heavy equipment where the automated machine control builds it to exact specs.
Incorporating innovation and high-tech solutions into the construction industry is not only just good for productivity and business. It’s also great for encouraging new talent to join the field.
Williams focuses on advocating for future generations of plumbers to take up the mantle. The company created the Williams Academy in order to train its employees and teach students construction courses. They have strong relationships with local high schools and middle schools to promote the careers of plumbing, construction, and fabrication to kids considering their career choices.
Williams has been successful at scaling its business and thriving throughout the biggest downturns in the last 50 years. They are leading its market with off-site manufacturing workflows, while also coordinating with partners to get plumbing, HVAC and hydronics done in days instead of months.
But all of these successes wouldn’t have been possible if Williams Plumbing and Heating hadn’t been built on such a solid foundation to its commitment to its employees and fostering an innovative attitude.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We made some editing changes to this story, which was originally published in Western Home Journal.