Bill Howe Builds Plumbing Empire

It's all about treating customers like family for San Diego contractor celebrating 35 years in business.
Bill Howe Builds Plumbing Empire
The management team at the Bill Howe Family of Companies includes (from left) General Manager Bill Haws, President/CEO Bill Howe, Vice President Tina Howe, Operations Manager Amber Baynard and Chief Technical Officer Mark Card.

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Bill Howe likes creating businesses, and that’s exactly what the entrepreneur has done. 

The owner of the Bill Howe Family of Companies in San Diego celebrates 35 years in business this year — as head of the $20 million company with plumbing, heating/air conditioning and flood/restoration divisions. And, at 63, when some might be thinking about retiring, Howe is already planning his next business venture — solar installation. 

“I’ll never retire,” says Howe, an engaged owner who can be seen touting his company’s services on YouTube. 

He went to college on the GI bill and dug ditches on the side, but instead of graduating, Howe created an empire in a city teeming with competitors as well as business prospects. 

With only one location in San Diego, Howe’s company employs about 150 and focuses primarily (about 80 percent) on residential jobs. His services include drain cleaning, hydro jetting, sewer and drain relining, water heater installation, gas line repairs/replacements, slab leak location and repair, HVAC repair and installation, and water damage/mold remediation and reconstruction. 

The company fields about 8,000 calls per month. And Howe feels lucky to work alongside his wife, Tina Howe.  She was the company’s first customer service representative/dispatcher and continues to be the driving force behind the business’ growth. She now serves as vice president and has received multiple local awards for Women in Business! Three of his five daughters and many of his extended family also work for the company.  


Modest Beginnings

“I just wanted to survive and have five, six, maybe 10 trucks one day,” says Howe. The company now has more than 80 vehicles (mostly Chevrolets) across three divisions. They also own about 20 cameras and have five jetters in service at all times. Howe relies on equipment from U.S. Jetting, Ridgid Tool and Milwaukee Tool. 

His company began modestly as a one-truck operation headquartered out of a studio apartment in the local beach community. Howe — one of 14 siblings — grew up in Chicago and attended college in Los Angeles, where he started doing plumbing work. In 1980, he and his father Bill Howe Sr. opened the plumbing company as AM/PM Sewer & Drain, so named because it would be the first in the phone book. 

When they started, it was just the two of them; his dad did the books as he ran service calls 24/7. “I didn’t make any money for like 15 years,” Howe says. “The first time we hit $1,400 in a month, I thought we were doing well.” 

In 1985, the company incorporated as Bill Howe Plumbing. They opened the HVAC and restoration divisions in 2007 and 2009. Now with his three very active companies, Howe is getting some major recognition, not only from customers but from the industry as well. In 2011, he was named Contractor of the Year by the Plumbing, Heating & Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC) and Delta Faucet, and also received that title in 2013 from Contractor Magazine. 

He chalks up his awards and customer service accolades to three small, but powerful, words, “Just be honest.” Howe says it is the most important aspect of retaining business. 

Having loyal customers breeds word-of-mouth advertising, which Howe says is very important in the San Diego market. It also creates repeat customers, which make up almost 90 percent of his business. “My customers are very loyal, and I’m loyal to them.” That’s important, he says, because “when you go to somebody’s home, you want them to be able to trust you to take care of them like family.” 

In the mid-2000s when the recession hit, Howe took a risky approach to remaining successful — and actually gaining customers. He cut his advertising and mailed out a flier to customers offering free drain cleaning for two years. People were skeptical. “The competition hated me for it,” Howe says.

He was told he would lose money, but Howe’s bet paid off. As a result, he kept his customer base loyal and helped them — and the business — through the hard economic times. Revenues have steadily risen by 10 percent each year for the last decade. 

“There’s plenty of competition,” Howe admits, “but there’s plenty of business.”


A Catchy Tune

The most memorable way Howe reaches potential customers is with his jingle. Years ago, Howe used primarily print advertising, but he kept getting hassled by follow-up calls from salesmen. So he tried a different route. “I got lucky and met someone who was in advertising,” he says. His friend said he should consider a song, a jingle for his company. He hired a local songwriter for $5,000, and ended up with the “Bill Howe Plumbing, because we know how” jingle, which can also be heard on his YouTube videos. 

The name recognition has proven huge for Howe, especially since the song sticks in people’s mind. “Even my competition’s kids sing it,” he laughs. 

Advertising remains a key part of building the Bill Howe brand; he focuses efforts across all mediums including online, social media, direct marketing, and the highly recognizable branded vehicles, but television and radio ads remain the most prominent. 

Today, of his three businesses, plumbing is Howe’s largest division (which includes the residential and commercial drain lining division that has grown exponentially in the past decade). Bill Howe Heating & Air and Bill Howe Restoration & Flood Services each bring in about $3.5 million in revenue annually, and this spring, he’s planning on adding solar installation. He envisions solar becoming another big part of the business. “I can get it going, but I’ll leave it to my managers to take it to the next level,” says Howe, who still comes in every day at 7 a.m. to look at the books and assess the day’s workload. 

 “I’ll sit in on some of the meetings and add my input, but [my team] runs the company now,” he says. 

When he’s not overseeing the company, he’s golfing, exercising or traveling back to his wife’s homeland, Great Britain. 

But Howe is confident that after 35 years, the Bill Howe Family of Companies will remain relevant and thrive, as long as they do their job professionally and properly. 

“Once you take care of your customers, they’re there forever,” he says. “You spend a lot of money to get that customer to call you. You have to treat them as you would your own family.” 


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