Photo: Billy Calzada /Staff Photographer
When John Aramendia started a plumbing, heating and air-conditioning company with his brother in 1988, he’d go through neighborhoods knocking on doors to drum up business.
The unconventional approach paid off. They built Aramendia Plumbing, Heating & Air Ltd. into a business with 90 employees and 50 service vehicles before selling its assets to Service Experts Heating & Air LLC for a reported $24 million in 2017.
And that was supposed to be it. John Aramendia settled into an early retirement with his wife, Anne.
Except he got bored.
Now, John, 54, and Anne, 51, have returned to the world of clogged drains and busted air-conditioning units with 1st Call Plumbing, Heating & Air. They’re joined by their two sons, Jake, 26, and Bub, 21.
“We’re building something great with the kids, who are seeing how it’s done from the ground up, which is very important to me,” John Aramendia said. “I always told them, if you don’t start at the bottom, you’ll never run a company that I’m running. I believe it’s important to know what you’re doing and understand what the guys are going through out in the field (and) what it takes to do these jobs.”
About a year into the new venture, 1st Call has about 35 employees and 20 service vehicles. The pace of growth has exceeded their expectations, so they’re now renovating their old company’s shop near Interstate 35 and Weidner Road. The space is at least twice the size of their current space on Arion Parkway near San Antonio International Airport.
In John’s office at 1st Call’s current digs, John and Anne Aramendia recently spoke about the old company, their short-lived retirement and not being able to use the family name in their new venture. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You started 1st Call about a year ago, right?
JA: 1st Call started almost a year ago from zero. A long time ago, I had my old company and I also had 1st Call. I was running both of them, but (1st Call) was too difficult to staff.
AA: Are you confused? We had two plumbing companies. John creates. That’s what he does. He likes building, doing, employing, giving people opportunities. That’s a whole other story, though. Anyway, we have these two companies, and one of them was 1st Call Plumbing, Heating & Air. And with our other company that we were running, it was very difficult to staff both with premium people. So what we ended up doing was not dissolving (1st Call), but just kind of putting it on a back burner.
Q: So you continued operating with Aramendia Plumbing, Heating & Air?
JA: We cannot say the name. We cannot mention it.
Q: But it’s your name.
JA: Correct. However, there’s a federal trademark and we have an agreement not to use the name. It’s John and Anne, and we’re with 1st Call.
Q: So you refer to Aramendia Plumbing, Heating & Air as “the old company”?
Q: So we’ll refer to it as the old company.
JA: We want to keep everything on the up and up.
Q: Was the old company your first venture into this business?
JA: It was. It was kind of odd. I was about to open up an automotive repair shop. My brother (Joe) was a master plumber and he said, “Why don’t we go in the plumbing business? You run the business and I’ll be the plumber.” I said, “OK, we’ll try it. However, don’t ever expect me to be a plumber.”
AA: And then you ended up being the 24/7 on-call plumber for many, many years.
JA: I started my old company when I was 21 years old. I didn’t really know anything about anything. I had to learn the hard way. As a kid, I went door to door mowing lawns. I always found a way to make money. That’s how I got to be the businessperson, I guess.
Q: Did you own the old company, or did you own it with your brother?
JA: We were 50-50 partners when we started.
Q: Had you two met before you started the old company?
AA: We met in 1990. He was working seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I used to work in a bank, and he’d make it a point to come have lunch with me every day for, like, two years before we got married.
Q: So when did you go to work for the old company?
AA: I actually did a few stints here and there. When Jake was born, there was no one in the office and I remember having him in the stroller (in the office). Kids were always No. 1. Once they started school, I would start doing a few hours here and there with him at the office.
Q: What’s it like working with your spouse?
JA: I like it. We’re always together. We try to get away and have lunch almost every day, like we did when we were dating.
Q: Do you bring your work home with you?
AA: It is 24/7. (Now speaking to John.) Do not say no! It is. It’s 24/7. We’re not 24 hours, seven days a week. We’re seven days a week, 7 to 7. We live and breathe it. So, no, we do not separate anything.
Q: Why did you sell the old company?
JA: It was an excellent opportunity. Stress and pressure puts a lot of wear and tear on people. Sometimes you need a break. It’s 24 hours a day if you’re a business owner. You don’t really get to unwind and forget things. You’re constantly getting phone calls or emails.
Q: When you sold the company, what were your plans? Was it early retirement?
AA: My plan (laughs). I miss those days.
Q: What did you do?
JA: Fishing. Relaxed a little bit.
AA: It was nice.
JA: I was able to unwind for the first time in my life, since I started at 21. When we were newly married, we didn’t go on vacation. Vacation didn’t happen.
AA: I went on vacation with the kids and left him home to work.
Q: So did you get tired of the retired life?
JA: I can’t sit still with nothing to do.
AA: I can. He can’t.
JA: I really like what I do. I figured two years was a great vacation. Now I’m ready to work again. I realized how I really love working and I really loved building a great company and making employees better.
Q: What was your reaction when he said he wanted to go back to work?
AA: (Rolls her eyes.)
Q: You just rolled your eyes?
AA: Pretty much. I kind of zipped my mouth. I’m here in a supporting role. He does what he wants. I just kind of go with the flow. But, yeah, it wasn’t my (plan). It’s not my job to hold him back. What he wants to do is important, so I’ll support him and participate as much as I can.
Q: What’s it like competing against the company that bears your name?
AA: Heh, heh. There’s room for everyone.
Q: Do you think most people are confused that you’re not part of the old company?
AA: It was a big confusion thing. That’s why in our advertising, we started saying, “1st Call Plumbing, Heating & Air, the only company owned by our family” to try to avoid (the confusion). We still get lots of calls wondering. I answer the phone every day pretty much. I’ll say, “(That company) was sold. We are not related to that company. They’re two separate entities. How can I help you?”
Q: Did you try to keep the name when you sold the old company?
JA: That (the name) was part of the deal. I believe in doing just stand-up business. They bought the company, and we’re good.
Q: Given you got back in the same business, do you wish you had kept the name?
JA: No, just because they paid a very fair price for the business. That’s how it was branded.
Q: Was it hard coming up with the name 1st Call for your new business?
AA: We tried for months brainstorming other names. I didn’t want to use 1st Call because it already had been something in the past. Had researched a million different names. We were down to the wire. “Where is it, Anne? We’ve got to get this done. Decide. I’m leasing (an office). I need to open a (company) bank account. What’s the name going to be?” I give up. Make it 1st Call. It was very hard.
Q: This seems like a very competitive field.
JA: It is.
Q: How do you stand out?
JA: Like I tell customers, everybody’s a great plumber or AC guy when everything goes great. When something goes wrong, that’s when you find out about the company you’re dealing with. I call everyone that is dissatisfied. I will do anything in the world to please my customers because we do care what they think about our company. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s what you do about it that separates your company from others.
Q: You used to go door to door to find customers. How do you find customers now?
AA: We get a lot of referrals. Word of mouth. We do TV advertising.
Q: Do you enjoy filming the commercials?
JA: She does. She does so great on it. Seriously, she is great on TV. I’m not a big TV person.
Q: If you watch local news, it seems like all of the commercials are for HVAC companies, personal-injury lawyers and car dealers. What’s up with that?
JA: It’s just what’s required to keep your name top of mind.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your business?
JA: I’m a service company. I’m servicing the same people who just lost their job. It’s very challenging. We’re doing everything we can to take care of people and keep everything right.
Q: I would have guessed business is up because so many people are now working from home and they’re running the AC around the clock.
AA: People need AC. That’s something you can’t do without. But if you’re not able to get financing for (a new system) … you might try to patch it.
JA: You get a lot of the little repairs instead of people wanting to go ahead (and get a new system). They know they want a new one but … . We’re having a heck of a time because (parts) factories have been closed down, so you can’t just get everything you need right now. They’re just running out of things like crazy. I honestly think our industry is probably showing anywhere from a 30 to 40 percent decline year over year. It’s very painful.
Q: What are your long-term plans for 1st Call? Do you want to hand it off to your sons?
JA: It would be great to hand it off to the sons.
AA: I’d like to retire. He will never stop.
JA: I will work until I am unable to just because that’s what I like to do.