There are some people who know what they want to be when they grow up seemingly from birth.
For others, it takes longer to figure things out.
For Roger Williams, owner of Central Carolina Sprinkler Company, it just happened.
â€œFrom the time I was in grammar school, all I ever wanted to do was electronics,â€ said Williams.
As a child, Williams was a tinkerer who enjoyed taking apart and putting back together anything electronic. After graduating from Lincolnton High School, Williams did what seemed logical and took an electrical engineering class at what was then called Gaston Technical Institute.
It took two semesters for Williams to discover that what he had assumed since childhood may be wrong. He left school knowing what he did not want to do, but still not sure where his life was heading.
It was time to enter the working world.
â€œI had to decide how to make the most money with only a high school education and a couple of semesters at Gaston Technical,â€ Williams said.
Williams found out about a sprinkler company in Charlotte that was hiring. At the time, the company was one of only a handful of its kind in North Carolina. He was hired to do field installation and made twice as much as he would have working a local job at the time.
Although he had attained his goal of making as much money as possible with a minimal amount of education, the job did have its drawbacks. Williams traveled constantly, leaving young wife Gail at home.
If Williams was unhappy with the all the traveling, he was glad to be learning more about the job that would grow into a lasting career.
â€œIt was a lot of fun,â€ Williams said. â€œI got a lot of hands-on experience.â€
In the mid-1960s, Williams applied for a trainee position in the companyâ€™s design department. His on-the-job education continued, as Williams spent one weekend a month in and around Washington, D.C. surveying and drawing buildings that would be outfitted with sprinkler systems.
By 1970, Williams had moved on to work for another company, and he and Gail had become parents of a daughter, Krista. In his new position, Williams handled design and sales and also managed other employees.
By the late 1970s, the family had expanded to include daughter Sara, and Williams knew the business backward and forward. It was time to step out on his own.
In 1983, Williams founded Central Carolina Sprinkler Company, running the business out of the Carolina Furniture Market building before moving to the current Motz Avenue location in the early 90s.
The company meets customersâ€™ sprinkler system needs from every angle, from sales and design to fabrication and installation. Central Carolina has put sprinklers in just about every type of building imaginable, including commercial, industrial, residential, healthcare, schools and churches.
â€œAnywhere sprinklers are needed, we do it,â€ said Williams.
For many companies, bidding on contracts to install sprinkler systems is the norm. But after more than 20 years gaining a reputation for excellence, Central Carolina is a bit different. Around 40 percent of its business comes from repeat customers and Williams says 75-80 percent of the work he does is negotiated rather than bid on.
The secrets to Williamsâ€™ success are loyalty and trust.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a lot of super dedicated employees,â€ Williams said. â€œWeâ€™ve got a lot of good repeat customers like owners and general contractors who depend on us for their normal needs and for emergency services.â€
Many of Central Carolinaâ€™s employees have been there 20 years or more. Some have been there since the beginning. Customers know what to expect when they come to Central Carolina: good service from good people.
They also know to expect Williams himself to be there. Unlike many business owners, Williams takes a decidedly hands-on approach to his job, often working 70-80 hours a week. Often, clients call to speak directly with Williams. They know they can count on him to pick up the phone.
â€œWe have so many clients depending on us,â€ said Williams. â€œWe have good people, but there is so much going on. I think about slowing down, but every time I do, it picks back up.â€
Williams has been around long enough to see the industry go through some major changes. Until the late 80s, the only qualification one needed to be a sprinkler contractor was to send $100 to the state. That changed when a group of contractors decided the industry needed some parameters.
â€œThey formed the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) to help provide training and education for the industry,â€ Williams said.
A past president of the Carolinas chapter of AFSA, Williams has been on their board off and on for the past 18 years. He says before the organization was formed, it was not unusual to see substandard work from some companies.
Thankfully, AFSA changed that, and now contractors must be licensed and their work must meet certain standards. The standards are strict for a reason.
â€œWeâ€™re in the business of saving lives and property,â€ Williams said.
Until seven or eight years ago, the majority of Central Carolinaâ€™s work â€“ and the work of sprinkler contractors throughout the field â€“ was with the furniture and textile industries. When those industries began disappearing, the sprinkler industry had to adapt.
â€œWhen that started going away, we had to find a new niche to get more into the projects being built,â€ said Williams.
At that point, schools and healthcare facilities became customers, as did companies in distribution and support industries and NASCARâ€™s race shop facilities.
Years ago, public schools â€“ at least the ones in our area â€“ typically did not have sprinkler systems. Williams does remember installing them in some schools up north in the late 60s.
Now, both schools and churches must have sprinkler systems in place.
â€œUntil around 2002, you seldom heard of a church having sprinkler protection,â€ Williams said. â€œNow itâ€™s required anywhere people assemble above a certain number.â€
The requirements save lives and property and have kept the folks at Central Carolina busy installing potentially lifesaving sprinklers.
Williams remembers a church in Conover that had no sprinklers and unfortunately was struck by lightning.
A large part of the building was destroyed and the church rebuilt. Yet the church was again struck by lightning, with the same result. This time, they had sprinklers installed.
With so many facilities in need of fire protection, the sprinkler business is a booming. While the future of the industry seems secure, Williams worries about a lack of interest in the business as a career.
â€œThere probably arenâ€™t enough young people getting into the business,â€ said Williams. â€œIt is hard work. The key is finding young people who donâ€™t mind working and have the desire to make a career with only a small amount of training.â€
In about five years, a person can complete the necessary vocational training, work his or her way up and have a better paying job than many people with four-year degrees.
Working in the sprinkler industry has been a huge part of Williamsâ€™ life, but it certainly has not been the only thing that defines him.
â€œBesides electronics, the only desire I had to do something different was fly a plane,â€ Williams said.
He got his pilotâ€™s license in 1970 and flew anytime he got the chance until things got too busy at work. Williams still takes pleasure in hunting and deep sea fishing on the rare days off.
Although Williams appears the quintessential self-made man, he is quick to acknowledge the woman behind the man.
â€œGail has helped a tremendous amount in the business,â€ said Williams. â€œAnd she hasnâ€™t complained about the hours too much.â€
Putting in the time and effort to get the job done right has made Williams and Central Carolina Sprinkler Company very successful. Clients know that not only can they count on the companyâ€™s work to be of the highest quality, they can rest assured that the man behind it all is as good as they come.
by Allyson Levine