Hilliard Baker and HB Plumbing and Heating crew

He’s carrying on the family business

“I thought my summers were terrible when I was a little kid,” says Hilliard Baker, Jr. “Because I had to go to work.”

His school vacations were largely spent toiling alongside his father, Hilliard Baker, Sr., on jobs for his dad’s shop, HB Plumbing and Heating. When he was eight years old, Baker remembers that he and his brothers went with their father to a school under construction in Pembroke. The family arrived in a Winnebago camper that his dad parked on the job site.

“That’s where we slept until the job was finished,” Baker says with a grin. He recalls working into the night under lights powered by his dad’s generator. That’s the way the hungry, old-school plumber rolled, he adds. While the young Baker’s summers may not have been as carefree as he would have liked, he learned a lot about hard work and perseverance from the example his dad set.

“It was great father-son bonding time,” remembers Baker. Maybe his summers weren’t so bad after all.

The elder Baker retired and closed his plumbing shop in 1993, the same year that Baker, Jr. started college at Alabama State. While he was pursuing his studies, Baker’s dad signed his son up for a plumbing apprentice course without telling him.

That meant Baker didn’t get much of a break during college either. Over the summer and between semesters, he would come home to the Boston area and continue his apprentice work and studies.

After college, Baker worked at a few different jobs until returning to plumbing about seven years ago. While working for a non-union shop, he learned about Local 12 and became a member. He finished his apprentice training at the union’s center.

Two years ago, Baker got his master plumber’s license. On the same day, he called Local 12’s business manager, Harry Brett, and told him that he planned to start his own business.

“I promised Harry that I’d become a Local 12 shop,” Baker says. “The union has done a lot for me, and I want to be loyal to them.”

When it came time to come up with a name for his company, there was only one choice: HB Plumbing and Heating.

“I restarted the business because of my dad,” Baker explains with tears welling up in his eyes. Baker, Sr. is now 91 years old and in poor health. “It meant a lot to him. This is for my pops. I want to make him proud. It is still his company in spirit as far as I’m concerned.”

The resurrected HB Plumbing has worked on a couple of laundromats. The shop was also part of Local 12’s crew that responded to the natural gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley. But most of the shop’s work has focused on residential construction projects, such as Olmsted Green in Dorchester.

A mixed-income rental development, the project is bringing 100 two- and three-bedroom townhouses to the community. HB Plumbing is working on 11 of Olmsted Green’s buildings. Baker also has a crew working on the redevelopment of the Whittier Street apartment complex in Roxbury.

HB Plumbing is able to do the jobs as a union shop because Local 12 recently established a residential division and negotiated a lower rate for the specialized work. That enables contractors to work with Local 12 plumbers on residential projects such as the construction of mid-rise, wood-frame apartment buildings.

The affiliation has been a plus for Baker. “When owners and general contractors hear that I’m with Local 12, they know that I’ll have the manpower to take on the job,” he says. It’s not just a question of the quantity of available workers, but also the quality. “We’re always ahead of schedule,” Baker notes. “The Local 12 mechanics are great.”

As for the future, Baker says that he’d like to explore other areas of the industry, including larger commercial work as well as industrial plumbing at sites such as power plants. Local 12’s Brett says the sky is the limit for the enterprising contractor. “Hilliard is doing everything the right way. I can’t say enough about him.”

Baker would like to grow his company—not only for himself and his family, but also for the community.

“It means a lot to me to give people opportunities,” he says, adding that he would like to steer students from voc-tech programs into Local 12. He especially hopes to help inner city kids and people of color along the path.

“They may have great talent,” Baker says. “But they need an opportunity.” After all, not every child can get on-the-job training while spending the summer in a Winnebago with his pops.

He returned to Local 12

In 2001, when he was 18 years old, Steve Ferro joined Local 12. The industry and the economy at large were booming. He immediately began working for GBPCA contractor E.M. Duggan as an apprentice and remained there until he got his journeyman license in 2006 and beyond. Still in his 20s, he became a foreman and was running jobs for the shop.

“Honestly, I thought I’d be with Duggan for the rest of my career,” Ferro says. Fate had other ideas, however.

The boom times ended, projects became scarcer, and in 2009 he was let go. Collecting unemployment got old quickly. Not one to sit idle, Ferro took action.

“I’m a licensed plumber,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was told it’s a license to work.” So Ferro got to work—by opening his own shop. He hired a small crew and started doing basic residential plumbing. The entrepreneur moved on to small restaurant jobs such as B. Good in Swampscott and Kelly’s Roast Beef in his hometown of Revere.

Through diligent work, S. Ferro Plumbing and Heating developed a great reputation. The shop generated good word-of-mouth and positive reviews. In 2012, it was named as a preferred contractor on Angie’s List. Referrals increased and opportunities for larger jobs started coming Ferro’s way. He knew the business needed to grow.

“I had the knowledge. I had the drive. I had the skills,” Ferro says. “But I didn’t have the plumbers.” That’s when he started thinking about returning to Local 12, but this time as a contractor.

“It’s a trend we’ve been seeing,” says Frank Amato, recruitment specialist for Local 12. “It’s very difficult for smaller contractors to find qualified plumbers today. But we have them. When shops sign on with Local 12, they have access to a huge pool of trained mechanics and can quickly staff up for virtually any project.”

That’s one reason why shops like S. Ferro Plumbing and Heating are joining the union. Another reason: A few years ago, the local established a new residential division and negotiated a lower rate for the specialized work. That enables contractors to work with Local 12 plumbers on residential projects such as the new construction of mid-rise, wood-frame apartment buildings.

Now, Ferro is able to handle jobs such as a 30-unit apartment building in Brighton and a 40unit condominium complex in Jamaica Plain. Affiliating with Local 12 has also allowed him to work on 100% union jobs such as installing gas piping for boilers at Harvard University and fitting out a Chick-fil-A restaurant in downtown Boston. General contractors and developers appreciate how quickly, efficiently, and precisely Ferro is able to tackle projects because of his Local 12 connection.

While he welcomes the new work, Ferro hasn’t abandoned his smaller residential customers. “We’ll still fix Mrs. Smith’s sink,” he says. “We are very diverse. It’s good for the plumbers who are working for me, because they get to do everything.”

Ferro would like to become even more diverse and move into larger commercial work as well. With Local 12’s support, the goal is achievable.

There are other advantages to being a signatory contractor with the union. For example, his employees are earning a decent wage and getting good benefits. Ferro used to offer his own benefits program, but found the administrative work to maintain it confusing and time consuming. Now, Local 12 maintains the benefits package.

“I’m developing a great team with Local 12’s help,” Ferro says. “The plumbers who work with me are happy. I’m happy. The future looks bright.”