Carolyn Heath Haag may have only been named president of Heath Consultants, Inc., in 2012, but there’s plenty of history behind her leadership of the Houston-based leak detection, line locating and product development company.
She is the third generation of her family to head the business: Her grandfather, Milton Heath, Sr., performed the first gas leak detection survey on record in the 1930s, and her father, Milton Heath, Jr., worked for the company for 60 years, leading it for 30 years before retiring for health reasons in 2012. Haag herself has worked for Heath Consultants since 1989, with first-hand experience in most of the company’s divisions and a deep appreciation for the employees and other family members who have made the name famous.
She spoke to P&GJ about the past, the present and her plans for the future, including the question of whether a fourth generation Heath might someday take over the reins.
P&GJ: What were the beginnings of Heath Consultants?
Haag: Heath Consultants began with my grandfather. He was in tree service, and there were all these beautiful trees dying in Salem, MA. The city reached out to my grandfather, and he discovered that the trees were dying because of gas leaks from utility pipelines.
This was in 1933, and my grandfather and his brother Charles formed a business surveying vegetation. Later my grandfather created a flame-ionization detector to find gas leaks.
As the ’30s went into the ’40s the business extended into the gas and electric and telephone industries, but it was centered around gas.
My grandfather was in the war, World War II, so he had to stop for a while and my grandmother actually ran the business during that time. It was very small, there were only about three or four people working for them. When there was a call in to do a survey, she’d just send them out, and then take care of the bills and the business side of it.
In 1952 my grandfather formed Heath Survey Consultants and separated the water, gas and electric operations. That was a turning point.
P&GJ: What were your interests growing up? When did you decide to enter the family business?
Haag: I was just a regular kid, into sports. I went to summer camp. I knew I wanted to pursue business but wasn’t so sure about going into business for my dad. I liked human resources, so when I went to college that’s what I focused on.
When I graduated I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or in what field. My father had an opening and said, “Come out and try it.” So that’s what I did.
It was 1989 and I handled the customer-service 800 number that had just started. It was really good for me because I had to learn everything about all the services and products throughout the company.
I went through a training program for two years and worked in every department. I worked in Canada on the service side, I did gas and water leak surveys, odorant testing and line locating. Then my father relocated the corporate headquarters to Houston, and I found my niche in human resources.
When I joined just out of college, I didn’t really think about this as something I was going to do forever. I just thought “This is a job while I figure out what I want to do.” And as I kept working for the company, I loved it. I loved the industry, I loved what my father did, so I stayed with the company because of that. I just grew up here.
P&GJ: What was the path that positioned you for your current role?
Haag: My vision when I started taking over the HR department was to grow into its VP position. I didn’t have aspirations of running the company, I never really thought about it. You think your father’s going to live forever, that he’s always going to be in charge.
When it was put upon me to take over because my dad needed to step down, I didn’t expect it, but I took it and ran with it. I wanted to see this company continue; I’d love to see it continue into a fourth generation. I was already working well with the management team, so I knew I could handle it.
P&GJ: What are some of the challenges in maintaining a family-owned business today? Are there other family members working for the company?
Haag: The expectations of a family member are really high. The family and the other employees are always watching you. You have to work that much harder to earn respect so that people understand you’ve really earned it, it was not just given to you. I’ve worked hard to get the respect of the board of directors, the executive team and the employees to show them that I’m a regular person, I work really hard, I set the bar high but I live and breathe everything that I’m preaching and that I expect of you.
My mother is a board member and has taken a more active role in running family matters. My brother works in sales in another area outside of our distribution leak survey division. He’s handling the environmental side, more on the transmission side, selling products and services. He decided to go that path to expand Heath Consultants into another market.
P&GJ: How would you describe your leadership style?
Haag: I have high expectations but I believe in open communication, honesty and integrity with my direct reports and with my peers – I drafted a new communication policy in order to improve our companywide communication. Now employees must ask questions instead of waiting to be asked for an opinion. They’re more forward on speaking out to their bosses on their issues, so the managers get the feedback. The managers are responsible for communicating back within a time frame, so that people are kept up to date on matters of concern, and it also motivates them to stay involved with what’s going on with the company.
P&GJ: What did you learn from watching your father lead the company for so many years? How would you describe the legacy he left behind?
Haag: I learned a lot from my dad. He’s very people oriented and very humble. He believes that everybody plays a very important role, from the top to the bottom. So he respects everybody: just because there are executives doesn’t mean they’re more important than our field technicians out there working day in and day out to get the job done.
Part of that management style is that we don’t micromanage. So we have to have our field technicians and everyone fully trained to do their jobs safely and correctly, because they’re each held accountable for performance and quality.
We’ve had some utilities with us for many years and there’s a lot of competition, but because of the reputation that my father built, they come back to us. I want to continue on with that reputation.
I’m different from my father. My father likes to be out with the customers – he was very involved with industry groups and meeting with customers. I rely more on Paul Wehnert, our senior vice president of sales and marketing. His name is so well known in the industry, you can ask Paul anything and he knows the answer. He was mentored under my father. I rely on him to be out there with the customers, the face of Heath. I like to be behind the scenes.
P&GJ: What will be your top priorities in leading Heath, short term and long term?
Haag: I’d like to see it grow and expand with the utilities. We want to be able to give gas companies any service that they could ask for that has to do with the distribution of gas. We’ll do their leak survey, corrosion testing, line locating; anything they ask for we want to be able to do.
I’d like to expand our product line. It’s growing because there are a lot of utilities doing their own leak surveys in house, so we can provide them with the products. I’d like to see us continue being the cutting edge of technology.
We came out with a tool called the RMLD that uses a laser to really pinpoint leaks even better than a flame-ionization leak detector. As the industry grows the equipment has to be more technologically savvy to meet its needs.
P&GJ: How has Heath been able to maintain a competitive edge in the leak-detection sector?
Haag: We have a very strong engineering department and an excellent vice president of the engineering and manufacturing departments who constantly meets with customers and with companies that want to invest to build new equipment.
I think our knowledge of the gas industry is so ahead of our competitors’, and that gives us that edge. The involvement and respect that my father had with the industry, that Paul now has, keeps us ahead. We’re communicating with customers constantly, and they reach out to us. That’s huge.
With the pressure on safety, the industry is going to demand the highest quality leak survey. We find the leaks that need to be found, and they rely on us for that. As long as our equipment is top of the line and pinpoints those leaks that the industry needs, we’ll stay on top of it.
P&GJ: Does the industry need to devote more resources to integrity management?
Haag: I think the tools are there, it’s just that customers have to understand that quality is the most important. It’s not always about price, if you have a good company that’s going to do the job that you’re asking them to do – find the leaks and live by a code of ethics. Our employees live and breathe the safety of the community and the environment. That’s what they’re hired for, that’s what I love about them.
P&GJ: When you talk to customers, what do they say are their biggest concerns?
Haag: Safety is huge. A gas explosion will devastate. So utilities are constantly pressured by the government to ensure that they’re keeping their community safe. That pressure falls on us to ensure we’re doing our job of monitoring their pipelines.
P&GJ: We discussed your father’s legacy. What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
Haag: I would like to have that same type of legacy: that the employees see that this is a family business that cares about their employees, their community and the customers.
We are a company of high integrity, and what we say we live by. Our employees are hard-working, highly dedicated people, and I’d like to make sure the message is out there that we as a family have so much respect for them and the work they do for our company.
It’s a family business. I really would like to see it continue to grow and prosper, and maybe someday my kids or my sister’s and brother’s kids can be a part of this in the future. It would be great. Third generation is scary enough – I can’t imagine fourth generation – but it would be just wonderful. I’d like to think of my grandfather up there somewhere looking down and saying, “This is my baby, and look at how far it’s come.“