Ray Wohlfarth: Saying goodbye to industry legend, Bill Vallett, Sr.
Rarely a day goes by without hearing of someone famous dying who touched our lives. This year we’ve lost renowned chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, former first lady Barbara Bush, fashion designer Kate Spade, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth, to name a few.
Our industry also lost one of its icons — William “Bill” Vallett Sr., of Lochinvar, which is now part of A. O. Smith. While his passing did not garner the attention of the previously mentioned people, he was important to our industry.
I sometimes wonder if people such as Bill Gates with Microsoft or Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame had a vision of where their companies would be when they started or were they merely hoping to have enough sales to pay the employees and the utilities. I wonder the same thing about Bill.
The family business
You could say water heaters were in his blood. Born on Feb. 12, 1927, to Walter and Gladys Vallett, Bill had two siblings, Walter Jr., and Shirley, though the Vallett family’s introduction to water heating happened long before Bill arrived.
Walter Sr. began in the industry in 1919 with the Everhot Water Heater Company, which developed the first automatic gas valve for water heating. In 1939, Walter Sr. started his own company which bore his name. The company’s name was changed to Lochinvar in 1957 as a result of an acquisition of a Michigan-area competitor. Lochinvar is the name of the fictional brave knight in Sir Walter Scott’s ballad “Marmion.” Lochinvar bravely shows up at the wedding of his beloved Ellen and dances her out the door, onto his horse and into the unknown.
Bill studied business while attending Michigan State University. After college, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served his country during World War II. At 23, and with his service in the Navy complete, he chose to return home and work in the family business with his father and brother. If you have ever worked in a family business, you know how difficult it is to be the new relative hired. The thinking and habits are ingrained in the firm and the people. Change does not come readily.
In an equally brave decision, Walter and Bill decided in 1970 to relocate the company from Detroit to Nashville, Tennessee. Over the next decade, each brother developed a passion for separate categories of the business. In 1979, the brothers chose to pursue their personal business interests with Walter, forming Comfortzone Corp., focusing on pool heaters, and Bill became sole owner of Lochinvar and focused on water heaters and boilers.
Changing the industry
As a young steamfitter apprentice, I remember seeing my first copper boiler on a jobsite. The journeyman laughed at it and said: “Kid, boilers are made of steel and cast iron, not copper. That is just a glorified pool heater.”
I am sure Bill heard that same thing and did not let it detour him from his vision of providing superior-quality products. Rather, it pushed him harder.
To compete in the market, Bill knew he had to do something different. His idea came as a result of the gasoline shortage we had in our country in 1979. Gasoline was rationed, and we could only purchase it on either an odd or even day. The gas stations that had fuel would have lines of cars that sometimes stretched for blocks. While waiting in line, it was not uncommon to have the gas-station attendant tell the raucous crowd that they had no more fuel and we would have to race to the next station.
While most people saw mayhem and chaos, Bill saw an opportunity to differentiate his company. He was going to market on efficiency. He was one of the few to market on that theme, and it worked.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of change in the country. ASHRAE released its first version of standard 90.1 in 1975; it allowed architects and engineers to realize the cost of energy consumption for their mechanical designs.
The U.S. Department of Energy was formed in 1977, and the suggested efficiency for a water heater was 75%. The eventual transition to efficiencies more than 84% and beyond led to growing pains and speed bumps for the industry as the flue gases condensed inside the old brick chimneys. Fan-assisted combustion using corrosion-resistant vent materials were developed and designed to help vent the flue gases outside.
From the moment he took over the reins of his business, Bill’s relentless pursuit of producing quality and efficiency laid the foundation for the company Lochinvar would become — and the North Star that guides its leadership still today.
A true gentleman
At age 24, he married his soulmate, Mary Jean, and they were together for 67 years until his death. They have four children — Susan, Tom, Jeff, and Bill Jr. — all of whom were involved with the company. Imagine what their Sunday dinners were like.
Bill came from humble beginnings in Detroit, and it was that humility that ingratiated him to almost everyone. Industry colleagues recall him as a true gentleman in every sense. According to coworkers, Bill’s hidden talent was the ability to pick the right person for each job and let them do their job. He was never a micro-manager type of supervisor. People respected him and wanted to excel.
Another attribute was his patience with employees. If he discovered a mistake, he would ask questions and allow the employee to see their error. He also had an endearing ability to remember every employee’s name.
Due to the efforts of Bill and other visionaries like him, our industry has evolved. We have grown from an industry of oversized boilers and standing pilots to one that offers comfortable solutions and very efficient heat generation and distribution systems.
Bill retired in 1992 after more than four decades with the company, and while he was a competitor of mine, I salute him. His determination and drive helped push hydronics to compete effectively with all the types of heating and cooling systems which are now in our industry.
Thank-you, Bill, and farewell.
This article was originally titled “Farewell, Bill” in the August 2018 print edition of PM Engineer.