My toughest challenge: Johnny Holifield
COMPANY: Specialty Welding and Turnarounds (SWAT)
WHAT THEY DO: Founded in 2014, SWAT provides complete turnaround services, along with specialty welding, piping, furnace re-tubes and erection, boiler repairs, exchanger/bundle services, Finfann re-tubes, tower revamps, and 24-hour emergency response.
CAREER: After attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he spent more than 14 years at Turnaround Welding Services in Livingston, working his way up to project manager. In April 2014, he and Jimmy Quick opened the doors of SWAT to offer elite services. In April, the private equity firm Hastings Equity Partners acquired SWAT, a partnership Holifield says will allow the company to expand its service capabilities, geographic footprint and culture.
Johnny Holifield spent 14 years building a career and a great reputation in the turnaround industry, working for the same company all those years and helping build it from the ground up. “My heart and soul was with that company, and I lived it every day,” Holifield says. “I saw it grow and expand, then go through acquisitions and eventually a sale.” Holifield realized his time there had run its course, but leaving wasn’t easy. “The hardest thing for me to do was to decide to leave the company I represented as a person. It was gut-wrenching. I was struggling. I felt like I was not being loyal, that I was betraying them by leaving,” he says. “We were like a family. But I wanted to do more for the guys that I brought up [trained], my family, for me.” Holifield says that when he and a core team of seven other guys left to start Specialty Welding and Turnarounds (SWAT) in 2014, things changed abruptly. “They turned off the light switch pretty quick in the business world,” he says. “They went from being a family, everything I stood for, to being my direct competitors. I was an employee, not the family member I thought I was.” Aside from the small group that left, Holifield had to find manpower to build his company, with a commitment to taking the high ground by not trying to recruit guys from his previous employer.
Once that switch flipped, Holifield says, it was game time. He had no choice but to go out there and make it happen. He had plenty of relationships built from years in the business, and he called on those clients and asked them to give him a small opportunity to prove himself and his new company. Those small opportunities grew into big jobs, and SWAT grew exponentially, with 1,350 employees now as it hits the three-year mark, logging 1.4 million man-hours and $125 million in sales last year, all the while continuing to hit project deadline after project deadline. But Holifield knows the company is only as good as the people. At SWAT, the approach has always been to hire the best of the best—an elite team of specialty welders hand-picked from all over the country and thoroughly vetted and screened. “We strive hard to hire the best labor in the market,” Holifield says. “They are the cream of the crop, the No. 1 draft picks in the industry. And when we do a job, we provide the best labor for our clients.” While it’s a daily struggle to screen these workers and make sure proper references are obtained, the extreme approach has paid off. SWAT has gone global, handling maintenance and planned outages for major chemical plants all over the U.S. and as far away as Qatar.
While it’s been a struggle and a “daily grind,” Holifield has no doubt that starting SWAT has been the best thing for him and his team. In hindsight, he says he would have been able to take big jobs early on when they were offered. Instead, he let fear get the best of him. “I never thought we would be at 1,350 employees this fast. I doubted myself and the capabilities of people in my group. I didn’t realize the manpower I could have gotten,” he says, referencing his elite crew. Holifield vows the way he felt when he left his old company is not the way things will be if one of his guys decides to leave. “I’m going to do everything to help that person and be proud,” he says, with an intent to continue treating them as family. And while he is still in direct competition with his previous employer, Holifield doesn’t take anything personally anymore. “I came from that organization and they helped make me who I am today. I don’t want to see them do bad,” he says. “But I do want to see SWAT do well.”
This article was originally published in the second quarter 2017 edition of 10/12 Industry Report. Read more from this issue at 1012industryreport.com.