By Ben Moffett
(Originally published in the Socorro Mountain Mail. Copyright 2005).
It’s said that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy, and Dale Armstrong is the perfect poster boy for that adage.
Armstrong grew up in the wide open spaces of west-central New Mexico, and after gaining a measure of financial independence in the big city, he returned to his old haunts along Highway 60. He started out as a ranch hand on the family spread near Quemado, and during his lifetime has been a gas pump jockey, pole-vaulter, college student, plumber and ultimately, the owner of a highly successful plumbing company in Albuquerque.
Armstrong completed the circuit in 1997, when he and his wife, Gail, also from Quemado, bought a ranch near Magdalena. Their goal was to give their four children a taste of the same country ambiance, lifestyle and rural values that they enjoyed.Armstrong didn’t quit his day job as owner, president and CEO of TLC Plumbing & Utility, when he returned to Magdalena, however. He makes the roughly 100 mile commute between the state’s largest city and his ranch near Magdalena twice a week, usually spending a three-day weekend at home, corresponding with the three-day weekend that all Magdalena public school students enjoy.
Armstrong began the trade in 1982 and purchased TLC Plumbing & Utility in 1989, as the owner and only employee. He lived the name – it suited his vision of what a company should stand for. It paid off. Since then, Armstrong said, the company has grown an average of 20 percent a year.Twenty years later TLC has 315 employees and continues to grow, thanks to five core values that define the company – honesty, hard work, respect, compassion, and consistency.“We’re not afraid of a hard day’s work,” Armstrong recently told PHC News, a national plumbing and heating magazine published in Illinois. “We also understand the importance of helping to build employees of strong moral character and responsibility, and to sustain commitment to the families they support.To help with that effort, Armstrong has created a four-year long training course for apprentice employees.
The 16 apprentices currently in the program attend classes on life skills and budget management (of their own money), as well as such trade basics as “Introduction to Plumbing,” among others. Apprentices are also assigned mentors from senior staff.Armstrong also likes to recruit employees with rural backgrounds, and looks up and down the Rio Grande and beyond for his apprentices.He also contributes heavily to junior livestock programs at the New Mexico State Fair and at county fairs from Socorro to Santa Fe. This year he bought Socorro County’s highest ranked pig at the State Fair, shown by Brendon Rosales.Raising animals was part of his rural training, although he wasn’t as deeply involved in the competitive aspect of it as were his siblings. “I wanted to do something (in business) when I was 15,” he said. He briefly had a wood cutting operation and soon got a job working for a service station while at Quemado High School. Upon graduation, he headed for San Juan College in Farmington, a branch of NMSU, looking to become an engineer.
“But I was in love with a Quemado girl, and decided to get married,” he said. He married the former Gail Gallaher, naturally a Quemado High product and the daughter of Dale and Mary K. Gallaher.That’s when he bought TLC. “It was an existing business shutting down and I bought the tools. I liked the catchy name and decided to keep it,“ he said.Today the Armstrong’s have four children who apparently took well to their rural environment in Magdalena.
The eldest, Kelly, is an elementary education student at the University of New Mexico and a varsity pole vaulter. She set the state pole vault record for Class A girls at Magdalena High School, and won the state title three times, following in the footsteps of dad, who tore himself away from his job to compete in the vault at Quemado. Kayla, also a varsity athlete at Magdalena, is attending Central New Mexico Community College majoring in business management.Son KC is a junior at Magdalena and a football player and pole vaulter. Kameron, the youngest, is in the seventh grade at Magdalena and a budding athlete. The whole family appears dead set on beating dad in the pole vault. He finished fifth at state in the event.Armstrong doesn’t expect to end the commute to Albuquerque anytime soon. “The ranch is just a hobby,” he said. “It’s more a way of life than a way to make a profit. It’s mostly for the kids.”