Episode: 277 |
Bill Bachman:
Finding Joy in Work:


Bill Bachman

Finding Joy in Work

Show Notes

William H. Bachman, PhD, spent 28 years designing nuclear fuel for civilian reactors. After taking early retirement in 1997, he set himself up as an independent professional – a handyman.

In today’s episode, my dad tells the story of his second career.

Check out his one YouTube video, mentioned in this episode, on how to replace a kitchen spray nozzle (308,000 views and counting):


One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman 00:02
Hello, and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional Unleashed is produced by Umbrex, which connects you with the world’s top independent management consultants. And I’m your host, Will Bachman. I’m particularly pleased to be here today with a guest that I’ve known Well, for a long time. My dad, Dr. William Henry Bachman, PhD, and dad, welcome to the show. Thank you. So let’s see, we have been doing these oral history interviews now since February, once a week. And do you want to play back dad sort of just give a quick overview of the topics that we’ve covered so far?

Bill Bachman 00:46
Sure. Prior to starting in February, with the oral interviews, I had begun, oh, a couple of years ago, writing short, two or three page chapters, stuck with memoirs, starting with my birth and little history of each of my mother and my father on where I lived, and so forth. And then, in February, we picked up with oral histories, about an hour each covering topics such as high school, my time in the army, some graduate school, work, a little bit of my memories of you as a child. And so here we are today. Where, as I understand it, you would like to have me talk about what happened after I retired from engineering. So yeah, ready to proceed and whatever you are.

Will Bachman 01:57
Yeah, and I’ll say this has been like a really nice thing to be doing during the whole Coronavirus epidemic. We started in February. Really before the Coronavirus was kind of top of mind for me. It was only kind of just by happenstance, because I had been on your case to keep writing your chapters for your your memoirs, but you sort of slowed down a little bit in the production of those. And then we thought, Well, what if we just do these two, you know, just as a phone call, and I’ll record them like a podcast episode. And that’s been it’s been really nice. So every Saturday more every Sunday morning we get together 8am and we do typically an hour call. We did you know to your point we I think we’ve done eight or nine sessions so far we did elementary school as an hour we did high school did college. Then we did your two years in the Army is one hour we did grad school. We did one hour on you and mom and how you met and how you courted and got married. And then one on your early years at commotion engineering. And then we did one on your sort of second half of your career there covered Three Mile Island. And then we said anything. And then we like you said we did one on my early years and, and my sister’s early years. So yeah, for me,

Bill Bachman 03:19
we started even before you came back to the farm in Pennsylvania. So if we started in February, we were doing it while you were still in New York City, I believe. Yeah. And I was here in Pennsylvania. And, and now since March, you’ve been here at the farm. And we’ve been continuing to do it.

Will Bachman 03:42
Yeah. So great. So for listeners that don’t know your bio, you just give us sort of a one minute capsule bio on your professional career. So you got a PhD in nuclear engineering from Penn State University in the 60s, and then just sort of give one minute on what you did at combustion engineering.

Bill Bachman 04:03
Sure. Yes. At Penn State I in the College of Science, I had a bachelor’s degree in physics. After that big big as your ROTC commitment. I spent two years in the US Army. And among other things, I was a field artillery officer in the eight inch our answers. When I was still in the army, I applied for graduate school and received a National Science Foundation fellowship for nuclear engineering. I came back to Penn State in the College of Engineering this time, achieved a PhD and began work at a company called combustion engineering spent 28 years there, which is as I understand it, unusual now For a person to spend their entire career at one company halfway through that, well, actually about three quarters of the way through that 28 years combustion engineering was purchased, became a part of a larger Corporation called Sam Brown, very also known as the shorthand of ABB. And then I retired, an early retirement, actually, I was only 5756 years old. And we turned to our farm in Pennsylvania, retired in 1997. And I’ve been here with my wife, and now you cross the street since since that time, of course, you didn’t come here until more recently. So that’s a short career, I was a nuclear engineer responsible for designing certain aspects of nuclear power production reactors, and we built them all across the US. And had very and a few actually, in foreign countries. We built some in South Korea. So that’s a synopsis of the career.

Will Bachman 06:28
Okay, so PhD in nuclear engineering, design, nuclear fuel, and then you retired, move back to Pennsylvania to this place that that house actually where your wife was, was, was was raised. What? Tell me a little bit about your career post retirement and, and how you earn money for a number of years.

Bill Bachman 06:53
Yes, yes. Well, it turns out that one of the first things I did when we moved here from Connecticut, back to the farm in Pennsylvania, was got my tools out and began work on a barn. And with your help, having just left the Navy, as a naval officer, we’re here to help you and I built a 30 foot by 40 foot two story barn. The main function of that was to house your sister’s horse and the barn. Now functions has a lot of things including storage units for various things. The horse unfortunately died a couple of years ago. But after building the barn, I found that I had tools and was interested in doing something more with additional with my life, and I decided to become a handyman. I set up a business called bill the handyman I printed up had visa print, I think it was vistaprint print me up some business cards, I put a couple of I put an ad in the local paper and very shortly started getting calls for handyman work. The key to that though, was some an interior decorator called me out of the blue and asked me if I would help her install window treatments in homes around the area. State College Pennsylvania which is where we are near is a college town and has a lot of people coming and going. And so interior decorating and window treatments in particular was very popular. I started with the an activity and that expanded because my business card I would hand out to all the customers for the interior decorating jobs. And a number of them then would would call me back later for things other than interior decorating. Just a word about the business card about the marketing side of it. I think it was very important to have a business card because with my name and phone number on it. I short. A couple of words about the kinds of things I did. People would call me back and I think it was an attractive business card because it said have drill will travel which is a play on a very a 1950s 1960s TV show. called have Gun Will Travel on the business on the little business card. It showed my little pistol grip, hand, little cordless drill, a little D, Walt 12 volt drill and have drill will travel and people like that and I would get calls continuously. I didn’t work 40 hours a week at the job, I wasn’t really doing the job to survive, but the money that came in, allowed me to buy additional tools. So, so the handyman business became something and I did up until the Oh, around 20 2014 2015. In 2016, I suffered a hospitalization for vertigo, and my inner ears were damaged. And so I gave up most of the handyman work, because I could no longer trust myself on ladders. And a lot of handyman work requires being on a ladder. So since then, about the only handyman work I’ve done is around my own house, or around your house, across the street from from me here in Central Pennsylvania.

Will Bachman 11:33
So what types of what types of jobs would you typically get as a handyman?

Bill Bachman 11:37
Well, initially, with the first interior decorator, it was all window treatments, high end window treatments, these window shades that would each, each window would be in the hundreds of dollars for the material for the product, such as these honeycomb type pulldown window shades, we also put up a shutters, which looked like the shutters on the outside of the house, except you put them on the inside of the house, wooden shutters, drapes, we’d hang drapes and so forth. And that was mostly through the interior decorator, that interior decorator led to a few other interior decorators calling me I even worked for a furniture store who needed things installed. So after the after the window treatments business, people started calling me for other things, because I had left my business card with them. And things like hanging pictures, assembling ready to assemble furniture, that was kind of a big part of it, it was a lot of fun doing these kinds of things. It’s always great if you have a little bit of a particular skill, and you can be paid for employing that that particular skill. If you’re enjoying doing it. And I did enjoy doing it. It’s certainly a lot less stressful than managing a group of people or being responsible for a nuclear reactor design. It’s usually in and out within a few hours at a particular home, and you meet a lot of nice people in the job. So I love being a handyman, and I now have a shed full of tools that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Did you tell people

Will Bachman 13:48
your background that you’re like go handyman?

Bill Bachman 13:52
Because it was at in the town of State College, which is where Penn State University is headquartered. Most of the people, you know, all the people knew about Penn State. And I’d sort of when I first go meet when the decorator and I would first go into the home, I would show the decorator would introduce me as her as her installer. And I’d give them a short a very short like, Oh, yeah, I’ve been to Penn State, you know, took a PhD here and, and graduated in 1969. And, and we chatted a little bit. At times I thought about changing my business card for Bill, the handyman to Dr. Bill, the handyman or something, but I thought that would be a little too snobbish. And I never really pushed the PhD part. But I think people trusted me, maybe because of the degree and having been at Penn State, and many people would actually just if I showed up there for a particular Get a job, not not the interior decorator job, but if I had any men job would just give me the keys to their house and say they’ve got to go shopping or something and go ahead and do this job and leave the bill when you leave. So I found a lot of trust in the people. And it was a lot of fun.

Will Bachman 15:22
And, yeah, and would you were there some jobs that you just like? So you said, you picture Hey, what are the sorts of things when people call you up for?

Bill Bachman 15:33
Well, oh, occasionally, they’d have me. One of the simplest Jobs was changing lightbulbs. Some people, actually, it’s a little fancier than that. Some people have lights up in the ceiling kind of floodlights, and they couldn’t get up there with ladders and so forth. So when I found that that was a thing that people needed done, I bought one of these extension poles, with kind of a suction cup like thing on the end of it, that could reach up and twist the lightbulb and bring that out and put a new one in. And so, so picture hanging lightbulbs are ready to assemble furniture. Those kinds of things, things people needed done at their house. I decided early on, I wouldn’t take any of the rougher kind of job, you know, cleaning out basement zilver, doing roofing, work, that sort of thing. It was all nice, clean interior work. That only required a couple of simple tools. A drill, hammer, screwdriver, measuring tape, so forth. So yeah, it’s kinds of things that people need it, I did find that my customer base tended to be I wouldn’t say elderly woman, women, but certainly, they, except for interior decorating, which often was young couples, who needed window treatments. The kinds of personal calls I got would have been from middle aged to slightly older women whose either were already widowed or divorced, or their husband was a professional in some sense, and didn’t have time or skill to do the kinds of handyman jobs that they hired me for. So my customer base tended to be mainly housewives, who needed something particular done around their house interior, typically. And

Will Bachman 17:52
what were you typically charging?

Bill Bachman 17:54
Well, a funny thing about that, I started off. For me personally, I’ve always done all the kinds of stuff around my own house, except maybe I’d have a furnace guy come because I didn’t want to mess up the settings of the furnace. But pretty much everything around my own house, painting and electrical and plumbing and so forth, I would do myself. So I really had no idea what what people charged for this kind of work. So I started out with $25 an hour, I picked a number. And I found that people didn’t mind that at all over the years, every couple of years, I’d bump it up by $5. I think by the end of my time as a handyman, I was up to the the 45, maybe $50 an hour, and I thought that was really high. But everybody was very happy to pay the 50 $50 an hour to get things done in their house. I did at one point, go to a local home show in the area and talk to a few people who had booths there. And they were in the 70 to $100 an hour range for handyman work. So I felt okay about that, that I was finally up in the 40 to $50 range.

Will Bachman 19:29
Do you feel that you could have generated more work if you’d wanted it? I mean, would you or would you turn stuff away?

Bill Bachman 19:36
Well, for one thing, I wasn’t doing it to survive. Mainly I was doing it to give me a little cash and an excuse to buy some additional tools such as drill press and bandsaw and a better table saw and so forth. So I was living off my pension from engineering work and Social Security. By the time I got to 65, I was still doing this work. And so I didn’t, it’s not like I really needed the money and tried to optimize the amount of funds I was getting out of it. So

Will Bachman 20:25
how much do you figure someone could make? If they really were trying to, you know, make make a serious living out of it? What would sounds like you could have probably had some upside on the prices that that you hadn’t really topped out? And what the prices? Yeah,

Bill Bachman 20:38
well, you’re a typical way of calculating these things, as you know, is to take a 2000 hour a year, employment 40 hours a week, 50 weeks. And if you take 2000 and multiply it by even $25 an hour, you’re into the $50,000 a year income category, which isn’t too bad for a starter job. And if you bumped it up to 40, to $50, you’d be in the 80 to $100,000. category I had considered but never really took it too seriously. what it would be like to have a couple of employees one or two, and then getting out there and doing doing the work. But I didn’t want to get back into the hassles of human resources and managing people. And so for the entire time, I stayed as a lone self employed person, no employees. So I think you could make a reasonable living at it, especially if you got big enough about it. And were young enough and ambitious enough to have a few additional employees. They have a few employees besides yourself, then you could do very well, I think.

Will Bachman 22:17
So what would you have done if you had wanted to? It sounds like just kind of organically, you started getting a pretty decent book of business, what would you have done to kind of increase your number of customers?

Bill Bachman 22:30
Well, advertising would would have definitely helped, such as going taking up a booth at a local home show, which are held a couple of times a year in the vicinity, perhaps expanding beyond the simple locale of the one town that I mainly worked in, which was State College, Pennsylvania, expanding to some of the other local towns, although it is interesting, in all the time that I did this work, I never really got a call from any people in the in the rural area. I think most of the people in the rural area, have their own set of skills, and don’t need people like like me like a handyman to come and help them out. But in State College, small towns where maybe there’s a wife at home, or maybe maybe she’s working two, and both people have something else that they need to be involved in and don’t have the time or the skill to do the kinds of handyman work that that I was doing. So I guess expanding the area, going to trade Joe’s even putting some some fliers in the newspaper. I started all of this before Craigslist became a big thing. And I think certainly putting the free ads on Craigslist would have expanded the business a bit. Because a lot of people are just, you know, using those free ads these days to generate business. So Craigslist, would not word of mouth seemed to be very effective for me, having met the people with the interior decorator, and that gave me access to their home that is meeting them. And so they they immediately would feel comfortable because they had this professional interior decorating and me as the assistant coming in there to install things and Immediately, there was a bond of trust. And also, you know, having been a professional myself, it was easy for me to talk with other people who are also professionals, and needed some, some handyman work.

As opposed to just being kind of a little bit of a rougher kind of a guy.

Bill Bachman 25:30
But I think anybody can do this kind of work. If you have the skills, you need the skills and a few basic tools. And especially if, if you have, it’s always said, a man with a pickup truck can always make it make a living. There’s always somebody who needs something cleaned up or carried away or, or brought to their house. So how do

Will Bachman 25:57
you deal with when you had to go buy materials for a job? Would you just sort of charge that at cost? Or would you add a markup to it?

Bill Bachman 26:07
Well, you know, that’s interesting. I could have perhaps, first of all, I enjoyed going to Lowe’s and Home Depot and other hardware or plumbing stores. And I never charged at all, even a penny for the time that I spent buying materials. So I never charged for the time I spent doing that. Nor did I ever mark it up. As a matter of fact, I would even take the receipt from say Lowe’s, if I bought some picture henney equipment or something like that, that was needed, maybe a small piece of sheetrock or something to patch a hole in the wall. And I would just in addition to my little bill that I would give the people, the customer, I would also attach the receipt and just list that as one of the items. And I never marked it up. But you could mark it up, that would be fair. I even let them get my my military discount at Lowe’s and Home Depot, which knock 10% off their cost as well. And didn’t even mark that up. So that would be another source of income. Actually, the time if you’re a professional doing this for a living, you would definitely want to charge for the time that you spent getting the materials and bringing them I never even charged for the time to get from my own home to their house. So when I walked in the door, that was the beginning of the the timing, if I spent two hours there, they owed me two hours times whatever the current rate was. One thing I did do was I used double B to duplicate type of, of receipt, a little, little, whatever they call it a little, a little, a little book of papers with itemized a little heading on it. And I would make a carbon copy. So one copy for me one copy for them, I still have all of those books, I filled up about 10 or so of those books over the over the years. And oh, I also got a little rubber stamp. And I stamped my name and dress on the top of these little sheets of paper that I handed the customer. And I always people always paid me. I never had to Bill anybody. They paid me right away. Unless they weren’t home and I I just leave the bill there. I get it in the mail a few days later. So I never had any trouble collecting. People paid me either right away on the spot, or very soon afterwards.

Will Bachman 29:12
I imagine if you had really been into it, you could have you could have actually been more proactive about reaching out to people, right? Because you would just wait for the call. You would never just like call people up and say hey, it’s been three months. You got any projects. You got any needs around the house.

Bill Bachman 29:27
Yeah, that’s right. And I never really tried to work the network particularly. Although I would say to someone, if you were your neighbors ever need anything, just Here’s my card, give me a call. But I never then pushed it by calling them back and seeing if they were ready to have anything done.

Will Bachman 29:51
So I think you had a very brief foray into YouTube, right you want to talk about your your one YouTube video.

Bill Bachman 30:01
Yes, that’s a lot of fun. You were the photographer. And it was all about 10 years ago, right even made 15 years ago, when we needed a new spray nozzle on the kitchen sink at the farmhouse that you are now living in, even at this moment. And you took a video of me taking the nozzle off the spray nozzle and putting a new one on, and I became the leading person with the most. I’m always number one. If you if you type in a kitchen spray nozzle, at least I have been number one for a long time. I am currently at about 300,000 views, as the only video we ever put up that you and I did. And people, if ever since then, I’m getting a little pings on the computer, when I look it up on my, my inbox. There’ll be another person has subscribed to you and made some comments. Many of them very interesting, people would say, thank you very much for showing me how to do this, there’s actually a little secret and there’s a little pin that you may not know about that has to be pulled out first, before the nozzle will come off. And you can put the new one on. So I’ve number one 300,000 hits, just amazing. 300,000 people have looked at it. And all of them are so grateful for having seen that. Some of them even comment, the most recent comment was you did a fine job on putting the nozzle in, but you really need a new sink. It turns out just the other day, I was looking at the sink, which used to be actually a sink and dishwasher combination. And it was built in 1948 it’s actually pretty hard out. I think all of the porcelain is worn off on the on the sink itself. Black shows through that we do need a new sink over there sooner or later. But people are very happy to have seen that. It was it was posted under Bill the handyman i think is what we did build the handyman build a handyman.com was already taken by somebody else. And we put it up as Bill the handyman. or or or some other little phrase at the end. So well, so that was my

Will Bachman 33:00
Yeah. And we can include a link to that YouTube video in the show notes.

Bill Bachman 33:06
Oh, good idea. Yes, that that is fun. It shows me a grizzled old guy working on the kitchen sink and people can see what I’m talking about what they say, geez, you really need to get into sync, you know? Yes. Please do that.

Will Bachman 33:24
So I’m curious that turning back to your professional career at ABB? Yeah. Um, you know, looking back on it, do you have any any observations, any things that you would have maybe done differently in managing your career or anything that you’re particularly proud about? Anything you want to share from from that?

Bill Bachman 33:41
Well, there were a lot of highlights. After joining the company as a PhD, brand new minted, I joined the physics department, which handles the reactor core, the actual interactions within the reactor fuel of the neutrons and the uranium and so forth. And I’m, over the years, moved into other aspects of it, design of the entire reactor plant. I became a project manager for I believe it’s still the largest nuclear reactor facility in the world, which is three large nuclear reactors all clustered together in the middle of Arizona. By Arizona public service, I think it is, and they each produce 1300 megawatts of electric each. So that’s three times 1300 megawatts of electric Google handle, basically, all of Arizona and some of the surrounding states. By that was one big hi light at the end, toward the end of my career, since nuclear reactor sales of new reactors had dropped way off, actually zero after Three Mile Island and eventually Chernobyl. The last reactors that were sold, were started up in the 1980s, the company I worked for and then eventually ABB, which I also which was had bought a combustion engineering, the biggest parts of the business by the late 80s in the 90s, was replacing the fuel, which needs to be replaced every year or year and a half, and servicing the nuclear reactors, by the companies that built the reactors typically get called in to work on things like the reactor itself, the steam generators, the pumps and valves, and the electronics and so forth. So I got into that. And at the end, when I retired, I was the director of a department involved with designing improvements in the nuclear fuel assembly, the uranium holding fuel rods, and the arrangement of that within the reactor. And I’ve traveled to foreign countries. I travel all over the US, I think I’ve been to all of the reactors, that combustion engineering built in the US, total in the US, I think, currently there are about 100 and some nuclear reactors in the US producing electricity. Combustion engineering had maybe, oh 1/4 of those as our design reactor, but we have reactors and other countries. And we were trying to sell fuel, the fuel assemblies to reactors built by other companies, such as Westinghouse, which they have reactors of the Westinghouse design. I’ve been to France, I’ve been to Taiwan, China, and South Korea. When when we joined up with ABB, I made good friendships that had a lot of professional contacts with the nuclear engineers in that company in the ABB company, which that branch of ABB is headquartered in Sweden. And so I met a lot of Swedish engineers. Fortunately, they were all much, much better. I had it hard to say even the word better doesn’t really cover, they could speak English, whereas I only knew a very few words that they taught me about in Swedish, such as Merry Christmas, good. But between and so we would travel throughout Europe, and Germany, Czechoslovakia, that was a thrill to go to Czechoslovakia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hard control, they kept the Soviet Union kept over all of Eastern Europe to have opened up Eastern Europe and go to Czechoslovakia, and see things that at one point, Americans would never have been allowed to get into reactors and designed facilities in in the Czech Czechoslovakia actually saw at a distance. Vaclav Havel, that at that time, the the president of a premier of the Czech Republic, I think it was by that time, so a lot of highlights. And a lot of good times, one of the things that they for some reason, the company would send me and a couple of engineers on sales meetings to a once a year convention that we had with all of our reactor customers that had purchased combustion engineering reactors. And I would give a an update on advances in fuel design or reactor design at meetings around the country at resorts typically. And so that was always a fun activity. So it was good, I enjoyed nuclear engineering. And, but I’ll tell you, that being self employed As a handyman was a lot less stressful, and I really enjoyed the in and out in one day and get the job over with and come home.

Will Bachman 40:15
So, handyman was a lot of fun. Well, dad, independent professional. Thanks for joining today on the show and any listeners who want to send a message to my dad, you can send it to me and I’ll pass it on to him. Dad, thanks for joining. Thank you. It’s been fun with you. Bye

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