ELMHURST – Tom Bartos encourages people to have the courage to explore other ways of living and learn new skills, like he did after arriving in the United States.
Bartos, president of HAP System and At Water Plumbing Co. in Elmhurst, lived through communism as he grew up in what is now the Czech Republic. Stores didn’t offer much stock and there wasn’t much diversity, he recalled.
“Everything was gray,” Bartos said.
He recalled how, when he was about 10 years old, he met an uncle who had managed to leave communist Czechoslovakia and become a Canadian citizen who worked in the United States.
The uncle showed him through photos and stories what life was like outside of Czechoslovakia and how it didn’t match what Bartos had been taught about the Western world.
During the visits the uncle was able to make back to the country, he gave Bartos an Adidas shirt and a Chicago Blackhawks sweater that had Bartos’ name and favorite number, 23, on it, Bartos said.
“For me, it was like something from the sky,” he said about the novelty of the Adidas shirt.
He later would find the same kind of Adidas shirt in a store on Rush Street in Chicago, where he was able to relive the experience of receiving that shirt from his uncle.
As he began working at a company in the Czech Republic, he realized he wouldn’t make enough money to live the life he desired. So in 2000, Bartos decided to come to Chicago with another man from the Czech Republic.
An acquaintance they met in Chicago told them they could find work as day laborers if they stood at a gas station near Belmont and Milwaukee avenues, where passers-by would ask for help with short-term projects.
Bartos knew very little English or Polish, so it was challenging for him to negotiate pay. He asked people to pay him according to the value of the work he completed. Some people paid him nothing, he said.
One day, a Polish contractor asked him if he wanted to do plumbing work, which Bartos had not previously done.
Bartos told the contractor he had no plumbing experience, but the contractor wanted to hire him anyway, as long as he was willing to learn the trade and work hard. Bartos accepted the work. He said he didn’t take the man’s offer all that seriously at first since a lot of people promised longer-term work but, ultimately, would not keep their word.
Two weeks later, Bartos was still working for the contractor.
When an assistant to a foreman who worked for the contractor had to take time off, Bartos took his spot. Upon the assistant’s return, the foreman told the contractor that he wanted to keep Bartos as his assistant because of his ability to learn quickly.
A few months later, the contractor named Bartos the managing plumber for a newly constructed building in Ukrainian Village and assigned him an assistant.
Bartos then moved on to another company, which facilitated his studying for an apprentice license in plumbing.
After taking the exams for an Illinois license, Bartos would check his mailbox every day for the next few weeks to see if he had been granted his license.
When it finally arrived and he received a good score, Bartos jumped and screamed with excitement in front of his house, much to the puzzlement of his neighbors, he said.
“I was working so many years on this,” Bartos said. “I was really proud of myself.”
He started his service contractor company, At Water Plumbing, and worked doing both commercial and residential new construction. As he progressed, he saw things that would help make the work more efficient.
Bartos developed the concept of the HAP System, a plumbing installation system that is designed to help people and plumbers streamline plumbing and construction projects through the use of products that both secure and protect conduit piping. His company provides a one-stop shop for contractors, builders and DIYers, who otherwise often need to order parts from multiple companies.
He said he hopes the system of tools and parts his company provides can have a big impact, increase plumbers’ ability to complete projects successfully and lessen the need for callbacks for repairs.
Bartos said that through his life experiences he has come to believe that it is best for people to try to understand other people’s perspectives, which builds empathy. He also encourages people to not be afraid to try new things.
If you go
WHAT: HAP System and At Water Plumbing Co.
WHERE: 492 W. Wrightwood Ave., Elmhurst
HOURS: 7 a.m to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday
INFO: 847-787-7777, hapsystem.com, atwaterplumbing.com, www.facebook.com/hapsystem/