Welcome to our first in a series of the 10 oldest PHCP companies still in family hands. Here’s a look at our top two, plus an honorable mention for another that goes back almost two and a half centuries.
J.F. Ahern Co.,
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
J.F. Ahern Co., Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, started out as D. Ahern & Sons. David Ahern, born in County Cork, Ireland in 1832, immigrated with his family when he was in his teens. David eventually ended up in Wisconsin in the 1850s. After his marriage to Mary Egan, a fellow Irish immigrant, the two settled in Fond du Lac in 1860.
David, a skilled pipefitter, found his expertise in high demand since the town had organized a gas works a year before his arrival.
“David learned quickly and showed a knack for customer service,” according to Ahern literature published in 2005 to celebrate its 125th anniversary. “His employer took notice, and in 1867, put David in charge of operations.”
David held the position until 1879, when the gas works was sold, replacing David with an incoming manager.
“While this may have seemed like a setback at the time,” the company history states, “David had the satisfaction of seeing all of Fond du Lac’s gas street lights changed to electric models four years later – surely a major financial loss for the gas works.”
Following a job with a stove manufacturer, David and sons, John Francis, better known as J.F., William and later Edward, opened a plumbing shop at 17 Main Street in 1880, providing plumbing, steam and hot water heating.
“Hard hats and cars weren’t invented when Ahern first started,” says Tony Ahern, David’s great-great-grandson and the company’s president and chief operating officer. “I think of the advancements in tools used on sites and in our shops that have changed tremendously over time, and the use of technology to communicate, estimate, draw, manufacture and install the variety of systems we install. Additionally, there have been tremendous strides and investments in safety and ensuring our employees return home safely to their families.”
By the 1900s, J.F. took over most of the company operations as his father got older and brother William passed away and Edward began experiencing health problems.
In 1906, J.F. and another contractor, J. P. McCoy, opened the Ahern-McCoy Plumbing Co. down the street from the original business, offering steam and hot water heating, plumbing, drainage lines and gas fitting.
Also, around this time, J.F.’s sons, Thomas L. and John E. (“Don”) joined the company. While D. Ahern & Sons continued to operate separately with David at the helm and then Edward, J.F. and J.P. opened what surely must have been the first contractor plumbing showroom.
In 1907, J.F. became a founding member of the Wisconsin Master Plumbers Association and was elected the town’s sewer superintendent. That same year, David died at 82 in 1915 and Edward died a few years after.
Meanwhile, innovation continued at the original plumbing shop with the arrival of what a 1918 newspaper clipping called a “plumbing shop on wheels,” a one-ton truck “equipped with hundreds of repair parts and all necessary tools to handle repair work.”
The clipping adds: “This will mean a great saving to the property owners, as it will save time and money by eliminating the expensive return trips to the shop for material and tools, which has always been a great ‘joke’ in the plumbing business, but nevertheless could not be avoided, as the plumbers could not know the proper material and tools to take with them without a thorough explanation of the work to be done.”
By 1921, J.F. decided to go back into business on his own, ending his partnership with McCoy and renaming his new venture, John F. Ahern Co. J.F.’s sons, Thomas and Don, began the company’s expansion throughout the Midwest, adding air-conditioning services in the 1930s and even radiant heating in the 1940s.
Of course, growing the business through the 1930s was no easy task. According to the company, reported sales in 1935 were $41,000, less than 25 percent of sales a decade earlier as the company endured the Great Depression. Adding to the challenges, J.F. died at the age of 65 in 1936.
By 1945, however, revenues had more than tripled, due in part to a surge of work relating to World War II – military barracks in the early 1940s, and VA hospitals in the mid-1940s and early-1950s. By 1950, the company broke $1 million in revenue for the first time.
In 1953, the company name was shortened to J.F. Ahern Co. By this time, Thomas and Don had also built a new headquarters, a 10,000-square-foot building.
Also, the fourth generation of Aherns, Tom’s son, Michael, and Don’s sons, John Jr. and David, were ready to take the lead and became shareholders in 1968. (A year later, Michael sold his stake and purchased Harbridge Inc., a local sheet metal company and canning equipment manufacturer.)
By the 1970s, John Jr. and David took full control of the company following their father’s retirement in 1969 and his death in 1971. During the decade the company continued to grow through increasing sales and acquisitions. The company also took a small section of an existing shop and began its first foray into prefabricating piping for internal projects.
In 1975, with sales approaching $9 million, the company relocated a final time, building a 30,000-square-foot facility on 12 acres of vacant land about a couple of miles from the original storefront on Main Street.
By 1981, the company got its start in fire protection when it bid on a job at a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, for both “large mechanical” and fire protection. Earlier this year, Tony told a local newspaper that John Jr. at the time told employees they would “figure it out.”
“Anything we do we want to be a very well-respected partner to our customers, and that’s how we got started — it was one single job that got us started,” Tony told the paper.
Figure it out they did. Ahern eventually opened district offices in five states to specialize in fire protection. And by 1995, Ahern Fire Protection built a $2.5 million, 42,000-square-foot facility at the Fond du Lac headquarters.
The company made another big move in the 1980s when it began offering pipe fabrication for external customers.
By the late-1980s, the company also offered ownership to three key members of its management team outside the family for the first time in recognition of this growth.
Over the generations, the company has become a specialty contractor juggernaut. By the 2000s, for example, shifting trends in construction led to the formation of an Energy Solutions Department, as well as the construction of two of its own LEED recognized facilities: the corporate headquarter’s expansion (LEED Gold Certified) and its Milwaukee facility (LEED Gold Certified).
Currently, the company operates offices in seven Wisconsin cities as well as in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri, and employs 1,400 people to keep tabs on 15,000 customers.
The business is led by Tony, John Jr.’s son, who joined the company in 1992 as an estimator for the Pipe Fabrication Division, and chairman and CEO John E. Ahern III, also John Jr.’s son, better known as “Tripp,” short for being a “triple” John Ahern. Tripp joined the business in 1988 as a project manager.
With this year marking 140 years in business, the company plans a series of events at many of its locations honoring employees and long history. And with that in mind, the company recently purchased a Main Street storefront in the same building that housed David Ahern’s original business.
The company is putting the finishing touches on the space, renovating it to look like it did in the 1880s. The storefront will serve as a meeting space and feature displays of J.F. Ahern Co. history when it opens later this month.
H.C. Blake Co.,
Should it be J.W. Blake Practical Plumbers established in 1884 or H.C. Blake Co. established in 1884? Or, for that matter, Blake Brothers Practical Plumbers? We’ll go with H.C Blake Co. since that’s how Jim Batson, the company’s sixth generation family business owner puts it.
Any way, B.W. Blake, a native of Ireland arrived in Huntsville, Alabama in the 1850s and got the whole thing started. He established several businesses, including the Blake Saloon and Grocery, was a successful land and farm owner and also served as the city’s street superintendent and water commissioner.
Sensing another business opportunity, B.W. got his eldest son, J.W., into the plumbing business in 1884 as J.W. Blake Practical Plumbers. After J.W. brought in his younger brother, Hall Clanton Blake, as a partner several years later, they called the business, Blake Brothers Practical Plumbers.
J.W. eventually moved on to Tennessee and Oklahoma to supervise water main installations and the building of a water treatment plant. By 1887, H.C. bought out his brother and was the sole owner of H.C. Blake Co.
H.C. also served several terms as a Huntsville councilman. His business grew and prospered along with the rest of the growing town, and what started out with horses and wagons ended up with trucks.
H.C.’s nephew, Hall Blake Bryant Sr., worked for J.W. and eventually took over the business in 1937 at the age of 27 upon H.C.’s death. Hall also assumed H.C.’s city council seat and other civic duties.
During the Great Depression, Hall kept the lights on by diversifying into electrical service. Life got considerably better in 1941, when the government established the Redstone Arsenal, 10 miles outside Huntsville, as part of the country’s mobilization during World War II.
Through his trade skills, Hall got the contract for a steam-piping job at the facility, which produced more than 45 million ammunition shells during the war years. Later, Hall created the Hall Bryant Construction Co. to continue work at the facility. At its peak, the construction firm and plumbing business employed 500 people.
Hall’s brother, Ben, joined the company and together the brothers ran the business for the next several decades.
“Ben wasn’t versed in the trades,” according a company history Batson sent us. “But he was a people person and a good manager. He was able to secure construction through his personality and willingness to provide service to the customers.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, H. C. Blake Co. did a large volume of plumbing, piping and steam boiler work for Oakwood University and Alabama A&M University. These are both historically black institutions and because the universities could not easily secure financing, H.C. Blake Co. provided the funds to build the cafeterias, dining halls, science labs, boiler rooms and dorms.
“H. C. Blake designed the plumbing, heating and electrical,” Batson says. “The company assisted these colleges in any way. It was the forerunner of design/build construction.”
Hall’s only son, Hall Bryant Jr., joined the business and worked part-time from junior high school through college. Hall Jr., graduated Auburn University in 1966 with a degree in building construction and worked in the trades for another five years before joining H.C. Blake Co.
Batson credits Hall Jr. with modernizing the business, establishing estimating, job planning as well as buying and scheduling procedures. Hall Jr. gained a lot of knowledge and experience by designing mechanical, plumbing and electrical services for colleges, churches, businesses and old houses.
“That was Hall Sr.’s bread and butter,” according to the company history. “Hall Jr. was turned loose to provide what else he could do, and it worked.”
By the 1980s, Hall Jr. bought out other family members and ran the business as a sole owner. He also served as city councilman, chairman of the Huntsville Utility Electric Board and other civic honors.
By 1992, Batson, Hall Jr.’s nephew, joined the business full-time after working summers since junior high school and graduating from Auburn University with a degree in building construction. By this time, Hall Sr. had passed away in 1990 and Ben died in 1980.
“I started when I was 12,” Batson says. “My grandfather was the owner, my uncle was head project manager, and my mother was basically the CSR dispatch. I did everything: I rode with service techs, went on construction jobs and dug ditches from age 12 to 24.”
Batson further brought along the updated data processing skills H.C. Blake Co. needed. The business had gone to computers in 1990 with a functional system that served the company well for many years. But, Jim, along with the rest of his generation, was at home with a keyboard and rapidly introduced new methods and ways that information could be assimilated, stored and put in a standard format.
The computer system went from a bookkeeping function to a total company data system that did bookkeeping, service information, scheduling, billing, payroll and estimation.
“We went from a revolutionary product called a fax machine to emails, Facebook and instant messaging,” Batson adds. “And from estimating with notebook pads of accounting work sheets to multiple job estimating by computer using stored data.”
Batson has been the owner since 2009, and has followed the lead of his family by staying involved in civic duties. He’s the sixth generation of the family, for example, to be chairman of the Huntsville Utility Board. Like his ancestors, Batson sits on a local bank board and is active in his church.
Last year, due to recent growth, the company, which had been in the same building for the past 50 years, relocated to a larger, 30,000-square-foot facility. It’s only the second time the business has moved in a century. Batson bought what had been a rundown eyesore of a strip mall in North Huntsville, renovated it and moved the company into what was the A&P grocery store that anchored the shopping center. The center also includes other businesses, such as a popular meat-and-three barbecue, an art gallery and a yoga studio.
When we spoke to him, Batson was also putting the finishing touches on a history museum at the center to showcase not only H.C. Blake memorabilia, but memories of “Rocket City” the nickname the town gained after WWII when the country started developing a missile program for defense that set the stage for the NASA space program.
On a final note, Batson received the 2019 Ron Smith Leadership Award at last year’s Service Leader Expo. l