We continue with our series of the 10 oldest PHCP companies still in family hands.
A tie for 6
John J. Cahill Inc.,
I think learning about this surprised me the most of the bunch we researched for our series. I used to live fairly close to John J. Cahill Inc.’s north suburban Chicago location for about 25 years. One of those “If I had a nickel for every time I drove by the place” places.
Plus, it can’t be more than 15 minutes away from PHCPPros headquarters either. Allyson Hunter filled us in on the basics, and we had planned to drive over for more information. However, the pandemic and lockdown made that difficult. So here’s the slightly edited history that we received directly from Allyson:
John J. Cahill emigrated from Ireland in the 1880s and launched his company from a Chicago garage in 1890, and immediately began serving the growing city and other North Shore villages. To put this in perspective, Cahill opened his doors just 11 years after the Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed much of the city’s wooden buildings, but also set the stage for constructing the city we know today.
Back then, Cahill relied on horses to haul coal-fired boilers and newfangled water closets. A trolley brought the plumber to the customer.
That original horsepower was eventually replaced by familiar orange Cahill trucks that have been color choice to this day. Service, however, remains the priority – though without the pleasing harness jingle. Meanwhile, original Cahill brass nametags can still be found on pipe and fixtures in many historic area homes.
Allyson’s history of Cahill also mentioned a name – Alice H. Walker – we hadn’t heard before that while not directly related to the plumbing and heating company certainly help its own development. Let’s take a quick detour and tell you that Walker, an African-American woman, born in 1895 in New Jersey, is credited with developing early central heating systems. She attended Howard University Academy in Washington, D.C. The high school academy was an offshoot of Howard University, which was a common educational practice at the time.
In 1910, Parker graduated from the academy with honors. It’s said she found her design inspiration in the cold New Jersey winters. She felt there was a more effective method to heat a home than a fireplace, which was often labor-intensive and aggravated breathing conditions.
Her invention eliminated the need to venture outdoors to chop or buy more wood. In addition, it reduced the risk of house fires because fireplaces were no longer needed to burn overnight.
On Dec. 23, 1919, Parker filed her patent for her heating system invention. Her design allowed for cool air to be pulled into the furnace, where it was heated by natural gas combustion. The warmed air would then be pulled from the heat exchanger through ducts to each room of the house. Although Parker was not the first to imagine central heating as a concept, her idea to use natural gas was revolutionary. Previously, heaters used coal or wood.
In the meantime, the John J. Cahill company and family, have called Evanston home ever since. John J. Cahill III, the fourth generation, currently helms the operation.
In 2015, the company celebrated 125 years of service, and the city of Evanston officially proclaimed June 22 “John J. Cahill Day.”
In giving back to the city that helped it flourish, Cahill has long supported countless local organizations and schools.
With a family legacy of trust and innovation for 130 years, John J. Cahill Inc. is proud, and thankful, to serve the communities it helped build.
Chas F. Bruckner and
Son Inc., Broadview, Illinois
Let’s start the history of Chas. F. Bruckner and Son Inc. at the right now. And by right now, we mean with Cliff Bruckner, a UA Local 130 member and part of the fifth generation of Bruckners working at the Chicago mainstay.
Last October, the Chicago Sun-Times profiled Cliff, 38, as he worked with his crew adding plumbing to an old building being converted into a new kindergarten at Christ the King Elementary School on the city’s South Side.
“A few minutes later, he trims a section of carefully measured cast iron pipe with a massive chain cutter and mounts it beneath the ceiling,” reporter Ryan Smith wrote. “After stuffing the attached joint full of rope-like material called oakum, he pours a ladle full of molten lead onto it to create a permanent seal. Any mishandling of the soupy 360 degree-plus lead is dangerous to both structure and worker.
““It could definitely hurt,” says Bruckner as he adjusts his hard hat.”
It was a great piece on Cliff, but also the future of plumbing as well as an introduction to the history of a plumbing company that’s built most any name-brand retail, university, entertainment and public works projects in the Windy City for decades. Seriously, take a look at the “past projects” listed on the web site. It’s a much shorter answer to wonder what they haven’t built.
After graduating from the University of Iowa in 2003 with a degree in civil engineering, Cliff returned to Chicago to start his five-year apprenticeship. He became a full-time journeyman in 2010 for the business that is run by his dad and uncle. He’s currently a project superintendent.
And while the newspaper featured Cliff prominently, he’s now one of six Bruckners working at the family business, which includes fellow plumber, cousin Marty, who was a part of the crew at the school.
Cliff “teaches me everything I know, and I love working side by side with the family every day,” Marty told the Sun-Times.
Cliff’s great-great grandfather Charles F. Bruckner, a German immigrant, started the business in 1890. Incredibly, up until a move late last year, the company operated out of the same building on West 26th Street in Chicago.
Bruckner, originally a butcher by trade, opened his doors with partner and brother-in-law Joseph Weber as Weber and Bruckner Plumbing and Heating.
Fourteen years later, Bruckner amicably parted ways with Joseph in order to focus just on plumbing.
“At some point, the Webers moved to Wisconsin,” says Jim Bruckner, great-grandson of Charles who currently owns the business with his brother, Tom. “A few years ago, a Weber family member contacted us and wondered if the business was still in operation. What’s funny was she had a picture of my grandfather being baptized.”
With a new company name and sole ownership, Charles oversaw many large and exciting projects, including a portion of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Interestingly enough, the Bruckner business expanded in tandem with another local businessman by the name of Charles R. Walgreen. Walgreen started what would eventually become the second largest pharmacy store chain in the United States with his first store on the corner of Bowen and Cottage Grove Avenues in Chicago in 1901. In fact, almost every Chicago-area Walgreen's drugstore that opened before 1970 had a Bruckner plumber behind it.
In 1936, Charles imparted his business to two of his children: Frank and Anne.
As these types of stories go, Frank got into the business when he was about 4, but had to learn the trade as an apprentice in 1919 from another local contractor because as an old newspaper clipping says, “his dad didn’t really have room for him.”
If truth be told, the “and Son” part ought to be “and Son and Daughter.” Charles took ill in 1924 so that year Frank went to work for his father. By the 1930s, Frank and Anne were running and owning the business. (While the details are sketchy, Jim says Charles remained in the business, until he died in 1948 at age 84.)
However, Anne was an equal partner in the business, too. In fact, go to Bruckner’s web page and if you notice an old black-and-white picture of a somewhat feminine-looking plumber, that’s Anne.
“I don’t know if she actually worked as a plumber,” Jim says. “But she was a jack-of-all-trades and would go out into the field and help, if they needed, or make a delivery. Whatever she could do.”
Jim related a story about an IRS audit in the late-1950s that shows just how far ahead of her time Anne was. Even with Anne and Frank 50-50 partners, the IRS fined both the business and Anne after the audit “because she was overly compensated since she was paid as much as my grandfather.”
Ann remained a part of the business until the early 1960s when she passed away. After Anne's death, Frank continued to expand the company and saw it incorporated in 1955. Frank put his heart and soul into the family business until he passed the company on in 1976 to his two sons: Cliff F. and Bernard Bruckner.
Cliff started driving a truck for the company while in high school in the 1940s and became an apprentice in 1947. Bernie also worked at the company during the summers before becoming an apprentice in 1964.
Cliff’s life was cut short by a heart attack at age 49. By then, however, his sons, Jim and Tom, had joined the family business as the next generation. (Bernie eventually retired in 2002.)
Jim attended Western Illinois University. Following his graduation with a degree in finance, Jim began his plumbing apprenticeship and joined Local 130 in 1976. He received his journeyman's license in 1981. Jim is a board member of the Plumbing Council, as well as the Joint Apprenticeship Committee
Like his older brother, Tom began working for his father at Bruckner Plumbing as a teenager. And, he never stopped. Tom knew from the age of 6 that he wanted to be a major player in his father's business. Tom attended college with the view in mind that he would return to work for the family. In 1985, after receiving a degree in business from St. Mary's University, Tom began his plumbing apprenticeship in 1985 and joined Local 130. He received his journeyman's license in 1989.
Chas F. Bruckner and Son Plumbing currently employs Local 130 and 501 plumbers, Local 150 operating engineers and union laborers. The company also boasts an experienced and dedicated office staff. Bruckner Plumbing is a member of the Plumbing Contractors Association, the Illinois Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors, the Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Authority of Illinois and the Plumbing Council of Chicagoland.
E.M. Duggan is a fifth-generation, family-owned mechanical contracting business long respected for expertise in plumbing, HVAC and fire protection.
The company pioneered prefab, and its capabilities extend well beyond plumbing and piping to CAD services, safety and quality, green building and 24-hour services. Duggan has also kept up with emerging technologies such as BIM, and it has demonstrated its ability to work in a wide variety of sectors, including commercial, industrial, institutional, medical, government, educational, hospitality, laboratories, mixed use, stadiums, theaters, LEED certified and multifamily residential.
The company operates from three massive facilities totaling more than 120,000 square feet and employs more than 450 people.
Given what the company looks like today, you might be surprised on how relatively small the company was for many of its 129 years.
Of course, most of our origin stories start out on a humble note, but not all grow to become the kind of powerhouses like Duggan – and this is the only contractor we know of that ended up securing its own supplies by acquiring a string of supply houses.
To begin at the beginning, 27-year-old Edward M. Duggan opened his business out of a storefront on Shawmut Avenue in Boston in 1891. Edward started out doing plumbing repair and maintenance work for local homes. The venture continued as a relatively modest business, through the lean times of the 1930s.
Following Duggan’s death in 1942, his son, William took over. William’s time at the helm, however, was limited since he passed away just six years later. After his death, sons Edward M. Duggan II and William Duggan moved the business to Canton.
In 1967, E.M. Duggan was one of the first contractors to add a prefab shop, a safe place for workers to assemble parts rather than being subjected to the outside elements at a jobsite. A big move no doubt that set the stage for the company’s reputation, but in 1968, the company was still operating out of a 2,275-square-foot building, albeit new, with four employees.
Then in 1975, the brothers made a seemingly unusual purchase – Capeway Wholesale Plumbing & Heating, followed by Republic Plumbing Supply in 1977 and then Monroe Plumbing Supply in 1979.
But not so out of step for a contractor at the time, explains Vincent Petroni, the company’s current CEO, president and COO.
“They were running into supply issues as far as getting the necessary copper and other items they needed,” Petroni says, who joined the company as controller in 1979. “At the time I joined, we were predominately a multifamily residential plumbing company doing a little bit of heating.”
The shortages for common plumbing and piping products started cropping up in the early 1970s “so the brothers decided that they really had to guarantee their ability to get products to keep the business going,” Petroni told us. “They ended up buying the supply houses, all of them out of bankruptcy.”
By 1983, William decided he liked wholesale-distribution more than construction so the supply operations were spun off. Today, the Duggan family still runs Republic Plumbing Supply, based in Norwood, Massachusetts, which operates nine locations, including five showrooms.
Meanwhile, revenue back at E.M. Duggan climbed past $10 million in 1988. Edward II built the contracting company’s reputation as a great company to do business with, as well as a great company to work for. The master plumber had an eye for detail and a memory to match. It’s said he could recall exactly how many plumbing fixtures he had installed on a jobsite 40 years before.
During his tenure, Edward II redirected the focus of E.M. Duggan Co. toward commercial and industrial work.
Edward II served as company president from 1948 until 1991. At that point, he decided to step away from the company and sold the firm to son-in-law Petroni, and his wife, Maureen, as well as some other key Duggan executives. (Edward II passed away in 2011.)
“He wanted to get to the company’s 100-year anniversary and then decided it was time to stop working,” Petroni adds.
While the timing was perfect for Edward II to retire, the timing was less than perfect to purchase the business. Petroni and the new owners took over right in time for the next recession.
“We bought the company when it was doing $12 million a year,” Petroni says, “and I was able to ride that down to $7 million.”
Still, the company fought back and continued to expand. At this point in our interview, Petroni praised Paul Herrington, who was named president after the new group took other. The first nonfamily member to be named president, Harrington remained in the position for the next 20 years and retired in 2010.
Another key employee was Jim Murray, the company’s head of engineering, who Petroni says essentially created prefab. After serving in the Navy, Duggan spent his entire 46-year career at Duggan eventually becoming an executive vice president. Murray passed away last February at age 80.
“… he was known industry wide for his amazing free hand of mechanical systems,” states his obit, “and his very early implementation of prefabrication.”
As a result of Murray’s legacy, Duggan now has two prefab shops spanning more than 100,000 square feet.
Meanwhile, the company added a service division in 2000, and by 2007, the company was flying high with revenue increasing to $80 million.
Then in 2009, Leonard Monfredo, Petroni’s son-in-law, joined the company. He along with wife Karin represent the fifth generation. Monfredo, who sold his stake in New York City general contracting business that’s still in operation, joined the Duggan team operating all aspects of the business including finances, planning, operations, client relations, management, vendor relations, advertising, marketing, safety and green building. He is also president of Duggan Mechanical Service.
Like his father-in-law, Monfredo, executive vice president of operations and president of Duggan Mechanical Service, picked an inauspicious time to join the family firm.
With the onset of the Great Recession, Duggan’s revenue slid to around $35 million.
“Definitely, all my fault,” Monfredo jokes.
Still, Petroni and Monfredo both consider that low point to be a great turning point for the company.
“We have always had a hard time finding good project managers and good estimators and everyone was pretty entrenched where they were,” Petroni explains. “But then everyone was laying people off. That gave us the opportunity to pick up some fabulous people who were never on the market and they couldn’t wait to get here.”
Monfredo agrees: “While the recession was a bad thing, it gave us that freedom as an organization. Vinnie and I assembled a team of people who would have never been available to us if the construction industry was doing fantastic.”
The two hired about 15 people back then who added their expertise in the mechanical contracting industry to help E.M. Duggan grow.
To Petroni, these people were the company’s future.
“With these people coming on board and with Lennie here, I could see the future. I could see the next generation,” Petroni says.
For his part, Monfredo led Duggan’s transformation, expanding and modifying production while providing workers with a safe, comfortable environment to create high-quality work in a fast manner.
“We focused on making technology a huge piece of our efficiency,” he explains. “We feel strongly about staying ahead of the technology curve. Safety is up there in the top three concerns of the company. Most of our practices are from the lean playbook.”
One the most recent accomplishments at the firm came in 2014 with the opening of a Special Projects Division in downtown Boston to provide mechanical services and support to projects in the metro area — from small rehab projects to major construction.
Currently, Petroni and Monfredo, along with an executive team consisting of Rick Dorci and Kevin Walsh, continue the Duggan way by maintaining and fostering relationships with employees, clients and outside vendors.
In 2017 the executive team, made a calculated decision to advance their technology division. They continue to lead the way in the mechanical contracting world with their knowledge of BIM, contracting and design.
Monfredo continues to foster relationships with both employees and outside vendors.
“In today’s world we have state of the art technology and equipment,” he adds. “But it’s our people that run and operate the technology that make us leaders in the industry. We want to be able to perform work quicker and serve owners better, because building go up much faster today than they used to. Fortunately, our past and present leaders have fostered a mentality here that is committed to succeeding and always improving what we do.” l