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McQuillan Bros. Plumbing, Heat & AC,
St. Paul, Minnesota
This month, we conclude our series on the country’s oldest contractors still “in the family.” But first, a correction: We began the list in our April issue with J.F. Ahern Co., Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, at No. 1 with a birthdate of 1880, followed by H.C. Blake Co., Huntsville, Alabama, started in 1884.
After that issue hit the streets, however, we heard from John McQuillan Jr.
“I saw your article about the oldest plumbing shops, and I thought I would throw my family’s business in the mix,” he wrote. “My family has been operating plumbing and heating in St. Paul, Minnesota, since 1883. I’m blessed to be the 5th generation to pick up the torch. The business name is McQuillan Bros., and I’ll attach some old images. If you ever want to talk about it, I’d love to share all I have.”
As it turns out, John Jr., 37, is the fifth (or is it the sixth or seventh?) of a long line of “John McQuillans,” at the business. While we may have lost count at some point by the 1920s, John Jr. is definitely the latest in more than 30 McQuillan family members over the years at the Twin Cities mainstay, and maybe most important, he, along with brother Matt McQuillan, 36, represents the next generation of the namesake brothers of the bunch.
After getting his email, we decided to push on with the series as it stood, ending with Corrigan Co., St. Louis, Missouri, at No. 9 in last month’s issue. (There was a tie at the original No. 6 so our Top Ten contains 11 companies.) But everyone from J.F. Ahern’s perch has to move down a peg since McQuillan Bros. should rightfully be in our No. 2 spot.
Which is not to say it’s been smooth sailing for the past 137 years for McQuillan Bros. because, in fact, it was a particularly awful time leading up to its 128th year. But after a few years of relative dormancy, the St. Paul plumbing dynasty remains in its fourth generation of family ownership with the fifth generation an active part of today’s operations.
The first McQuillan Bros.
The story of McQuillan Bros. is the story of four brothers all born on a farm near Galena, Illinois: James Francis born in 1854; John No. 2 (no one knows his middle name) born in 1855; Phillip Louis born in 1861; and Peter Marcus born in 1863.
They were the sons of John and Margaret McQuillan, Irish immigrants from County Fermanagh who later moved on to another farm in Dakota County, Minnesota in 1865. (For the record, John and Margaret also had three daughters.)
James Francis, commonly referred to as J.F. was the first McQuillan brother to venture into the plumbing trade and was chiefly responsible for bringing his brothers, sons and nephews – the first generation of brothers would marry and have 37 children among them – into the trade, too.
J.F. quit school at 14 to help his father on the Illinois and Minnesota farms. At 17, he arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota on his own and became an apprentice to Prendergast Brothers Plumbing Shop where he stayed for two years, followed by another two years at the J.J. Dunnigan Plumbing Shop.
In 1878, J.F. took a break from plumbing, and he and John No. 2 tried their hands at farming again. They leased land from an uncle, Philip Francis McQuillan, who was the grandfather of no less than famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But after two years, J.F. returned to St. Paul and went back to plumbing work at Prendergast, leaving behind the farm to John No. 2 with help at this point from Peter.
By 1881, J.F. opened a plumbing business with a Mr. Thurston called McQuillan and Thurston. Peter, too, left the farm, and he and Phillip went to work for J.F.
Two years later, J.F. and his brothers went into business with a Mr. Shea and the business was called McQuillan and Shea. Like Mr. Thurston, no one today knows much about Mr. Shea, not even his first name.
However, you can see in one of our photos a bill of sale dated Dec. 11, 1883: “$2.19 for a day and a quarter of labor; and 60 cents, for 2 pounds of solder. Work for a “Mr. Hoyt.” ”
The framed piece of parchment can still be found on display at the McQuillan Bros.’ offices and is considered the official start of the family business. To this day, all McQuillan Bros.’ trucks say: “In business since 1883.”
But we actually have to wait until 1887 for the first official plumbing business called McQuillan Bros. after John No. 2 gives up farming and once again joined forces with J.F.
Brothers Phillip and Peter joined this business, too, but eventually struck out on their own.
Phillip and his friend, a sheet metal worker named Mr. Bigler, headed to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, to open up a hardware store and plumbing shop. Phillip later went into the plumbing business for himself. Phillip and his wife, Johanna, raised 12 children. He died at the age of 54 in 1915.
At the urging of Phillip, Peter moved to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, and opened up his own plumbing shop. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had six children. He died at the age of 84 in 1947.
Second generation emerges
J.F. and John No. 2 represent the first generation of McQuillan Bros. with John No. 2 passing away at age 67 in 1926, and J.F. dying a year later at age 73.
J.F. had three sons, John; Edwin; and Warren, who followed him into the plumbing business. However, by sheer force of numbers alone, John No. 2’s 10 sons came to represent the second generation. (For the record, J.F. had four daughters, and John No. 2, after ten straight boys, finally had a daughter, too.)
“In 1900, John No. 2 brought his sons into the shop starting with Louis the first one at age 17,” says a family history, “and each of the other sons came in as they reached anywhere from 16 to 18 years of age. James A., John L. and Joseph were the next three to join the workforce.” After noting that the shop moved in 1908 to 389 Selby, the history goes on to add that “Frank and Charles were added to the confusion.”
In those days, the brothers could be seen going about their day to construction sites and service work hopping city streetcars after stowing their tools in the tram’s cowcatcher.
Genealogy may state their names, but family lore shares their nicknames, although exactly who’s who is lost to time. Take “Quasimodo,” for instance, who earned the moniker for his work on the Cathedral of St. Paul, which was built between 1907-1915.
A couple of other brothers went by the more likely plumbing names, such as “Bathtub,” and “Elbow Bender.”
Together the brothers built the company’s reputation for installing and maintaining boilers across the Twin Cities. And if family lore is to be believed, their hydronic expertise was also put to use building stills during Prohibition with some traveling to Chicago to do the same for Al Capone.
The brothers also designed and installed the district steam-heating system in Duluth, Minnesota, put in gas piping in Yellowstone National Park and, when business was slow, some were sent to Chippewa Falls, to work for Phillip or up to Peter’s place in Ladysmith.
In the meantime, McQuillan Bros. was also the first union shop west of Chicago, and one of the first to employ African-American tradesmen.
At some point, John No. 2’s son Arthur, who would become known as the “Mayor of Selby Street” joined the business and took over the administrative work at the office.
According to the company’s timeline, some of John No. 2’s sons drifted away from the shop.
Louis Ernest quit the trade and became a salesman in Chicago. Frank (Francis Peter) tried to go into business for himself and ran a pool hall and beer parlor with little success. He returned to the family business by the late-1930s and stayed on until he retired. Charles Joseph wanted to be a cowboy and worked on cattle ranches in Montana, Canada and North Dakota. Sadly, John Leon contracted TB, was unable to work and died at 47.
The next generations
The last of John No. 2’s sons, Earl Philip McQuillan, eventually joined the business. And in time, Earl had a son named John Edward McQuillan, who started going on calls with his dad and uncles while in high school.
John Edward became a journeyman at 21, and eventually took over the business in the 1950s as the third generation, later joined by his brother Jim.
John Edward’s son, John Joseph McQuillan, the first of the fourth generation, started working for his father when he was 15, eventually helping to install plumbing and piping for another long-time customer – the Minnesota State Fair.
Let’s set aside the middle names at this point and refer to John Joseph as John Sr.; his son, John Jr., was our email friend who got this ball rolling.
John Sr. worked for his dad for 20 years.
“The business went on to quadruple in size,” John Sr., 65, says. “And we went from seven plumbers to 28 plumbers in a matter of a few years.”
Times were good for the business, but that’s when trouble started for the family. John Sr. shared with us the difficult time when he was in his early-30s, unable to loosen his dad’s tight grip on the business.
He had expected his dad might hand the company over to him, but he never could establish any formal plan.
“He was going to retire at 60,” John Sr. adds. “And then it was 62 and then it was 65. But he wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
At 35, John Sr. made the tough decision in the early-1990s to leave McQuillan Bros behind and start his own company, Foremost Mechanical, in nearby Maplewood, Minnesota.
Following his father’s passing in 1998, the business stayed in the family with John’s younger brother, Tim, taking over.
For a time, both businesses prospered with Foremost having some 30 people in the field, including sons, John Jr. and Matt.
But the hangover of the Great Recession in 2009 set the stage for trouble for both.
“I tried to get too big at the wrong time,” Tim told a local newspaper in 2011.
By then, the business that once had 55 employees and $11 million in annual gross sales soon shrank. Revenue was about half that in 2010, Tim told the newspaper, and even less by the time the story was published in December of 2011.
“We had three weeks with no business at all,” he added.
Tim closed the doors to McQuillan Bros. on Dec. 7, 2011.
“When I signed that last check, I’ll be honest, it felt like the weight of the world was lifted,” Tim added. “Then later, I felt terrible. Twenty-four people without a job.”
The news article closed with Tim going to work as a service manager for Nasseff Mechanical Contractors, founded in St. Paul some 89 years after Tim’s great-great-grandfather opened his doors. Tim hoped that Nasseff would hire a few of his old employees, but it didn’t have room for all of them.
“They were the dynasty of this industry,” added Mickey Nasseff.
John Sr., however, wasn’t about to let that dynasty be forgotten. Like his brother, he was feeling the brunt of the recession, too.
“The economy was horrible,” he remembers for his business. “I was down to myself and my two boys, and I was out in the field working. There were many months when I was on my own, with no work for them.”
Even so, he quickly set about trying his best to resurrect the family business. Six months after it closed, he was able to obtain the phone number, and he started calling his business Foremost-McQuillan. A few years of wrangling followed, before he eventually bought the name and, on Jan. 1, 2015, John Sr.’s business officially became McQuillan Bros.
The Twin Cities mainstay, however, also had to figure out how to remain a mainstay.
John Sr. credits much of his business’ turnaround to his membership in Nexstar, a contractor-networking group that’s provided training classes, business solutions and leadership events since 1992.
His interest in Nexstar predates the shutdown of McQuillan Bros., as he first considered joining in 2004 when Foremost was feeling the pinch. At the time, John Sr. decided to stick with his commercial work, which was also major part of the McQuillan Bros.’ business.
“I just didn’t want to get into residential service and replacement,” he adds. “Now that I look back on it, I can’t imagine why I didn’t make the change sooner.”
But as John Sr. was on the verge of relaunching McQuillan Bros., he decided to go all in with Nexstar.
And when he says all in, he means it.
“God set me straight up in bed and told me to join Nexstar,” John Sr. says, adding that he cashed in retirement funds to do it because we “were sucking wind.”
John Sr. jettisoned the commercial work and set the course for residential work. (About the only commercial work left is at the behest of a business-owning homeowner.)
A hallmark of the current business plan is the Home Care Club, a service agreement program that currently counts 1,900 customers. For $8 a month, members receive three annual inspections – preseason heating; preseason cooling and full plumbing – plus, priority service and discounted rates.
“With home maintenance,” John Jr. says, “a customer can be either proactive or reactive. Proactive care is a win-win for all. We’ll still be glad to go out at midnight on New Year’s Eve for an emergency call. But it’s always better for everyone involved to regularly schedule maintenance for home plumbing and heating systems.”
Of Nexstar, John Sr. says, “Join and don’t look back,” rattling off a list of other services, such as benchmarking resources, business planning workshops and other training events and coaching staff that have helped the company.
Today, McQuillan Bros. seems to be far past the worst of the strife.
“It’s been dynamic since we got the name back,” John Jr. says “We went from $1 million to $10 million in sales. We’ve rebranded with new trucks that speak to our heritage and history and still have a new eye-catching look. Things were certainly choppy not many year ago, but what remains is an incredibly strong rich business tradition that’s still in the family and still trying to serve its community of customers.”
Plus, John Jr. and Matt – both of whom have had wrenches in their hands since their teens – can also look forward to a succession plan.
“I have no doubt that the company will be in good hands after I’ve left,” John Sr. adds, “and we’re actually planning on making that transition sooner rather than later.” •