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It’s not every day you get a chance to combine a feature story while simultaneously crossing off a bucket list item. So I was beyond thrilled when an opportunity arose to visit BellSimons Companies located in Hartford, Connecticut, this past August to see Lord Stanley's Cup. Little did I know at the time what a remarkable, heartfelt, and inspiring story awaited me that rainy August afternoon in New England.
Murphy Road is riddled with the usual outfits of manufacturing, wholesaling, and obligatory Dunkin Donuts on the corner. BellSimons’ shop is an easy drive from downtown Hartford. When entering, you’re greeted not only by an impressive array of HVAC products (sealants, cleaners, tools, etc) stacked neatly on shelves, but also by smiling faces. The hub of this operation like all distributors is the counter. The gentlemen at the counter of that particular store are familiar faces in the market, with over 150 years of experience in New England. One of them, Steve Bonino, a 40-year BellSimons veteran, was the first person to greet me that afternoon. He has certainly made a name for himself as a kind, fiercely loyal, and wickedly sharp counter salesman at the shop. He also has a very close tie with hockey as his son, Nick Bonino, is a Pittsburgh Penguin. Everyone I spoke to during my two day visit said the same thing; Steve is one of a kind. So as everyone from that branch was following the Stanley Cup finals and watched as the Penguins won, nobody really expected to be in the presence of the historic trophy a few months later. And that is where this story takes off. But first, who is BellSimons?
Land Of Steady Habits
Celebrating their 75th anniversary this year BellSimons’ has never looked brighter. But who is this powerhouse family owned HVAC distributor? Started in 1941 by Dennis Redden Sr, the company has grown throughout the years with a series of acquisitions and a loyalty to customer base that has galvanized their reputation as a premiere New England HVAC and refrigeration wholesaler.
After the second World War Dennis Redden Jr. and his brothers Tuck and Jim returned from the service to begin their careers. At that time it was chiefly hydronic, oil-based heating. In 1959 they acquired the Joseph Simons Company, a refrigeration wholesaler. “That got us into the refrigeration business” explains Floran Boland, president of BellSimons. “We've always been a little bit unusual to have heating and refrigeration, and we're strong in both. Prior to 1959, the stores were in Hartford, and along the Connecticut shoreline in Stamford, New Haven, and New London and Springfield, Massachusetts. After the acquisition of the Joseph Simons Company they increased their footprint with a store in Portland, Maine. Over the years through opening branches and acquisitions they've filled in that map and currently have 30 stores that go from Stamford, Connecticut up to Bangor, Maine, as well as two in upstate New York and a Central Distribution warehouse in Palmer, MA.
Floran, who is the son-in-law of the late Dennis Redden Jr. began his career as a States Attorney for the state of Connecticut before eventually making a career change in 1978. He attributes the success of the company to Dennis, who was also his most influential mentor. “He always let people try new things,” he said. “People liked working for him for a lot of reasons, but particularly because of the freedom he afforded them and a unique culture of flexibility and independence he created.”
Legacy is an important factor for the company. A number of fourth generation family members work at BellSimons' many locations including brothers Jack and Brian Boland, Tom Kurtz, Kevin Redden, and Chris Zodda. One of the things they admire is the loyalty that their company has to their people that make it a great place to work. When the economy tanked and was slow to rebound they didn't have any layoffs. The relationships that they’ve established with the people that work there have been forged over a lot of growing pains and a great deal of loyalty has been borne of that mutual respect. “You really don't see that a whole lot these days so it's refreshing to be able to establish and work towards that because you strive for people to have faith in you and to trust you,” Brian says, “that is something that takes a long time to earn and is easily lost.” That kind of loyalty was aptly displayed during Nick’s visit to the shop. As Brian points out, Nick certainly did not have to make BellSimons a stop during his day with the Cup. Between bringing the Cup to the Children's Medical Center and making it available to the public to view at his alma mater, he had a busy schedule. But he made sure that his dad and everyone he’s worked with over the years had a chance to experience the joy and pride even for 30 minutes.
This story of the Stanley Cup visiting BellSimons’ is not complete without the story of Steve. As the father of Pittsburgh Penguin Nick Bonino, Steve not only felt a tremendous amount of pride at the Stanley Cup win but bringing it to his second home at BellSimons Hartford branch. “This is a family run company – it's not a corporation with some CEO in Seattle or Oshkosh, Wisconsin or something” he says. “I think it's different for me because being here so long, I've come to know the Boland’s and the Redden’s, It was that whole connection between me and those families.” The late Dennis Redden II, who Steve describes as a true gentleman who tied his own bowtie everyday, a WWII vet, an a businessman who encouraged you to run with ideas was integral to his success at the company.
Steve always had an electronics interest as a kid. He attended the New England Technical Institute in New Britain, Connecticut and learned how fix TV's. He started at BellSimons in 1977 at the repair shop building motors for blowers and for circulators. “We were able to repair controls from Honeywell and Fireye. You can't do that anymore now because everything is solid state, digital, and plug-in relays” he describes. “I had a knowledge of controls and circulators and eventually I became a counter guy here. It'll be forty years in January.”
When asked what his most memorable highlight had been in almost 40 years at the company, Steve answered simply – meeting his wife, Joanne. Carla Redden, daughter of Dennis, was best friends with Joanne. They went to school together in West Hartford and maintained a very close friendship. Carla and her husband, Mike Riccio, thought Steve and Joanne would get along. “And as they say the rest is history” chuckles Steve. They got married in 1984 and had Nick and their daughter, Ally. “Coming to work here was a life changing thing, but you didn't know it [at the time]. It's like, I had no idea that I'm going to get a job, getting greasy and everything, fixing oil pumps, and eventually I'm going to find my wife and have a family.”
And as he points out, everybody at the shop even early on, had a skill. Sonny could polish a bearing assembly. Greg and Juan, they could take a pump apart and it would be like brand new. Steve worked with the electronic parts and controls. And the interaction between all of them goes outside of the shop. They do stuff socially together like go to concerts or football or baseball games. And that kind of camaraderie carries over into the work, too. Steve notes how the contractors like coming to the shop because if they walk in, they're not standing there for five or ten minutes waiting for somebody to go, ‘Can I help you?’ It’ll immediately be, ‘Can I help you?’ “As soon as you finish one. There's downtime where you get everything else done, you catch up on P.O.'s and transfers and all that” he explains.
As for the big win, Steve was in Pittsburgh for game five, which if the Penguins had won that game, they would have won the Cup. Pittsburgh had forty-six shots on Jones that night. Any other night, Pittsburgh wins that game five to two. But that night, Jones stopped all but two, so it was just one of those games where the goalie stands on his head. One of Steve’s customers brought in a plastic penguin as a sort of good luck charm to the shop. Steve brought it home, put it right in front of the TV for a playoff game. “We're sitting there and by the second period, we're losing” recalls Steve. “Joanne goes, ‘Get him out of here. Get it out of the house, and bring it back to work.’ I put it on the front stoop there and I said, ‘Hey, it looks pretty good out there, it's going back to work” where now it proudly displays next to his station at the counter.
As Steve reminisces about that big game, he recalls his time coaching Nick until he turned 11. “When he was little, summertime came and he could go play soccer and we'd go camping and go to the beach and go to Cape Cod and lead a normal kid's life.” Steve wanted to provide as normal of a childhood for Nick as possible while still keeping the love of hockey present. He continues describing after game or practice car rides home as two minutes talking about the game and then spending the rest of the time on something else. “I would get in the car with him, we'd talk about the game for two minutes, and then he'd read a book” he remembers. They were members of USA Hockey, and would go to USA Hockey meetings and participate in a forum where people were talking about what they did, how they coached, how they handled it. One of the biggest things was to play other sports. Not only for muscle development but for change of pace. But as Steve points out, Nick was not keen on any other sport besides hockey trying his hand at baseball. And Steve let him dabble in whatever sport he chose to explore in addition to hockey. “Maybe I learned that from Mr. Redden; go for it, try it out, see where it takes you and have trust.” And that trust sure paid off. On June 12, 2016, the Penguins defeated the Sharks in a 4-2 series to win their fourth Stanley Cup title.
I don’t think any other industry has the same level of deep-rooted sense of pride and loyalty such are ours. The stories I’m lucky enough to share, the inspiring people I meet are all a testament to this fact. You’ll see throughout this story the photos and smiling faces from this most memorable day. For most of us there, it was a once in a lifetime experience. And to be able to share that and the story of BellSimons, it’ll live on for a very long time. As the company looks to branch into different areas of the industry in their next 75 years, this day will most certainly live on as a truly proud moment for not only father and son, but from one family to another.