As Time Goes By: A Celebration of Business Resilience and Strength
One hundred years and counting: A view of the old Hooper office on Gilman Street.
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For businesses of long standing, remembering one’s anniversary is a piece of cake, especially when their top executives recall what it took to stay alive through generations of challenge. The lessons of history not only apply to nation-states, but to the lives of companies that share a national experience, whether it’s war, recession, recovery, or boom.
Those business lessons offer an explanation for longevity, and it’s that longevity that IB celebrates each January with a nod to area companies that will observe milestone anniversaries. In 2013, there are hundreds of them in Dane County alone, a testament to the sustained level of business performance here.
But unless the business is iconic like Harley-Davidson, significant business anniversaries tend to go unrecognized beyond employees and clients. Those who recall Harley’s 100th birthday bash in 2003 know that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, celebrated with a massive motorcycle ride to Milwaukee’s Summerfest Grounds, where Elton John entertained a gathering of 150,000, some of whom were revved up because the main act wasn’t, as had been rumored, the Rolling Stones.
Sir Elton might have to live with that slight, but longtime businesses in Greater Madison deserve their “propers.” So in what has become an annual feature, IB not only compiled a listing of business survivors, we also spoke with the chief executives of four local companies that will celebrate significant anniversaries in 2013. In so doing, we found that while their corporate histories are very different, they have at least one thing in common: They have leaned on business practices that stand the test of time.
Michael F. Simon Builders: Kitchen Table Sense
Philip Simon still remembers the home designs his father, Michael F. Simon, would discuss with prospective customers at the kitchen table, often carbon copies of what the elder Simon had built for their friends, only painted a different color. “People would come to meet at the kitchen table after supper and talk about what they wanted in a new house,” he recalled. “We had to be on our best behavior because that was the family business.”
It still is, though by necessity, Philip Simon, now president of Michael F. Simon Builders, is a more detailed custom homebuilder than his father was. Rather than a handshake, the minutest specifications are spelled out to the home-buying family, from the plumbing fixtures to soffits.
For Phil, the youngest of five siblings, it’s about meeting client expectations. Although the company is 120 years old, it learns from every project. “If we are doing a poor job of communicating, if our clients are pulling their hair out, then we’re pulling our hair out,” he stated.
The business was in hair-pulling mode in 1980 and 1981, when interest rates of 18% had ground the residential building industry to a halt. It was time to think out of the box, and the result was an innovation called the one-year land contract. Knowing that interest rates could not remain that high forever, Michael F. Simon would build people a house, but they would not go out and secure permanent financing until rates moderated.
“My wife and I are examples,” Simon explained. “In 1981, we built our first house when interest rates were 18%. We had a one-year land contract, and a year later, we locked in at 12% on a 30-year loan, and we were as happy as can be. Today, if rates were 12%, people would say ‘you’re nuts. Housing is going to stop.’”
Michael F. Simon Builders would not be stopped, also diversifying into light commercial projects beyond its Waunakee base, which paid dividends then and now. It has fought the most recent economic sluggishness with more remodeling work. In 2006, the company’s strongest year in terms of dollar volume, “we were at 80% new construction and 20% remodeling,” Simon noted. “Two years ago, we were at 80% remodeling and 20% new. Today, we are about 50-50.”
Asked whether green building has helped pick up the slack, Simon opined that “green” is a misused term. He said so much of what we think of as green building is actually the most common-sense way to build, including things such as adding insulation to the foundation wall. Years ago, builders were not required to insulate the foundation wall, but more heat could be lost through that one foot of concrete than in an entire attic.
“Green is the most common-sense approach no matter what,” Simon stated. “If not, you have a drafty house, and a house with more volatile organic compounds. There are so many features in green that are common sense, but they are not the bells and whistles that customers are going to see. They are the nuts and bolts of the house.”
The family’s business lineage begins with company founder Michael Simon, the father of Michael F. Simon, whose oldest son, Michael P. Simon, became president of the corporation in 1973. In 1997, Michael P. Simon turned the company over to his two younger brothers, Philip and Peter Simon, and appointed Philip president. Peter retired in 2003, and six years later, Philip’s son Paul Simon started full time in project management.
Since the fall of 2010, a family tragedy, the death of Philip’s 22-year-old son Brad, has made it more difficult for him to arrive at the office with his usual sunny disposition. Parents are not supposed to bury their children, or make the gut-wrenching decision to pull a son off life-support, but that’s exactly the call the Simon family faced three Octobers ago.
Brad was following in brother Paul’s footsteps and pursuing a construction management degree at UW-Stout, and he also planned to join the business. Two men were charged in connection with his death; one was acquitted, the other received a reduced sentence. A wrongful death lawsuit ended with a $591,000 judgment in favor of the Simons. It does nothing to diminish the famly’s emotional pain, but it might start a healing process.
To this day, Phil Simon’s biggest business challenge is trying to remain positive when dealing with the emotions of losing a son. “For a construction company today to be 120 years old is phenomenal, and we should be planning to celebrate all year long,” Simon noted. “Instead, it’s about trying to balance emotions from a loss. When people come to our door and want to build a house, I can’t be a grieving father. I have to be upbeat.”