Built to last: How 3 local companies have endured 100 years
Mutual Materials, Nelson Trucking and Manson Construction are three local companies where guiding business principles and a strong sense of family have helped them endure for more than a century.
The Seattle Times
By a long ways, they've beaten the odds; according to one award-winning management book, the usual life span of a company is 12 ½ years.
This is how you last more than 100 years in business:
There is Mutual Materials of Bellevue. It makes bricks and concrete masonry. It evolved from a Seattle brickmaker started in 1900 when the city was being rebuilt in the years after its Great Fire.
Bricks, in one form or another, still are needed for construction.
There is Nelson Trucking of Seattle, hauler of heavy equipment and general freight. It evolved from a company started in 1900 that used horse-drawn carts to haul goods coming off the trains.
Stuff still needs to be hauled from Point A to Point B.
There is Manson Construction of Seattle, started in 1905 to do pile-driving and waterfront construction in Puget Sound.
There is always some port area that needs dredging.
Although state records show some 100 corporations more than a century old in Seattle, many are churches, fraternal organizations or associations. Only a few commercial entities have survived that long, ranging from funeral home Bonney-Watson to Bartell Drugs.
There are common threads running through the three companies profiled here:
• Family members are still involved.
At Nelson Trucking, for example, 21-year-old Lukas Whitehead, who's on the board of directors but learning the ropes working various jobs such as dispatch, proudly points to "my great-grandpa's desk" and letter opener.
• They have stayed true to their core business, but have adapted as technology and consumer preferences have changed. For Mutual Materials, that meant producing "Roman" bricks — those skinny bricks that were popular as facing for homes in the 1940s and 1950s — to these days selling manufactured stone that is common as facing.
• They have stable management and long-term employees who feel a bond with the company.
• They own a considerable portion of the property on which the company sits, enabling them to withstand a harsh recession such as we're now experiencing.
Still, Nelson Trucking and Mutual Materials have had to downsize their work forces. Manson Construction hasn't been as hard hit, it says, because it has a lot of government contracts for such work as ferry-dock repairs.
These threads fit well the criteria for longevity listed by Aries de Geus, a former director at Royal Dutch Shell and author of the 1997 book "The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Environment."
Companies that endure are more than "purely economic machines."
What matters, he says, is "people more than financial assets."
Nelson Trucking: Moving really big stuff
The unofficial motto at Nelson Trucking on Martin Luther King Way South goes something like, "If it's high, wide and ugly, call us."
The company has 45 trucks, which include mammoths that extend 100 feet with a trailer, and can lug gigantic pieces of equipment weighing up to 140,000 pounds. That is its niche.
As another day ends, some of the drivers are back in the one-story, wood-frame operating building in the 9-acre yard. It features some old chairs and tables, and ever-brewing coffee.
These days, the dispatch area also includes the company of Heidi, a 12-year-old black Lab who's always trying to get a little rub from the drivers. Heidi belonged to Peter Whitehead, president of the trucking company, until he died last summer of cancer at age 57. He was the third generation in his family to run the firm.
"I'll end up retiring here," says Rick Young, 55, who's been with the company for 14 years. As with other employees, although not related to the owners, the place feels like family to him. "I like the camaraderie. I like the honesty."
The drivers are proud of their work.
"Our people are hauling big stuff, interesting stuff," says Rick Goetz, who joined Nelson Trucking 22 years ago and eventually became a partner.
"We're talking about truck drivers who're hauling monster machines. You don't get somebody just out of truck-driving school to do that."
He's not family, but close, having graduated from Queen Anne High School in 1971 with Peter Whitehead.
The drivers talk about hauling everything from a Japanese army tank from Seattle to Yakima (for war games), to the iconic Hat 'n' Boots landmark — the hat is 44 feet wide and the boots are 22 feet high — that was lugged to a Georgetown park from its previous location at a closed gas station.
But the company's main business is hauling big, heavy-duty machinery like cranes, excavators or equipment with tires 6 feet across.
In the early days, Nelson Trucking was called Reliable Transfer and Storage, and the hauling was done by horse and carriage. The goods came in on the railroad and on ships, says Dean Whitehead, brother of Peter Whitehead.
Times changed and the company evolved.
Motorized trucks replaced the horses.
The company never had a lot of debt, which has helped it during this recession, says Goetz, who became president upon Peter Whitehead's passing.
In this recession, the company has had to cut back on drivers, down from 60 to 70 drivers to about 30 to 40 these days.
Lukas Whitehead, son of Peter Whitehead, always knew he'd work at the family business.
"I've been working here since I was 14, picking up trash, doing random jobs," he says. "I learned how to drive a car here. Half of these here, they're like my uncles."
Whitehead takes a visitor to an office in the back. It has a couple of desks and an old leather chair with a tear in the back. They were used by his great-grandfather, and he still uses them.
In another room is a stack of old log books dating back to the 1930s, each page filled with job numbers.
"You can't get rid of stuff like that," says Whitehead.
Mutual Materials: Surviving by staying focused
Mutual Materials' brickmaking facility in Newcastle is housed in a 340-foot-long hangar. Inside rest large piles of clay, some as high as 35 feet, each kind used to create a different color of brick.
A front-end loader scoops up the clay and a mix of clay and broken bits of already-manufactured recycled brick. The mixture is ground up in a machine with four 5-foot, solid-steel wheels, each wheel weighing 12,000 pounds.
So when Kendall Anderegg, a company vice president, walks through the place and her dark pants-suit gets a little dusty, she's reminded exactly what kind of family business she's in.
In 1889, the Great Seattle Fire left 64 acres in ruins, and what is now Pioneer Square was rebuilt not with wood frame, but with bricks and stone.
Builders Brick was founded in 1900 by Daniel Houlahan to help provide those bricks, with a location at the base of Beacon Hill.
The privately held company eventually became Mutual Materials, now with some $100 million in annual sales.
You can name many landmark buildings in this city, and it's the company's bricks you will find in them: Parrington Hall at the University of Washington. The Fairmont Olympic Hotel. The Northern Life Tower.
Houlahan was Anderegg's great-great-grandfather.
In 2002, after a few years of working for Intel in program management, she came home to the family business and now is vice president of sales and distribution.
That reassured the many longtime employees that their company would stay a family business; a fifth generation was involved.
As dealer sales manager Brian Healow, who's been with the company for 27 years, explains about the family members who've worked at the firm, "They've got clay in their veins."
These days, it's not just bricks that Mutual markets.
It also produces a good number of concrete products — building blocks, pavers and segmented retaining walls.
But the company hasn't strayed from its core business.
The 52-acre Newcastle brick facility, for example, is right near other commercial developments, and the land would be coveted for other uses.
"My grandfather was adamant. He said, 'We're not in real estate. We're in the manufacturing and distribution of building materials.' I think it has served us well," says Anderegg.
In this recession, Mutual has had to cut back as building contractors cut back. It's down to 450 employees from its peak of 600 in 2007.
The Newcastle brickmaking facility was shut down from December 2009 until June from lack of orders.
The factory had employed 49, but when it started back up, there were jobs for only 18. The union shop hired back by seniority.
For someone like Timothy Gordon, 45, a forklift driver, that meant that even after 21 years with the company and bad knees, the only job available was on the brick-stacking line.
It's an arduous, repetitious task in which, for $19.50 an hour, he takes bricks that have come out of the kiln and puts them on a conveyor belt — three, four, five, six bricks at a time, repeatedly lifting some 24 pounds.
At the shop, there are stories of young guys coming in, working a morning on that brick-stacking line, and never returning after lunch.
Gordon came back to work when the shop started up, each day arriving with a big, plastic bottle of ice that would melt as the day wore on, and he guzzled from it.
"This is my home," says Gordon.
Manson Construction: Keeping the family feel
When Tracy Brown, 54, is asked about Manson Construction, it doesn't take him long to start talking about the birth of his children.
The tugboat captain has been with Mason 33 years, and he's used to traveling for the company, which has made its name in heavy marine construction and dredging.
The firm's jobs have included working on a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, dredging a channel in the Bahamas, and doing work at a pier in Tacoma and a ferry terminal in Seattle.
Brown's hometown is Gig Harbor.
Since May, for a job just about to be completed, he's been living at a motel in Anchorage in between 12-hour shifts doing maintenance work and dredging in that city's port.
It's not something found in management textbooks, but what sticks with Brown is how the company remembered the birth due dates for his kids.
He wasn't sent on out-of-town trips. He was there when they were born.
"They thought of that," says Brown. "They take care of you."
He remembers that when he started at Manson as a deckhand, it was assumed that somehow you must be related to somebody in the company.
That's not the case anymore, with Manson having 700 employees spread throughout its main office in Seattle, two branches in California, one in Louisiana and one in Florida. It grosses $360 million a year, and its fleet includes 10 floating derricks, eight dredges and dozens of barges.
But the family feel remains.
There is Daric Latham, 41, the equipment manager at the firm's headquarters on East Marginal Way South.
Nearly 21 years ago, he started there as a mechanic.
He remembers how 11 years ago, when he ended up with custody of his then-10-year-old daughter, the firm made special arrangements for his travel.
"They were more than accommodating, keeping me home," Latham remembers.
Says Eric Haug, 57, the company president, "We don't have a lot of turnover. We have a lot of multigenerational employees."
He is the great-grandson of Peter Manson, the Swedish immigrant who founded the company in 1905 with one floating pile driver.
In "Bridging the Generations," a book about the firm commissioned by the family, Peter Manson's daughter, Gladys, remembered how that first rig was paid for:
"Because father had lost his money in the Panic of 1893, he didn't trust banks and hid his money in a Mason jar under the house. I remember holding a lantern for mother when I was about seven years old while she dug up a Mason jar full of twenty-dollar gold pieces."
That's the kind of anecdote that is told and retold at Manson.
It might not have the trendy appeal of a movie about the founder of Facebook.
And doing dredging work might not have the sexy appeal of a dot-com startup.
But to whom would you give the best odds of still being around in 2110?
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
Times researcher David Turim contributed to this story.
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