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Michael J Harris, Inc. Circa 1935

Since 50% of family businesses do not survive from the 1st to the 2nd generation and 75% do not survive from the second to the third, I thought you’d like to hear how to stay in business for more than 100 years.

Our family’s company started in 1915 by my grandfather whose name was Michael J Harris. He was a recent immigrant from Russia who did not speak English. In Russia, he was a tin smith, making tin ceilings for commercial spaces. You have probably noticed them in restaurants or bars that are in old buildings.

He was an incredibly savvy businessman who lived in Elizabeth, NJ with a wife and 5 children in a 2 family house that he owned.

When he decided to go out on his own, he formed a sheet metal company. He bought several lots of land in the industrial section of Elizabeth. The sheet metal shop was quite large since the machinery it housed was huge. Sheet metal fabrication is used for a wide variety of things including heating and air conditioning ducts in commercial spaces. 

Transitioning From the First to the Second Generation

As his children got older, they worked in the business which was critical since they spoke fluent English. Soon all 4 sons were working in the business and it was necessary to expand it to be able to support all of them. Michael purchased  additional lots of land and used them to build an office, a hardware store (so he could get wholesale prices on materials), a gas station ( to fuel his trucks) and an open lot to store trucks and material.

 

 

Michael J Harris ran it from 1915 to 1950, Harry Harris ran it from 1950 to 1980, Michael Harris runs it since 1980

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By the 1950’s the three older brothers passed away and the youngest son, Harry Harris, took over the business. During his tenure the sheet metal business soared and he added roofing to the mix. When Harry’s son (also named Michael Harris) was old enough he brought him in and had him focus on selling roofing services.

Transitioning From the Second to the Third Generation

Significant changes to the business strategy were critical shortly after Michael entered the business in 1980. The biggest clients for the sheet metal shop were refineries located in the area. 

Due to the high cost of real estate and because the workers had unionized, many refineries relocated to southern states. Consequently, about 60% of the company’s revenue was gone.  It seemed like staying in business for 100 years was a long shot.

It was a very difficult time and Harry deferred to Michael who suggested aggressively building up the roofing portion of the business. They also sold off the gas station and the hardware store to increase capital.

Masonry

Ten years later, with the roofing portion of the business humming along, Michael brainstormed ways to continue to expand and grow the business.

How else could he meet homeowner’s need for exterior home maintenance? Many customers inquired about chimney repairs. He did his research and decided to broaden his service offerings to include masonry repairs and installations – chimneys, steps and walkways. Now masonry accounts for 30% of the overall business.

Basement Waterproofing

In the early 2000’s Michael realized another customer need that was a potential money maker–Basement Waterproofing. Almost every house in the area had a basement and most homeowners complained of accumulating moisture or flooding. 

Almost every customer he spoke with had their landscaper make remediations, but the issue didn’t abate. He knew what they were doing was wrong. They didn’t dig down far enough around the foundation.

So, he came up with a 4 step process that includes digging down to the bottom of the foundation and then sealing it. This keeps all forms of water out. Customers have been extremely satisfied with our craftsmanship and are so happy their basements no longer emit unpleasant odors.

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So how have we stayed in business for more than 100 years? In a word – CHANGE. A business strategy has to respond to the ever changing marketplace and consumer demand. If I hadn’t changed from a sheet metal company to a roofing, masonry and waterproofing company we would have met our decline more than 30 years ago. 

Our newest challenge, like many of you, is continuing to thrive during the Covid 19 pandemic. No one could have seen this coming and so we were not prepared.

So far the number one thing that has kept my small business alive is having enough working capital to get through the tough times. Most small businesses that are going out of business were under capitalized to weather the Covid storm.C

 

While we experienced a decrease in sales in 2020 compared to 2019, we cut back on our overhead as much as possible and used our reserves to make it through. 

We continue to service our customers by safely distancing and I wear a mask when meeting with them.

2021 is already starting off much stronger and I have high hopes the vaccine will improve the quality of life for our customers. Like all past business challenges, we will continue to bob and weave our way through this one so my 25 year old son will have his turn at the helm and stay in business for another 100 years.

Feel free to call me on my cell to discuss this and other home maintenance questions you might have at 908.553.0284.

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