August 3, 2007

Where I work and why I stayed…

Category: News — Ira @ 7:06 pm

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the
chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
—Theodore Roosevelt


As many of you know, I am General Manager at Graber Supply LLC, a pole building supply company located just south of Gap, PA on Hwy 41. I have worked there since March, 2001. Graber sells building materials and complete building packages (retail and wholesale) and also builds post and frame structures throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England areas. We have a very good reputation from South Jersey to the Long Island, NY area. We supply some local builders with their complete packages and supply other independent builders as far away as West Virginia. Last year we built our first barn in North Carolina and will soon ship our first package to Tennessee.

The company as it exists today was the result of the efforts, planning and sweat and blood of one man, the Previous Owner. He had a vision, and he built the business from nothing into a very successful and efficient entity. He hired good people and let them do their work with minimal interference. He paid them well. From the time the company emerged into its current form in the mid to late 1990s, it has worked and scrapped its way into a regional player to be reckoned with in the post and frame construction business. If a structure can be built with poles, Graber Supply can design and build it.

Dave Hurst conferring with builder Merv Glick

I worked for the Previous Owner during almost every stage of the company’s early years and was present when Graber moved onto its current location in 1993. At that time, I was in college and worked only in the summer months. I also worked there in during the summer months during my law school education in 1994-95. During my last summer as a law student, I worked for the law firm that would hire me when I graduated.

The last summer I worked for Graber before heading into law full-time, I told my co-workers many times that I couldn’t wait to get out of this blue-collar sweat hole and return to school, then graduate and practice law.

“After I graduate, I will work hard and buy a Lexus,” I said. “Then I’ll drive down Rt. 41 right past here and I won’t even look at you. I won’t even acknowledge you.” They seemed awed.

I was reminded of that wild boast many times in future years. Merv Esh particularly relished relating it with great embellishment to all new workers who started at Graber. The story was part of their initiation. I always told the disbelieving listeners that every word of the story was true. I never did get that Lexus. Maybe some day.

Sadly, in 2000, after working 3-1/2 years for a local law firm in Lancaster, I was not a happy or a fulfilled man. I told my wife that in six months, I would not be practicing law. What I would be doing I didn’t know. I did some research and even had an interview or two. Meanwhile, the Previous Owner heard that I was looking around, and stopped by to see me one night. Would I consider coming back to work for him, this time in the office instead of in the field? He needed good people around him and there would be no one like a lifelong friend who knew and understood him and his goals. We discussed the possibilities for some time that night and continued our discussion throughout the following weeks. An offer was made and it was attractive. So, after some soul-searching and a review of my financial situation, I decided to accept the offer and make the transition, right back into the building field I’d left years before.

It was a bit of a psychological bump, to go from the professional lifestyle and dressing in suit and tie every day to wearing informal jeans and shirt. I also had a lot to learn about the system of quoting, sales, and just dealing with the daily problems that arise in such a setting. But after the first month, I was well on my way. I felt secure and most of all, like I was actually producing something positive for the customer, instead of just dealing with the myriad everyday problems that cause people to call their attorneys. During and after the first year, I commented to Ellen many times that I love my job.

My legal training has been a real asset in a variety of areas in my job, including creating the contracts for the sale of our buildings and also in collections. I never tell customers that I am an attorney; very few ever find out unless they don’t pay, and sometimes not even then. We have a very efficient and computerized collection system introduced and sold to us by Thorne (I highly recommend this system to any company that has problems with collecting payments due). I do maintain my law license and also write wills in my spare time evenings and Saturdays, mostly for the Amish in Lancaster County.

At Graber, I enjoy the work and I like the people I work with. I actually love my job, something that very few people can say. Two people have worked in our office since 1995: Dave Hurst, salesman and all-around building guru, and Rosita Beiler, Office Manager. Merv Esh, of course, was there from the time he graduated from high school until his death last April. The core group in the office is small, but competent, and highly productive. We have about five people working in the yard and as drivers for our trucks. The yard foreman, Eli Esh, has been employed by Graber since he was fifteen years old. Today he is a young married Amishman. All the buildings we sell installed are built by subcontractor crews.

AJ Williams and Eli Esh on the brake.
AJ is a semi-professional rodeo rider and roper.

Morning runs. Trucks waiting for their drivers.

Main driver Kevin Beiler ready to head out.

As with any group that works together closely day after day for years, there is always some friction and/or disagreement, but not much. Overall, I have never been associated with a better group of people. When problems arise, we work through them.

When the “troubles” broke in February and thereafter, I seriously considered moving on to a competitor or perhaps another line of work. But the fact was that I enjoyed my job and felt a close connection to the people I worked with each day. I could see no real reason to walk away from it, at least not unless and until I absolutely had to. Plus, a part of me is stubborn to a fault, and I was going to be darned if I allowed these circumstances to push me from my home or my job, even if my world collapsed in shambles around me. So I slogged on day after day, my work providing my social structure and the needs I had to associate with others. My co-workers could not have been more supportive. They asked no questions (or very few) and provided protection for me from inquisitive locals.

On Friday, June 29, 2007, after a lengthy process involving advisers, Trustees, and attorneys, the Previous Owner relinquished all control of the business. Patrick Miller, a young Ohioan who married Mary June Lantz from Lancaster County, is now our new boss. Patrick had been a self-employed cabinet dealer and installer for some years, so he was familiar with construction. So far, we have been training and teaching him the ropes of the day to day operations. He is learning rapidly. Despite the “troubles” and the resulting upheaval, the transition is moving as smoothly as one could expect. Several employees have moved on and started their own businesses, but that would have happened anyway. Even though the construction industry has slowed and our 2007 sales are a bit off from our record 2006 sales, we look for good things in the future.

For now and for the foreseeable future, I plan to stay with the company that has treated me so well during the last six years. As long as I can get up in the morning and look forward to the day of work, I will do so.

None of us know what tomorrow will bring. Major changes may come and very likely will. It is good that we cannot see into the future, because the strength to face it would fail us. I am glad I didn’t know the future six months ago. I am glad I don’t know it for the next six months. And I am glad just to be alive, to know that good things will come. Although the future remains unknown, I rest upon the quiet confidence that one day a new dawn will break and the sun will pierce through the brooding clouds and chase the shadows from the troubled road I travel. I also trust that the light of that new day will include some small vestiges of joy that have been so absent now for so long. And with that confidence and trust I move on.


Patrick Miller returning for the first time as the new owner

Rosita Beiler

Elvin Zook

“Big Dave” Hurst

Andy Blank

Ira Wagler

A gift from the General Manager

Celebration with ice cream cake

Patrick, Mary June, Portia, Benjamin and William


Party in the lunch room