John W. Danforth Company
John W. Danforth Company
Employees: 250 Sales: $61 million
NAIC: 235110 Plumbing, Heating and Air-Conditioning Contractors
John W. Danforth Company is a mechanical contractor specializing in large-scale industrial, institutional, and commercial projects. The company’s many capabilities include heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; plumbing; waste and sewage treatment; environmental compliance and remediation; refrigeration; fire protection; and industrial process piping. Danforth is headquartered in Buffalo, New York, and has branch offices in Niagara Falls, Rochester, and Syracuse, New York. While most the company’s work is in the northeastern United States, it has also completed projects on the west coast and in Florida.
John W. Danforth Co. was founded in Buffalo, New York, in 1884 by John Willison Danforth, an engineer who did contract steam-heating and ventilating work for local clients. For the first decade of its existence, the small company focused on residential projects. Near the end of the 19th century, however, it began installing heating equipment in larger buildings such as clubs and churches. Danforth was a strong believer in the unionization of the American workforce. In 1889, the company became a member of the Master Steam and Hot Water Fitters Association of the United States—the forerunner to the Heating Piping Contractors National Association of America.
In 1903, John Danforth’s son, Loring, joined the family business. Loring, who had received an engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped his father expand beyond the residential business he had built into industrial and institutional contract work. Danforth was well positioned geographically for such work. The city of Buffalo, situated on Lake Erie and serving as both a major port and railway hub, had become a manufacturing center for such industries as steel, automobiles, and locomotives. Danforth began serving as a general contractor to Buffalo-area manufacturers, taking on larger-scale projects.
The firm also began bidding on projects outside the Buffalo area. Soon, it was handling projects throughout the eastern United States. During World War I, it served as a general contractor for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks, overseeing projects on both the east and west coast.
When John Danforth died in 1911, Loring became the company’s leader. For the 22 years that this second-generation Danforth served as president, the company worked on a broad array of projects that spanned the United States, including a power station in Missouri, a hotel in North Carolina, and a significant amount of work in the Washington, D.C., area. In the 1920s, Danforth became a full-service mechanical contractor specializing in systems work for the fast-growing chemical and steel industries.
1930s–1960s: A New Family in Power
In 1936, Loring Danforth died unexpectedly, and the business passed out of the Danforth family. It was acquired by the company’s former vice-president, Leo Hopkins, and a business partner, Albert Wood. The two new owners decided to keep the well-thought-of Danforth name, and Leo Hopkins became the company’s president. Following John Danforth’s precedent, he hired his son, L. Nelson Hopkins, Jr., to help run the business.
The Hopkinses expanded the range of Danforth’s services. The company began specializing in the installation of process piping for chemical, rubber, and steel manufacturers. Its growing expertise in this area soon opened up doors in the heavily industrialized Niagara Falls region, just north of Buffalo. Similar to Buffalo, the Falls area was home to many major manufacturers, who had located there to take advantage of its water power and its proximity to the Canadian border. In the first few decades of the 20th century, Danforth completed projects for several Falls-area clients, including the companies today known as Occidental Chemical, Goodyear, and Bell Aircraft.
In the 1940s, the company was again called upon to aid in the war effort. It built aircraft-manufacturing plants in New York and in Louisville, Kentucky, all the while continuing to further expand its business in the steel and chemical plants of western New York. By mid-century, Danforth was doing enough business around Niagara Falls to justify opening a branch office there. That office opened in 1946 under the direction of Clifford Carroll.
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, John W. Danforth’s headquarters moved from its facility on Ellicott Street in Buffalo to 1940 Fillmore Avenue, which was several blocks north and east of the old location. The early sixties also brought a succession in leadership. In 1964, Leo Hopkins became chairman of the board, and his son, L. Nelson Hopkins, took over his position as the company’s president. Like his predecessors, Nelson Hopkins expanded the breadth of Danforth’s contracting experience. The company developed the ability to contract for the building of “clean rooms”—the dust free, controlled research labs used by such companies as Westinghouse and Bell Aerospace. It also began specializing in the installation of fire protection equipment.
1970s–90s: Danforth Under the Reilly Family
In 1978, Wayne Reilly became John W. Danforth’s newest president. Reilly was a long-time veteran of the company, having started as clerk in the mid-1950s and worked his way up through the ranks. Reilly’s assumption of the presidency coincided with the Love Canal crisis in Niagara Falls, a situation that provided Danforth with the opportunity to enter still another area of specialization.
Love Canal was a section of Niagara Falls that had been used as a dumping ground for a chemical company in the 1940s and 1950s. It had later been filled in, and housing had been built on the site. In the 1970s, however, research into the area’s unusually high rates of illnesses and birth defects discovered that toxic waste had leaked into and contaminated the soil. In 1978, residents were evacuated from the area, and two years later Love Canal was declared a national emergency. After Congress created the Superfund law, cleanup of the area began. Danforth was one of the many contractors employed in the remediation, and was one of the first to be licensed by the Atomic Energy Commission to use radioactive isotopes to find leaks.
Reilly not only expanded the company’s range of services, he also broadened its geographic reach and slightly altered its corporate structure. In 1980, Danforth acquired Dineen Mechanical Contractors, Inc., of Rochester, New York. In 1985, the company formed the JWD Group, Inc., which served as a parent company to the various branch offices of the John W. Danforth Company and to the newly formed John W. Danforth Service Company, a business specializing in nonresidential heating and air conditioning services. In 1988, the company stretched still a little further east, acquiring the Syracuse-based Nova Mechanical Contractors. Both Dineen and Nova eventually became branch offices, taking on the Danforth name, which had become quite well known throughout upstate New York.
The John W. Danforth Company offers a combination of experience, skills, and expertise in mechanical systems and equipment erection that is unmatched. No project is too big, too small, or too complicated. A stable workforce of skilled union craftsmen offers expertise in fabricating common or the most exotic materials for the most demanding applications, from food processing and pharmaceutical production to chemical and industrial plants. Regardless of the nature of the project, the John W. Danforth Company is committed to meeting and exceeding the quality requirements of the customer.
- John Willison Danforth establishes J.W. Danforth Company.
- Loring Danforth joins the company.
- John Danforth dies, leaving Loring Danforth in charge.
- Loring Danforth dies, and the company is acquired by Leo Hopkins and Albert Wood.
- Danforth opens a Niagara Falls branch office.
- Leo Hopkins’s son, L. Nelson Hopkins, becomes Danforth’s president.
- Wayne Reilly becomes Danforth’s president.
- Danforth acquires Dineen Mechanical Contractors.
- JWD Group is established as a parent company for John W. Danforth and John W. Danforth Service Companies.
- Danforth acquires Nova Mechanical Contractors.
- Emmett Reilly succeeds his father as Danforth’s president.
- Danforth works as a subcontractor constructing facilities for the Goodwill Winter Games.
- The company begins planning to relocate its headquarters.
The company’s expansion led to a tremendous increase in revenues. Whereas Danforth had started the eighties with sales of around $10 million, by the latter part of the decade that number had more than tripled. The late 1980s also brought the company back to its old headquarters on Ellicott Street, Albert only to serve as a contractor for Pilot Field, the baseball park that the city of Buffalo was building there. Danforth served as contractor for the new ballpark’s heating and air conditioning, plumbing, irrigation, and sprinkler systems.
In 1993, Wayne Reilly became Danforth’s CEO and chairman, vacating the office of president. That post was filled by Reilly’s son Emmett, who had previously worked at Danforth in the Estimating and Project Management Department and had also headed up the company’ Rochester office for three years. Reilly’s two other sons, Patrick and Kevin, both served as senior vice-presidents.
A 21st Century Danforth
The first year of the new century brought both good and bad news for Danforth. Business was strong; for the first quarter, the company booked some $30 million in projects—a full half of what the company was accustomed to billing annually. Much of the new business came from area schools, which were upgrading their infrastructures. The company also got the chance to participate in constructing the facilities for the Goodwill Winter Games that were held at Lake Placid, New York. Working as a subcontractor for a New York-based general contractor, Danforth installed almost 50 miles of ammonia refrigeration piping for the bobsled and luge tracks.
The bad news came in November, when a heavy storm dumped 25 inches of snow on Danforth’s Buffalo headquarters, causing serious damage. As a temporary measure, the company obtained space in various Buffalo office buildings and spread its headquarters functions among them while it evaluated potential sites for a new headquarters. By the end of 2001, Danforth was in lease negotiations with a development company that was proposing to build a 61,294-square-foot commercial facility in Tonawanda, New York. If the companies were able to reach an agreement, it was expected that Danforth would occupy most of the facility.
Other than the impending headquarters relocation, it appeared that no major changes were in the offing for Danforth. The company was, however, in the process of expanding its John W. Danforth Service Company business slightly. In June of 2001, it acquired Applied Mechanical Testing, Inc, which broadened its service offerings to include air balancing and duct cleaning.
John W. Danforth Service Company.
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Hartley, Tom, “John W. Danforth Looks after the Mechanics of a Project,” Business First of Buffalo, 1990 Top 100 Private Companies, 1990.
Mader, Robert, “Danforth Co. Shows It Is Pretty Slick,” Contractor, February 2000, p. 1.