Celebration Corner: Sutphen Corporation: 125th anniversary

By Barbara Spector

The Ohio-based maker of medical equipment marked its anniversary with a multifaceted celebration that lasted throughout 2015.

The Business: Clarence H. "C.H." Sutphen, a former sales rep for educational supplies, founded the company in downtown Columbus, Ohio, in 1890, selling fire hoses and equipment to fire departments and municipalities. He also sold compact versions of steam-powered fire engines that could be pulled by people rather than by horsepower, thus saving small towns the expenses associated with keeping horses.

C.H.'s son, Harry, joined the company after returning from Navy service in World War I; upon C.H.'s death in 1931, Harry took over the business. Harry's sons, Thomas and Robert, worked outside the business during high school and joined the family firm after serving in World War II.

Sutphen, which started out as a manufacturers' rep for fire apparatus, began manufacturing its own apparatus in 1950. Early on, the company made front-mount pumpers, used by small fire departments; the apparatus became more sophisticated as features and equipment were added.

After Harry died in 1960, his sons took the helm of the business. Sparked by Tom Sutphen's entrepreneurial vision and in-depth research efforts, the company began making aerial platform apparatus, the product for which it is best known, in 1963. At first, Sutphen equipment was sold on other manufacturers' chassis. The first Sutphen custom chassis was produced in 1970. In 1987, Sutphen began building its own cabs.

About 20 years ago, Tom and Bob Sutphen turned leadership of the company over to fourth-generation cousins Drew Sutphen (Bob's son), who is president of Sutphen Corporation and also runs the facility in Springfield, Ohio; and Julie Sutphen Phelps (Tom's daughter), who is vice president of Sutphen Corporation and president of Sutphen Hilliard (Ohio) and Sutphen East, based in New York. Bob Sutphen passed away in 2012; Tom Sutphen died in 2015.

The two third-generation patriarchs remained involved in the business after they handed off leadership to the fourth generation, Julie Phelps says. They spent time with their favorite customers who passed through town and were kept in the loop on key decisions. "My dad was still innovating, and would continue to come up with good ideas," Phelps adds.

Sutphen has a number of multigenerational employee families working for the company, which is a source of pride for the Sutphen family, Phelps says. Jim Garver, the head of engineering at the Hilliard facility, for example, is a third-generation employee. Several children of company supervisors have begun to come on board, and they will help build connections with the next generation of Sutphen family members, Phelps says.

The Family: Fourteen fourth- and fifth-generation members of the Sutphen family now work at the company. In addition to co-leaders Drew Sutphen and Julie Phelps, Judi Sutphen (Drew's wife) serves as a contract administrator; Dan Sutphen (Drew's brother) works in sales; Dareth Fowler (Drew and Dan's sister) manages the Sutphen Service and Refurbishment Center; Dan Herb (Julie Phelps' brother-in-law) works in sales; and Jim Holland (husband of Drew, Dan and Dareth's sister Diane) works in sales and provides IT support.

The fifth-generation members employed at the company are Megan Phelps (Julie Phelps's daughter), who works in marketing; Steven Phelps (Julie's son), who works in accounting; Harry Sutphen (Dan's son), who works in sales; Shelby Sutphen (Drew's daughter), who is in purchasing; Andy and Scott Herb (Dan Herb's sons), also in sales; and James Holland III (Jim Holland's son), who works in the Sutphen Service and Refurbishment Center.

The fourth generation has transferred stock ownership to the 16 members of the fifth generation. All the fifth-generation members own an equal number of shares, although only seven currently work in the company, Julie Phelps says.

The Celebration: Sutphen hosted parties at each of its facilities, featuring fun activities such as a dunk tank and games in which employees competed for prizes.

Special 125th-anniversary plaques and seat decals were installed on Sutphen vehicles built in the anniversary year. "Only trucks built and sold last year have the seat decals and the plaques on the side of the truck. They'll have those [features] that no other trucks will have," Phelps says. "It's pretty exciting."

The anniversary logo was also placed on T-shirts, ball caps and other promotional products, as well as on banners and display items decorating the company's trade-show exhibits; two of the large banners now hang in the corporate office in Dublin, Ohio.

The company produced commemorative 125th-anniversary "challenge coins" (a military and protection agency tradition symbolizing unit camaraderie) for its firefighter customers and employees. The anniversary logo also appeared on company ads during the year.

A book, entitled The History of Sutphen Fire Apparatus, by William F. Vedra Jr., retired battalion chief of the Columbus Division of Fire, was published in the anniversary year. "Our customers have been really excited to get it," Phelps says.

The Planning: Shelby and Judi Sutphen (Drew's daughter and wife), along with the company's advertising team, brainstormed about the best way to mark the occasion. "We tried to focus on things that would be notable in our industry," Phelps says. The history book had been in the works before the planning for the celebration began; though its release in the special year was coincidental, it was very meaningful, she notes.

The Reaction: "I think everybody was really, really excited" about the anniversary, Phelps says. People who saw the anniversary banner at trade shows stopped by Sutphen's booth to offer congratulations, she notes.

The Sutphen family acutely feels a sense of responsibility to sustain the company, Phelps says. "We see it more than just the company's surviving," she says. "Our product is something that has to be maintained for years and years. And so there's a double commitment not only to the family, but really to our customers and our industry, because when somebody buys a truck today, they expect to be able to still get parts for it and service for it in 20 to 30 years. Nobody puts a fire truck out to pasture after a few years. And so there's a lot of responsibility to make sure we have the history and the support going forward to take care of our trucks that are out there.

"We have the best customer base that you could possibly imagine," Phelps says. "The responsibility that we feel to them is truly very, very large. It just goes with the territory that we have to be here another 125 years to be able to take care of our customers, and to support not only our family but all of our multiple families that we have involved at this point. Sometimes that's a big load on our shoulders, but that's how we see it."

The Advice: Phelps has this recommendation for families whose companies are about to commemorate a milestone anniversary: "Involve your employees so that they can feel the excitement of it. Because I just think it's huge; it really is." She also recommends a marketing campaign that will engage customers, such as the special anniversary logos and plaques added to Sutphen equipment, which added an aura of exclusivity to items sold in the milestone year.

Copyright 2016 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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March/April 2016

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