Building Bridges

View from the top of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge Brooklyn tower

Boston-based Eagle Elevator has carved out a piece of the U.S. East Coast market with a focus on customer service and willingness to tackle tough jobs.

Hawks buffeted by a brisk wind make their presence known to Eagle Elevator Co. Inc. constructors as they climb scaffolding 10 stories up and traverse a narrow catwalk to reach the four elevators being modernized at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn, New York. The total walk takes up to an hour each way, according Michael Frangias, Eagle’s director of operations, New York/New Jersey (NY/NJ) division. The bridge project is among the unique and challenging jobs Eagle has taken on to make a name for itself in that market. Frangias says:

“The first major project in NYC was a freight car modernization at the Con Edison plant at 801 East 14th Street. Eagle Elevator installed what, at the time, was the largest Imperial Electric gearless machine. It was one of only seven ever built and the only one of its kind utilizing the dual-disc brake setup. The car’s capacity was 10,000 lb, traveling at 200 ft/min with 2:1 roping, serving 13 landings.”

The division’s next big project was installing three new Delaware Elevator dual-piston, three-stop units for the gym in Haynes Hall at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. The Eagle team met strict deadlines imposed by the college during summer break before homecoming. Successful completion of that job marked the start of a relationship that led to a contract for servicing a trio of problematic elevators in the college’s North Hall Dormitory.

Eagle’s next NYC-area job was a five-car modernization for a City of New York Department of Sanitation building in Queens. Each elevator featured the latest version of the GALaxy controller with the first Courion door interface since Vantage’s acquisition of GAL Manufacturing Corp.

That led to the big bridge job, which, when EW spoke with Eagle in August, was underway. With 25 union employees, Eagle’s New York/New Jersey branch is part of a company network that has branches in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut. Together, the branches, along with the Boston headquarters, employ approximately 85 people. That is far more than the three Eagle had when it was founded 25 years ago by two brothers, Dan and Paul Wrenn.

“That four-stop elevator has to bring an elderly lady to her home, and that’s just as important to us as providing reliable elevator service for our customers in a high-end hotel. ” — Michael Frangias, NY/NJ division director, Eagle Elevator

Prior to that, Dan and Paul’s father, Dan Sr., had had a long career as an elevator installer. From the age of 10, Dan, Jr. was fascinated by watching his father at work, particularly when he installed a new elevator in a ship-to-shore gantry crane at the Port of Boston. Dan, Sr. joined his sons, and the trio came up with a list of 50 clients who might need their elevator installation and repair services.

Some of those potential clients took the Wrenns up on it, leading to repeat business and, eventually, the opening of additional branches. Part of the reason Eagle is able to compete with the majors is its focus on customer service, Frangias says, stating:

“We pride ourselves on treating every one of our clients just as importantly as the next. At any hour of the day, all of our clients can get a person who can address their individual needs right away. Too often in this business, the higher-tier clients get service over the lower-tier ones. That simply doesn’t happen at Eagle.

Our goal is getting that little four-stop elevator back in service as fast as possible, just like a 50-stop elevator in a busy hotel. That four-stop elevator has to bring an elderly lady to her home, and that’s just as important to us as providing reliable elevator service for our customers in a high-end hotel.”

Eagle’s entry into the NY/NJ market came in 2012 when it won a job to install five Canton machine-room-less elevators with GALaxy controllers, two wheelchair lifts and a dumbwaiter at Bartlett Hall Science Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. That job took approximately three years and led to more work on the West Point campus, including two Vertical Express hydraulic elevators at Keller Army Community Hospital.

Frangias met Dan, Jr. through a mutual friend at an elevator repair shop during one of Wrenn’s trips to NYC, and the pair discussed how Eagle could “wedge out a place for themselves” in the NY/NJ market. Frangias recalls:

“The two things that really stood out to me were, one, the fact that [Dan, Jr.’s] focus wasn’t on buying my companies. In fact, he really didn’t want them; he just wanted the people and the talent. That showed me it wasn’t about the money or the elevator accounts I had, but, rather, the people. The second — and most important — thing was trust. I remember saying, ‘Without trust, this isn’t going to work out. You need to trust me, and I need to trust you.’ To which [Dan, Jr.] fully agreed.”

Once Frangias realized he and Dan, Jr. shared the same business values, he sold his two elevator companies — 360 Elevator LLC, which served the NYC area, and Statewide Elevator Group, which served New Jersey — to the Wrenns. Frangias’ eight employees and 240 units under service came under the care of Eagle. With the support of a larger independent company and a talented team on the ground in the NY/NJ area, what was now a division of Eagle had a good structure in place to grow.

Frangias became director of the division, and has guided unique and challenging projects in the market over the past four years. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge project presents “new and unique challenges every day,” he says. In addition to the weather (and hawks), another challenge is that all equipment must fit into 17-X 48-in. portholes. To avoid roadway closures, general contractor Kiewit Construction erected the scaffolding on which employees climb up to reach the catwalk. Frangias estimates the job should be complete in January 2020, at which point the division will start working on jobs including for four NYC post offices and two new elevators at the Croton-Harmon Amtrak station.

With the Wrenn brothers’ leadership from the Boston headquarters, the outlook is good for Eagle. “Slow and steady, Eagle rises,” Frangias says. Dan, Sr. has retired but is looking to his grandchildren to fill his spot. Brother Joe Wrenn joined the company about 10 years ago; Dan, Jr.’s two sons are elevator constructors; and one of Paul’s sons is, as well.

Dan, Jr. says it was always the plan to continue to reinvest in the business. That plan has worked, with business showing steady growth. He is projecting a 5-10% revenue growth in the next five years, led by maintenance and repair work, then modernization and new construction.

Finding good people, he says, is the most challenging aspect of running a business that spans the Northeast coast. Lately, he says, that hasn’t been a problem, “which is why we can continue to grow!”

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Elevator World | October 2019 Cover