Proudly Made in Pittsburgh: Inside 10 Family Businesses
Many family-owned and operated businesses that have been around for generations still are thriving today in Pittsburgh. We take you behind the scenes of 10 companies that are carrying on their legacies close to home.
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In our city, the “family business” can involve anything from working on the farm to running an NFL franchise. As industry, business and labor have changed in Pittsburgh and beyond, many family-run operations have been sold, renamed or even shut down — but plenty have persisted and thrived, doing the same thing they’ve been doing for decades. This year in “Made in Pittsburgh,” we look at 10 born-here companies that have handed the keys to the family business from one generation to the next; a few have done so several times. Because in many cases, the best way to preserve a legacy is to keep it close to home.
William H. Rackoff CEO (pictured)
Peter Rackoff Vice President of Sales and Customer Service
John Rackoff General Manager, South Holland Division
As William H. Rackoff, current CEO of ASKO, Inc., prepared to join the business his family had run since 1933, his father, Raymond, offered him a top position: launching a brand-new division of the company, manufacturing a product that ASKO had never made.
Rackoff, now 66, had to hit the ground running. “At the young age of 25 years old, I was given the responsibility to build a new factory, to hire a workforce, train that workforce — do all that on my own,” he says.
ASKO [askoinc.com], which has been based in the Homestead area since its Great Depression-era birth, manufactures shear blades and cutting tools for the steel industry. Those unfamiliar with such large industrial parts might not recognize ASKO’s products as blades; many are giant, doughnut-shaped metal discs, while others resemble steel blocks.
On Rackoff’s arrival, though, ASKO was looking to get a business manufacturing solid tungsten carbide products up and running. Fresh out of college, Rackoff launched that arm of the family business, dubbed SinterMet, in 1974 in Kittanning, Armstrong County.
It was both a challenge and a trial by fire for Rackoff, whose grandfather, Benjamin D. Weinberg, founded the company in 1933. Weinberg had supervised shear blade production for an English-owned company until the impact of the Depression launched a round of layoffs; he responded by doing the same work at a two-man shop where the Waterfront shopping complex sits today.
ASKO moved to its current location in West Homestead in 1943 and has remained there despite near-constant expansion; it’s had a wholly owned subsidiary in the Netherlands since 1959 and expanded to the Chicago area in the 1960s. (That division currently is managed by Rackoff’s brother, John, 65.) Since 1978, ASKO’s manufacturing has been done in Rock Hill, S.C., while the West Homestead site serves as ASKO’s corporate headquarters and warehouse. The company also sold SinterMet in 1999.
Notably, ASKO has grown consistently throughout its 82 years of operation, even as the industry it serves has changed — and locally, collapsed. “We were always one step ahead of the evolution,” Rackoff says. “We’ve been very, very focused students of the dynamics of the steel industry in the United States ... We’ve anticipated those changes.”
Rackoff says leaving the Pittsburgh area never has been on the table for the business — nor is it discussed now, as a fourth generation is a part of the business (Rackoff’s son Peter, 36, is ASKO’s vice president of sales and customer service). “Our family has always lived in Pittsburgh. We’ve lived in Pittsburgh for four generations, and we love Pittsburgh,” he says. “We think it’s a great place to work and a great place to find talented, hardworking employees who are serious and proud about their work.”
Behrenberg Glass Co.
John P. Behrenberg Sr. Co-owner
John P. Behrenberg Jr. Co-owner and President (pictured)
Donna Behrenberg Secretary
Evelyn Behrenberg Office Assistant
When hearing about Behrenberg Glass Co.’s decades-long history, a theme emerges: “flexibility.” In the 1920s, A.H. Behrenberg switched careers to make glass globes for local gas companies. His son, H.J., later established a company under the family name and occasionally shifted product focus to meet public demand.
Behrenberg Glass Co. [behrenbergglass.com] focused on lighting glass in the 1940s but later produced the serving and anniversary plates that were popular in the ’70s. In the early 2000s, crafty folks became loyalists, spurring Behrenberg Glass Co. to produce mostly glass for decoupaging and similar projects.
Though the company may adapt to trends, its staff for the most part remains fixed. President John Behrenberg Jr., 53, owns the Delmont-based business with his father, John Behrenberg Sr., 85, and receives office assistance from his wife, Donna, 49, and daughter, Evelyn, 23.
“Pops comes in on Monday to look around. I bounce ideas off of him [if I’m looking] to try something new,” says the younger John Behrenberg. He adds that his dad likes to review stats before approving new ideas because “he wants to see the money side first.”
In the glass shop, housed in the same building, most of the eight staffers have been with the company for years; some have worked at Behrenberg for decades. Many know the ins and outs of multiple stations — screen-printing, sanding — and they work efficiently but carefully when operating the equipment. Behrenberg sources all of the glass and much of the machinery from U.S. companies, though the firm ships its products worldwide.
Family businesses can have the occasional hurdle: In 1998, months after the elder John had retired, the IRS called John Behrenberg Jr. to say the glass company owed thousands of dollars in back taxes; he learned that a former employee had embezzled money. Behrenberg was left to get out of debt on his own.
“On one hand, it’s a terrible thing to go through; on the other hand ... you appreciate things a lot more,” says Behrenberg, who says his staff “stepped up” during that time.
Will Behrenberg’s son, John Behrenberg III, 18, or daughter, Evelyn, take the reins someday? He says he’d love that, but he isn’t sure. He hopes someone will want to keep the company going — perhaps even a longtime employee.
“This is nothing you do on your own,” he says. “It takes a lot of good people to keep it going.”
Butler Gas Products Co.
John T. “Jack” Butler II President and CEO (pictured)
Abydee Butler Moore Vice President (pictured)
Elissa Butler Treasurer
A circular path led the Butler family to own the flourishing gas company it operates today.
The family patriarch, John Thomas “Dandy” Butler, started a compressed gas company in the early 1900s in Coraopolis. He eventually sold his business to National Cylinder Gas in McKees Rocks and continued to work for that firm as its general manager.
His son, John A. Butler, founded Butler Gas Products [butlergas.com] with his wife Millie in 1948 in New Brighton; in the 1970s, they established a new location on the former site of National Cylinder. Today, a fourth generation still works at those sites and operates another location in Penn Hills as well.
“Family roots [are] what has kind of grounded us here in western Pennsylvania and especially Pittsburgh,” says Abydee Butler Moore, 28, who is Dandy’s great-granddaughter and the company vice president.
Abydee’s father, John T. “Jack” Butler II, 63, purchased the business upon his father’s death in 1977. He’s now the president and CEO, and his sisters, both retired, worked for the company as well. Elissa Butler, 66, his wife and Abydee’s mother, is the company treasurer.
Butler started out as a classic gas distributor — selling compressed gasses and welding supplies. Now, the company focuses on manufacturing as well and is able to do more in-house through technology; Butler operates two automated systems, one for filling specialty gasses and one for filling industrial gasses.
“Those new automated plants have given us more robust internal capabilities,” Abydee says. “We can fill more gasses in-house. We can do customer mixtures in-house. With more independent capabilities, we can offer higher-quality products with faster lead times for our customers.”
When the U.S. steel industry declined, the company began to focus more on higher-purity gasses and specialty mixes for the medical, federal and educational markets, which use the gasses for research and development, laboratory needs and sophisticated manufacturing.
“As Pittsburgh changed, we really had to change,” Abydee says.
She says she’s been working with her parents for as long as she can remember — coming to work with them during her summers off from school and any “take-your-child-to-work days.”
She graduated from Clemson University, where she studied business and marketing, and worked in marketing and advertising in South Carolina for a few years before moving back to Pittsburgh. Butler Gas was looking to hire someone in marketing.
“I really knew I wanted to come back and work full-time in the family business,” she says.