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.
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.
Development Dimensions International, Inc.
Tacy Byham CEO (pictured)
Bill Byham Founder and Executive Chairman (pictured)
Carolyn Byham Executive Vice President of Planning and Design
Carter Byham Interviewer, Global Assessment Operations
As a teenager, Tacy Byham faced a daunting task — keeping her peers entertained all night at a church lock-in event. She asked her father, Bill Byham, then CEO of Development Dimensions International (DDI), for ideas.
Bill, now 79, knew exactly what the kids should do. It was the very thing he had done himself: start a company. He launched DDI [ddiworld.com] in 1970 in his basement in Mt. Lebanon, after implementing a new type of hands-on leadership assessment at JCPenney and writing about it for the Harvard Business Review. He started getting calls from other companies who wanted to use this assessment method for their own managers. He realized there was a business opportunity as a consultant, and he jumped into the entrepreneurial game.
Tacy wasn’t so sure about starting businesses with her friends; live Monopoly didn’t necessarily sound like fun. But her dad was one of the parental chaperones, and she thought she’d give it a try. At 1 a.m., she proposed the game. Her friends loved the idea.
Bill watched his daughter emerge as a leader during the activity, and something clicked. He wondered if she would want to be his successor.
Tacy took longer to feel that same click. “I didn’t come out of college saying, ‘I want to immediately work with my father,’” she says.
After an early job meant working for a difficult boss, however, she started thinking back to what her father did as an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist, carefully assessing what type of people would thrive in management roles. She applied to a Ph.D. program in I-O Psychology; after earning her degree, she worked as a leadership trainer for DDI in London.
Tacy, 47, had her own ideas to add to her father’s company. DDI thrived with its assessment methods, which she likens to a flight simulator for managers, but she noticed a lot of companies from which top-level executives were retiring. Those companies needed to “accelerate” the successors of those positions, and the common solution was to send those successors to business school.
“That’s good for the business side of the equation but not as much [for] the human side of the equation,” Tacy says. “We wanted to help them close their gaps as leaders.”
So she worked on creating her own program in executive development. It proved to be a hit and was one of DDI’s fastest-growing business offerings for several years.
Bill Byham last year announced his intention to move into the executive chairman role. Tacy made the transition from her job as senior vice president and worked with him for six months to learn his position as CEO.
“I have an appreciation for the complexities of what Dad’s dealt with on a day-to-day basis for so many years. You only see something when you step into the other side,” she says.
Fred Donatelli & Son Cemetery Memorials
Fred “Corky” Donatelli III Owner (pictured)
Phil Donatelli Sales and Marketing, OakCrest Pet Crematory
For 50 years, Fred Donatelli & Son Cemetery Memorials has honored the lives of the deceased on monuments. Owner Fred “Corky” Donatelli III started working at age 8 and takes his calling seriously. He says memorials are erected for only about 50 percent of people after their deaths; for those who will be honored, Donatelli, 56, makes it his practice to consult with their loved ones to ensure the result is just right.
One of eight kids, he became owner of Donatelli & Son [freddonatellimemorials.com] in the early ’90s. His father, Fred Donatelli II, 83, the company founder, drops in to greet customers; one of his brothers, Phil, 52, works with him; and his mom, Deloris, 83, can be spotted on occasion. Corky doesn’t simply work in the indoor and outdoor showrooms, which collectively display about 300 designs in multiple stone styles and shades.
“I still wear work boots. I still go out on the trucks,” he says.
While installing gravestones, he and his crew tidy up and place grass seed and mulch.
“I give it what I consider a personal touch. I tell people, too — memorials are for the living, not for the dead,” he says.
Regarding the pieces themselves, Corky says sandblasting, which emerged in the industry in the ’40s, “opened up a new era for memorial art” and has helped to reduce work time significantly — going from spending days engraving while using a pneumatic hammer and chisel to mere hours.
The price tag on monuments can range from a few hundred dollars for a tree marker to five digits for a sizable memorial, though Donatelli sells more moderately priced monuments. He’s used computer-design software for years to get precise results consistently; clients know what they’re getting up front by way of a detailed contract, prepared with a personal touch.
As for the future, Donatelli notes that the practice of cremation is on the rise, so he considers the monument industry to be “viable — but not growing.”
Donatelli says the monument side is the “largest capital venture of the three” aspects of the Ross Township-based family business; it also includes OakCrest Pet Crematory (providing pet cremation services for the public) and Pittsburgh Cremation Service (offering private human cremation services to funeral directors affiliated with a funeral home).
Of being involved with his clan’s business, he says he “wouldn’t have it any other way” and that “everyone is moving in the same direction for the betterment of the family.”
Laura Karet CEO (pictured)
David Shapira Executive Chairman of the Board
It was 1931, near the peak of the Great Depression, when five Pittsburgh families that had already met success in the grocery business came together to start Giant Eagle.
Throughout the decades, the store grew — literally and physically. In the ’50s, Giant Eagle [gianteagle.com] expanded its average store size to 15,000 square feet. By 2000, the chain’s largest locations each would be more than 100,000 square feet in size, and the company would employ more than 36,000 people. Representatives from each of those five founding families still work at Giant Eagle today, serving on its Board of Directors, working in its corporate offices and working in stores and retail centers.
The previous four decades of leadership and the company’s future, however, belong to one family — the Shapiras. In 1980, David Shapira, now 74, was named CEO and would serve for the next 22 years. When his daughter, Laura Karet, was named his successor in 2011, he said in a prepared statement: “Laura has an extensive background in food retailing and manufacturing, both within and outside of Giant Eagle. Her amiable and open style has won the respect of our 36,000 Team Members, customers, suppliers and business partners.”
Karet, 47, previously worked at Sara Lee directing branded marketing and at Procter & Gamble managing brands such as Crisco, Folgers and Secret.
In 2000, Karet was hired at Giant Eagle as vice president of marketing; she subsequently served as both senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer, where she managed Giant Eagle’s business plan. As part of her transition to CEO, she turned her attention to her employees.
“Throughout my life, my father has instilled in me the need to always respect others,” she says. “This is an ideal that we as a company have come to not only embrace but set as the standard for our future success. He has fostered my understanding that the 36,000 Team Members who work in our stores, retail support centers and corporate offices every day are the lifeblood of our company and will be the drivers of all the success we have as a company,” she says.
As do many Pittsburgh natives, Karet says she was happy to “boomerang” back to the city. Karet and the Giant Eagle team have been focusing on developing the Market District and GetGo Café brands by planning an expansion of both into Indianapolis this fall.
“Even as my career took me to places far from Pittsburgh, my heart has always been with Giant Eagle and our wonderful city. I am thrilled and honored to now help lead a company that has played such a significant role in my life, and those of our Team Members and customers,” Karet says.
Mary Mancini Hartner Owner (pictured)
Nick Mancini Hartner Vice President (pictured)
James Mancini came to America from Italy in the early 1900s with a dream of making bread. Like a lot of good family stories, not everyone can agree where the first loaves of Mancini’s [mancinisbakery.com] bread were made — but James’ niece Mary Mancini Hartner, 67, says she often has heard that her uncle started working in a small rented garage just outside of Pittsburgh.
James knew where to find an audience. He baked fresh bread through the night and then took the loaves to a nearby road crew while the workers were on break. Bread sold well.
It wasn’t long before he acquired a proper bakery. In 1926, he started baking in a one-room shop in McKees Rocks; that shop still has the original brick oven today. He started experimenting and came up with his famous “twist” bread that is one of the bakery’s flagship loaves.
Jimmy’s family joined him in the business, with his brother, Ernest, becoming a partner. Ernest told his son, Frankie, that Mancini’s would one day be his. Frankie loved baking and developed Mancini’s famous raisin bread. When Frankie died in an accident in 1977, however, it was Ernest’s daughter, Mary, who started helping her father at the store.
Years later, she’s the owner — a title that she jokes includes “picking up the trash.” In 2000, her son, Nick, 37, joined as vice president.
When Mary first began working at the bakery, her goal was to not rock the boat.
“We tried to keep everything the same, the products the same — and even when computers came, we tried to make the forms look the same on the screen as they were on paper,” she says.
Eventually things changed — ingredients weren’t made anymore, suppliers went out of business and she started feeling as if she could steer the business in new directions. Mancini’s started distributing to more restaurants and grocery stores.
At the same time, the bakery still churns out the old favorites the old-fashioned way. Dough rises in large bins before it’s pulled by hand onto a table, sliced into sections and allowed to rise again for hours. Nick can pull a section of just-risen dough, whip it back and forth into a long snake and loop it into a twist in less than 30 seconds.
Nick has pushed the bakery forward in his own way. He opened a location in 2003 in the Strip District with his younger brother and cousin and another on his own in 2008 in Market Square, sharing that space with Prantl’s Bakery. He uses both shops as incubators for new recipes, including his multigrain loaves, brioche and his new black bun (meant to help Steelers fans color-coordinate their tailgate food).
Nick has grown up hearing stories of people coming in with their grandparents and buying twist loaves. Recently, he was at a diner wearing his Mancini’s shirt, and the waitress started to share her own story — except she hadn’t gone into the flagship store. She remembered going to the Strip District location and seeing a baker making the loaves.
Nick realized quickly whom she was talking about. “I guess now I’m the baker in the window,” he says.
Carl E. Staible President and CEO (pictured)
Tricia Staible Executive Vice President (pictured)
Jim Gutzwiller Western Regional Production Manager
Many manufacturing businesses don’t make anything that the average person would identify as a finished product. For plenty of Pittsburgh-area companies, the thing being made is a component, an ingredient or a part. Robinson Fans, however, is quite the opposite: It makes large fans and other air-moving equipment for industrial use.
Robinson Fans [robinsonfans.com] even will take the time to paint its products to match the building for which they’re headed.
The company’s story begins with a father-and-son team with an uncommon interest in the coal industry. Scottish-born Samuel Robinson immigrated to the United States in 1862, settling in Monongahela; there, he designed equipment for the Pittsburgh Coal Company. His son, J.R., studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University when that storied institution was only a few decades old. The two formed the Robinson Machine Company, a predecessor to Robinson Fans, in 1892; after his father’s retirement, J.R. Robinson focused primarily on ventilation, writing a handbook on the subject in 1922.
Today, a sixth generation of family members is represented by Tricia Staible, the company’s executive vice president, and her cousin Jim Gutzwiller. Tricia’s father, Carl, 68, is Robinson Fans’ CEO. He knows that keeping a business within a family for that long is remarkable. “[There are] huge statistics against making it even to a second generation, let alone a third,” he says, noting that customer needs have changed many times. “If you look at our history, it’s almost like you start over again. We’ve had to remake ourselves, even though we’re a fan company.”
Changes in service are far from the only hurdle faced by the company over more than 100 years, however, including stretches of financial trouble in the mid-20th century.
“Not every family member agrees, and not every family member works the same way or sees the same opportunities within a company,” says Tricia, 35, noting that it’s not just her own family with multigenerational ties to Robinson Fans; many employees work alongside family members as well.
That can mean challenges to a work-life balance. But it also means “people who have been around the business and [can] pull up [details from] a job from the ’80s and talk about it on a whim,” says Tricia. “They know the details inside and out, and because they’ve been here so long, they’re really dedicated to seeing the customers happy.”
Sloan Lubrication Systems
Walter R. Sloan President and CEO (pictured)
C.J. Sloan Chief Technology Officer and Director of Research and Development
Eric W. Sloan Outside Sales-West Coast
Brian A. Sloan Chief Financial Officer
Nancy Sloan Director, Human Resources and Compliance
The main hallway of the offices of Sloan Lubrication Systems displays black-and-white photos of the many pieces of machinery that brothers Paul, Ralph and Walter Sloan sold in the early years after they founded the company in 1922.
“You go back in the warehouse, and everything’s new and shiny — but we want to keep connected to our heritage,” says company Chief Technology Officer and Director of Research and Development C.J. Sloan, 36.
C.J., Walter’s great-grandson, is part of the fourth generation of the family-run company [sloanlubrication.com] that manufactures and sells high-pressure, low-volume lubrication systems for gas-compression equipment in energy industries. The business began in East Liberty and now is based in South Buffalo Township, Armstrong County.
C.J.’s father, also named Walter, 63, is the current CEO. C.J.’s brothers also work for the company: Eric, 34, is in charge of outside sales-West Coast, and Brian, 36, is the Chief Financial Officer. All three brothers joined the company just out of college. C.J.’s aunt, Nancy, 67, also works for Sloan as its director of human resources and compliance.
In 1922, the three original Sloans solely were salesmen — traveling from business to business selling lubricators and machinery made elsewhere.
When Walter became president in the 1980s, he realized the quality of the products they were selling wasn’t up to their desired standard, so the company decided to start making its own. Now, every step of the process of making and distributing their systems is done in-house. “We bring in the raw material and take it all the way through to final product,” C.J. says.
All of that raw material is made in the United States. The company ships its systems worldwide, and its employees also handle shipping, installing and servicing.
“I think we’re the only company in the world that designs [lubrication systems], makes them and distributes them,” Walter says.
Walter plans to retire in a few years and leave the company in the hands of his sons. And he hopes that someday one or all of his four grandchildren will take over.
“For me, what is absolutely remarkable is seeing all three boys go off to college … and they were each pursuing their chosen avenues of opportunity, but upon graduation it became clear to them that Sloan was their best opportunity,” Walter says. “They … realized the opportunity was here to do something pretty awesome.”
Chuck Turner Jr. President (pictured)
Tim Turner Vice President
Walt Turner Chairman
Robin Turner Treasurer
Cathy Turner Director of Human Resources
Ruth Turner Customer Service Manager
Becky Musser Sales and Marketing
Steve Turner Sales
Cara Castelli Payroll Administrator/Administrative Assistant
Jenny Wigton Payroll Administrator
Tim Turner Jr. Seasonal Employee
Chuck Turner Sr. Volunteer
If you ask a Turner when he or she started work at Turner Dairy [turnerdairy.net], the result will be laughter. Most of the Turners were helping out there well before officially joining the staff.
Cara Castelli, 28, a fourth-generation Turner employee and a payroll administrator and administrative assistant, was 4 years old when she started playing with the cows in the barns, back when Turner still used milk from its own herd as well as other area farms. The dairy did so until 1998, when the logistics of having cows in a barn adjacent to a food-processing facility became too complicated; today, Turner receives milk via exclusive partnerships with about 50 local farms. Cara’s mother, Robin Turner, 58, drove trucks as a teenager from Detroit to the Pennsylvania state line — her father, Jim Turner, shifted the truck into high gear and let her slide over to take the wheel.
A dozen Turners from four generations now work at Turner Dairy, which was founded in 1930 by Charles G. Turner as a local milk-delivery service. Each generation of Turners is encouraged to study and explore other interests in college — but most of them return to work for the family business.
Cathy Turner, 54, director of human resources, remembers coming to the dairy as a young girl and helping with the cows and chickens. She went on to work as a nurse until 2010, when she rejoined Turner Dairy.
“You come back here and feel such a respect and love for each other,” she says.
Steve Turner, 23, a fourth-generation Turner, now works in sales for the company. He remembers summers spent doing construction work alongside his grandfather, who was known for an untiring work ethic. When his grandfather called for a break, Steve left to fetch drinks from the cooler.
“But when I got back, he’d still be working,” he says.
Steve and Cara have proposed new ideas for products based on Turner’s popular line of iced teas. The company is open to new ideas, and each generation praises the one before it for its hands-off leadership. Robin remembers going to industry meetings with farmers from other families who were frustrated as they worked alongside their parents.
“Their parents wouldn’t let them do things or didn’t trust them. I never felt that. We were always encouraged to make our own way and try things. They handed over that power,” she says.
Walt Turner, 69, a second-generation Turner, says his pride in his kids makes it easy to hand over the reins.
“They’re humble and gifted and willing to serve. It’s easy to go from hands-on to hands-off to just being there to offer ideas and give counsel. It’s in good hands,” he says.
Chuck Turner Jr., 50, the current president, is working to refine the company’s job descriptions as it grows larger, transitioning family members who were doing catchall jobs to a
more focused set of expectations. But he reflects the humility of the older Turners.
“The farm was here before I was born, and we’re just taking care of it,” he says.
Sean Collier, Lauren Davidson and Kristina Martin are Pittsburgh Magazine Associate Editors. Jennie Dorris, a columnist and frequent PM contributor, also has written for Real Simple, Entrepreneur and Boston Magazine.