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Graham Corp. puts high premium on small community and its workers

By Billie Owens

Pictured above is Tom Ronan, who has worked at Graham Corp. nearly five decades. This is the third story in a series about the 2011 honorees of the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce.


The Graham Corp. is the only publicly traded company currently operating in Genesee County. What began as a small business in 1936 is now a global enterprise, with offices in Suzhou China, Michigan and Houston. The headquarters are still at 20 Florence Ave. in the City of Batavia.

This employer of about 350 people (around 285 locally) is a leading designer and builder of vacuum and heat transfer equipment for process industries. And it’s the Industry of the Year chosen by the chamber of commerce for 2011, Graham’s 75-year Jubilee.

One of the most remarkable things about Graham, in addition to its ability to expand internationally and grow its U.S. customer base, is its steadfast allegiance to Batavia and its employees.

President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Lines put it this way: “We think ‘This is where our founding was.’ We really enjoy the small community. We find the work force … is very committed, very loyal to the company and has just become a tremendous asset to us.

“And I can’t envision another location providing the wealth of strong employees that we’ve been able to pull from this community and I’m just very fortunate to have that as a benefit.”

There are quite a number of longtime employees at Graham, and Lines is one of them, joining the ranks in 1984.

The longest-serving employees presently are Tom Ronan and Roger Becker.

Tom’s been around for a whopping 48 years, thus has never drawn unemployment, and put his two kids through college with his steady paycheck. In addition to his inarguable work ethic, he’s known for being a bit of a jokester. He’s certainly straightforward.

Here’s a sampling from a recent Q & A:

So what’s kept you around here for 48 years? “It just went day by day and the years went by.”

What do you do now? “I do a multitude of things.”

How have you liked working here? “There’s been good days and there’ve been bad days. Hopefully there weren’t too many of the bad ones in a row.”

You used to work for Mr. (Duncan) Berkeley (the son of one of the co-founders who ran the company from 1968 to 1995). What did you do for him? “I did whatever he wanted me to – he was the boss.”

The former Marine and Vietnam vet expounded a little more when asked about the chamber award.

“It’s nice to see a company that I’ve spent my life with is appreciated by the community that they help support. Many times people thought we made crackers, you know.”

Actually, the equipment that Graham Corp. creates is used in the processing of everyday products used by people everywhere – from synthetic fibers and electric power, paper and steel, food and fertilizer, to pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petroleum-based goods.

During World War II, it supplied steam ejectors, surface condensers and heat exchangers for shipboard applications.

Harold M. Graham first incorporated the business as Graham Manufacturing Co. in 1936 and since 1942, the company has grown its clientele far and wide. In 1983, it became the Graham Corp. Today, about half of its sales are outside the United States.

It is overseen by a seven-member board of directors, which includes Jim Lines. The others are President and Chairman of the Board Jerald D. Bidlack, and James J. Barber, Ph.D., Helen H. Berkeley, Alan Fortier, James J. Malvaso and Gerard T. Mazurkiewicz.

Its stocks, with the ticker symbol GHM, are traded on the NYSE Amex and on Tuesday one common share was $20.64.

The ongoing success story is rooted, according to Lines, in management practices put in place long before he took the helm as CEO.

“There’s a fairness the management team and the leaders have to the employees and, in exchange, the employees have tremendous support for the management team, enabling us to do what the business needs to do.

“We look at it really as a mutual responsibility to grow our company, to serve our customers. … We want our employees to recognize us as a place to build a career, not just a business to come work at.”

In addition to Mr. Graham and Mr. Berkeley, he gives a lot of credit for building a remarkable company to Al Cadena, who ran the business from 1995 to 2004.

When asked if the rap against New York for having high taxes and too much regulation has been a hindrance for Graham, Lines said “We’re choosing to be in New York State and we’re choosing to be in Batavia.

“Is it easier in other locations? Perhaps. But I would place my money, and I do, behind the workers we have in this location. They outweigh the challenges that we face. … There’s no assurance that if we were to relocate somewhere else we would have the same strength and that strength is our people.”

Looking forward, part of Graham’s plan is to: expand sales to businesses in China; increase nuclear power operations; and to focus on opportunities with the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program.

But this week, right here in Batavia, the folks at Graham are delighted to be honored by the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce.

“I think that’s tremendous,” Lines said, “that’s a great recognition of a wonderful company that really thrives globally. … it’s a recognition of 75 years of commitment to our customers, 75 years of commitment to our employees and then a recognition that we’re of good service to the community as well.

“We’re very proud to have our company acknowledged in this way.”

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