Mike Sangrey has been putting in some quality time recently helping his dad pour sidewalks, prep patios and install curbing for Sangrey Concrete.
“I love working beside my pops and always learning,” says the 18-year-old Sangrey, who imagines taking over the Willow Street firm someday. “I have thought before of doing something else, but I really have a big passion for the business.”
If Sangrey does take over one day, he would be the fifth-generation owner of a concrete company that is marking its 100th anniversary this year, a rarely achieved milestone even in Lancaster County where family businesses have long been common.
“It’s unusual,” said Mike Mitchell, director of The High Center at Elizabethtown College, citing statistics from family business consultant John Ward’s 2011 book “Keeping the Family Business Healthy” that show only four percent of family companies make it to the fourth generation.
“They’re certainly in a small percentage of companies that do that,” Mitchell says of Sangrey Concrete.
Neglected succession planning and family strife can be among the reasons a business doesn’t survive long-term under family control, said Mitchell, whose organization works to strengthen family businesses. But in Lancaster County, Mitchell says there are more success stories.
“I think there’s some closer knit families and more family (businesses) in general in Lancaster,” he says.
Sangrey Concrete’s longevity has been aided by family members who seem to get along and have shown interest in running the company while keeping it on a scale small enough to make it easier to sustain. Today the company mostly consists of a father and son working together alongside some summer helpers, the kind of operation that has long suited its owners.
“With more employees a lot of time comes more headaches,” says Carl Sangrey Jr., who is the operator of the company begun in 1920 by his great-grandfather, George Sangrey. “It was always small and independently-owned by the Sangreys ever since it started.”
All in the family
The 41-year-old Carl Sangrey Jr. says he’s satisfied with how he and his son work together and is uninterested in expanding the company he literally grew up with.
Sangrey Concrete’s shop and headquarters at 204 Peach Bottom Road in Willow Street is behind the longtime Sangrey family home where Carl Sangrey Jr. now lives. When he was 10 years old, Carl Sangrey Jr. says he mowed the grass around the shop before graduating to working summers with his own dad when he was a teenager.
“I just enjoyed the whole thing, being around equipment, the work,” he says.
While the family concrete business was a big part of his growing up, Carl Sangrey Jr. didn’t make it his own until he had spent several years working at a larger construction company, which was followed by a stint as a furnace operator at Arconic, the former Alcoa.
Carl Sangrey Jr. said working at bigger companies opened his eyes to how they manage large-scale jobs and what is expected of employees. “I got tired of working 12-hour shifts and nights and weekends.”
When he helped his brother-in-law with a small concrete project at his house, Carl Sangrey Jr. says he got serious about taking over the firm his dad had kept going while he was away. While his dad, Carl Sangrey Sr., still owns the company, Carl Sangrey Jr. has managed it since 2017 when he tweaked the name of what had previously been Carl Sangrey Construction.
Carl Sangrey Jr.’s wife, Brook, answers the phone for the company and Carl Sangrey Sr. still helps around the shop, loads trucks, repairs equipment, mows the grass and tends a garden at the shop.
“I’m not one just to sit down and do nothing,” says the 75-year-old Carl Sangrey Sr., who bought the business from his own dad, George Sangrey Jr., when he was in his 30s.
“You can make a decent living doing this, but you’re not going to make a killing,” says Carl Sangrey Sr., who early on did a lot of sidewalks and curbs in Lancaster city, where the company’s oval stamp can still be seen on some walkways.
“And then patios were big in the ’60s,” he says.
Sangrey Concrete has long specialized in small jobs, but one marquee contract was pouring concrete for the “Gold” course at Village Greens Miniature Golf Course, which debuted at the Strasburg attraction in the mid-1980s.
“It takes a special person to keep a business like this running. It’s not just me,” says Carl Sangrey Sr. “You’ve got to have somebody that has the initiative and the get-up to do it. Bottom line is, it’s hard work.”
Getting help to stay small
Being small helped Sangrey Concrete survive during slow times, including this spring when business shutdowns meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 brought many jobs to a halt.
“There’s work if you’re working residential, it might be smaller jobs but you’re sure of a job,” says Carl Sangrey Sr. It’s a philosophy that has helped his son weather downturns.
Working on what amounted to landscaping projects for homeowners helped tide the firm over until normal construction activity resumed when lockdowns were lifted. Now, Carl Sangrey Jr. says there’s more than enough residential and light commercial work to keep him busy.
And if there’s too much work for the company’s one crew to handle, Carl Sangrey Jr. says he taps into his network of similar small firms who farm out work to each other.
“When we get a big project, we all just come together and get it done,” Carl Sangrey Jr. says. “If I have one, they’ll help me. If they have one, I’ll go help them for a day or so.”
Depending on this informal network of similar firms is preferable to adding employees since being bigger means a constant pressure to find enough for everyone to do, Carl Sangrey Jr. says.
“Once you develop something and it’s working for you, you don’t really know how to do it any other way,” he says.
Carl Sangrey Jr. also takes an informal approach to guaranteeing his work, offering his own word and the company’s long history as a stand-in for a written warranty.
“I say, ‘Give me a call if something happens to it,’” he says. “I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be all right.”