Brothers' Star Still On The Rise

Posted: June 20, 1988

Like many success stories, this one started with a fluke.

It began in 1978, when Joseph Messner Sr. decided the time had come to shut the doors of Triangle Engineering Co. of West Chester, a small steel- fabricating firm that had been in the family for more than 30 years.

Messner wanted a hassle-free exit from the business and asked his sons, Joseph Jr. and Chris, who had been working at Triangle, to form their own company so they could be paid as subcontractors. That freed the elder Messner

from having to deduct taxes from their salaries and a lot of other messy tax reporting.

"That, in all honesty, was the reason we started the company," said Chris Messner.

Joe Jr., 33, and Chris, 32, were really not the dirt-under-the-nails types one would have expected to enter the steel-fabricating business. Both were trained as accountants and seemed headed for the white-collar world.

But the entrepreneurial bug bit hard and, after they got a few orders, the brothers thought that maybe they could make something of their firm, Five Star Industrial Services Inc.

Today, the Messner brothers are a long way from the cramped two-car garage where they began. About a year ago, they moved into a 32,000-square-foot plant in West Chester that was specially built for them.

Their initial workforce of five people, including themselves, has grown to nearly 80. And, in a sharp break with the days when they were lucky to make a few bucks, the brothers are projecting sales of about $8 million this year.

The Messner brothers also are long past the days when they would take any job that came their way. Today, Five Star has an established niche as a manufacturer and installer of tanks, pressure vessels and pipes used primarily by the chemical, pharmaceutical and oil-refining industries.

But things didn't always look so bright for the brothers. In an interview last week, Joe Messner recalled the times when they would work 20-hour days trying to fill orders.

Laboring in a two-car garage in West Chester, the brothers did any kind of metal fabrication that came their way. The space was too small to build tanks, so they built them outside, frequently in the snow.

"We got to be known as the two young boys who built tanks outside," said Joe Messner.

Initially, the brothers planned to remain a small operation. But the orders began to roll in faster than they had expected, and they weren't the types to turn down work. The pivotal point came in 1983.

"We started to grow and, sometime in 1983, we were doing a half million in sales. In 1984, we doubled that," Joe Messner said.

As Five Star grew, the brothers realized they could no longer do everything themselves. Slowly, they began to add departments for purchasing, sales and marketing, accounting and engineering.

Five Star now is reaping the benefits of the resurgence in capital spending by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The weakened dollar has increased sales for many U.S. firms, which has led some to increase capacity. That means more work for Five Star, Joe Messner said.

The two young businessmen also found that they were able to attract talented older professionals who had a wealth of experience with larger firms. The Messners said that has been crucial to helping the company grow and become more sophisticated.

"All we can take credit for is having enough smarts to hire the people," Joe Messner said. "We knew where we wanted to go, we just needed the answers to get there."

As the company becomes more structured, the brothers say one of their biggest challenges is maintaining the energy of a small firm.

"We don't want to become that bureaucratic that everybody has lost the spirit," Chris Messner said.

Today, Joe Messner is president of Five Star. He supervises production at the firm's plant as well as most administrative operations. His days of actually building tanks are just about over.

"It's a constant battle to let go of your past and become a full-time chief executive officer," he said.

Chris Messner hasn't quite let go. As vice president of the firm, he supervises most field operations, including the installation of tanks. While the company works primarily in the Philadelphia area, employees install tanks all over the East Coast.

The brothers believe the key to their success has been their emphasis on quality and on-time delivery.

Joe Messner said Five Star frequently earns a smaller profit than similar firms because it is willing to go the extra mile to make sure the job is done right.

"We're interested in building that long-term relationship with the customer that's going to last 10 or 20 years," he said.

The strategy seems to have impressed Jim Guterl, a plant engineer for Witco Chemical Corp. in Marcus Hook. Guterl said Five Star has built and installed a variety of tanks and process-control equipment for Witco.

"The thing I like about them is that you get an excellent quality product on time," he said.

Though the dust has barely settled at their new plant, the Messner brothers say business is so good they are already planning to expand their plant and office space by about 15,000 square feet and increase employment to just over 100 workers. The expansion is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

But the Messners said their main goal remains maintaining the quality of their services.

"It's a constant battle to show customers that, yes, we've gotten big, but we're still running the company the same way we were five years ago," Chris Messner said.

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