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Irmscher & Sons; for nearly a century, the Irmschers have played a major part in building Fort Wayne.

Irmscher & Sons

Tom Irmscher just smiles when he's asked what it's like to drive down any major street in Fort Wayne and see all the buildings that he and his family built. There are hospitals that bear the Irmscher imprint, schools, city utilities, a sizable portion of the downtown's skyline and the Embassy Theatre, which has attained the designation of historic landmark.

Irmscher says he doesn't dwell on the fact that he is heir to the construction firm that for almost a century has played such an important part in building Fort Wayne. "It never crosses my mind. I'm thinking about tomorrow, not yesterday," says the president of Irmscher & Sons Inc. and great-grandson of founder Max Irmscher.

But press him a little more, ask him to think about it, and he'll mention the Embassy. The seven-story theater that preservationists saved from a wrecking ball 15 years ago has become a local showplace for concerts and revival films. When Irmscher & Sons built it in 1928, the structure was the largest, most ornate theater-hotel the city had seen. Today, the building's blueprints have been framed and hang in the company's corporate offices.

From those offices Irmscher runs a construction company that did about $65 million in volume in 1989, up about $20 million from the previous year. The figure is expected to be off slightly when the books are closed for 1990. But despite what many forecasters are saying could be a difficult year ahead in the construction industry, Irmscher, 47, says he believes his company is prepared to weather any financial storms. The company learned lessons in the early 1980s, a time when overhead was slashed and some wages were frozen.

"In '85 we started to do what I had planned and were at the top of the plateau. We've begun to level off." The goal is to do about $100 million in sales every year.

Regional offices have been an integral part in the expansion. The Mishawaka office is staffed to handle large projects in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan. An office in Normal, Ill., has opened doors to new territory for the company. More regional offices may be established in the future.

Projects the company has completed recently include the $31 million Penn High School building in Mishawaka, more than $9 million in construction at Warsaw's Zimmer Inc., a $1 million manufacturing facility for the Unytite Corp. in Peru, Ill., and a $2.6 million expansion at the Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, Mich.

In 1990, the company worked farther from home base than it ever had before when a team of Irmscher managers and about 30 union workers went to a job site in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Union workers were required because the natives didn't have the appropriate skill levels, Irmscher explains. Work is under way on a 42,000-foot, two-story office building for Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corp. The $4.9 million project is replacing a building lost to Hurricane Hugo. Completion is scheduled for May.

The family legacy started with Max Irmscher, who left his home in Saxony in 1883 and settled in Fort Wayne. He came trained as a blacksmith, but soon became a brick mason. In 1892, nine years after coming to his new home, he founded the business that still bears his name.

"I think the Irmschers are an excellent example of the immigrant story," says Mike Hawfield, executive director of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. "They became involved in major projects that led to them becoming a driving force in helping build the city."

In addition to the Embassy, Max Irmscher was responsible for St. Joseph Hospital (since then the firm also has handled all major additions to what is now St. Joseph Medical Center), North Side High School and the city's water filtration plant.

After Max Irmscher's death, the firm stayed in the family when his sons stepped in and took control. As did their grandfather and father before them, Tom and his brother Steve kept that tradition alive. Both began working with the company as teenagers. They had been running it for several years when their father, Alden, died in 1979. Last year, Tom bought out his brother's interest in the family business.

The company's name has become a misnomer in recent years; there are no "& Sons" waiting in the wings. Tom has three daughters, and says he's unsure whether any of them will want to run the family business someday. "The oldest one is at Purdue studying interior design, so she's got an interest in the industry, anyway," he says.

The company places an emphasis on the design-build concept, where one firm is responsible for everything from the plans on the drawing table to laying the final bricks in place.

"More and more owners in the private sector, particularly in the larger corporate and industrial sector, are finding that type of teamwork is what they want," Irmscher says. "Design-build is the same thing as the old master builder concept a thousand years ago." Today, it's with computer-aided drafting equipment to facilitate the design process.

In Fort Wayne, the company also is developing a reputation for more specialized types of work. Irmscher & Sons has played a part in renovating and restoring a series of buildings that date to the turn of the century and earlier. Irmscher recently renovated the Journal-Gazette Building, an imposing brick structure with exterior brass trim built in the late 1870s. The project included installation of a three-story atrium with skylights. Another brick structure from the late 1800s, the Waterfield Building, stands at the site once occupied by the city's first open-air market. Today the building's restored exterior adds a 19th-century feel to a nearby open-air market that is a popular lunchtime spot during the summer.

Although the project did not carry the same historical significance, the renovation of a former L.S. Ayres department store into a downtown office complex with an art deco exterior did turn a few heads. Before the renamed Renaissance Square opened in 1988, the four-story building underwent a $10 million face-lift that included the addition of a granite and precast concrete exterior. The inside is home to a variety of offices, including INB National Bank, some Lincoln National Corp. operations and the Waterfield Mortgage Co.

Working in a heavily traveled, sometimes crowded downtown does take a certain level of expertise, Irmscher says. "Timing becomes very important, because things have to arrive when you need them. And you can't have them arriving too early because there may be nowhere to put them."

That timing was put to the ultimate test on Midtowne Crossing, a project that must rank among the most high-profile projects Irmscher & Sons ever has undertaken. The company beat out four other firms when it bid $389,000 to manage the $10.5 million project.

The project is one on which city officials have pinned hopes for downtown rejuvenation. Undertaken for the city and an Indianapolis developer, it involved gutting and restoring a series of buildings in downtown Fort Wayne. Alongside and blending with the restoration was new construction, including a parking garage.

For almost a year, passersby craned their necks and looked behind wooden barricades to get a peek at what was being done on the site. For people working on the project, each day was something of an adventure. One building had what construction crews might call a slight problem--it had no foundation. "It was built in the canal days when they didn't always worry about those things, I guess," Irmscher says.

"We had to extend down what was there and make a basement," explains Ed Willette, Midtowne project superintendent. "There were lots of surprises.

Willette has been with the company since the early 1960s. Before that, his father was an Irmscher employee. The knowledge and experience that comes from longtime employees has contributed to the company's ability to take on a variety of projects, Irmscher says.

The company's success isn't in the computer equipment or contained in any strategic plans. It's something Irmscher says has passed through the family, just as the business has passed from one generation to the next.

"Probably the most valuable asset we've got is our reputation," he says. "And it's the one that means the most to us."
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Title Annotation:construction company in Fort Wayne, Indiana
Author:Skertic, Mark
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:company profile
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Residential real estate around the state; an update for Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Lafayette, Northwest Indiana and South Bend.
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