All in the Family for 94 Years
Ralph E. Jones, Inc. Paints a Smile on Projects from Universities to Hospitals
Since it was founded 94 years ago, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Ralph E. Jones, Inc. (REJ) has moved past painting the market square Christmas tree each year. The opportunities for painting facilities and installing wall coverings and special coatings have come a long way, but what hasn’t changed is the high quality and reliable applications that the company is known for, says owner and President Beth Peiffer.
Since its inception, REJ has been a family-operated business. It was started by Ralph Jones and then purchased by a handful of the firm’s employees when he passed away. The new owners included (Beth) Peiffer’s father, John Peiffer, who along with his brother, was among the young men who went to work for REJ after serving in the military during World War II. Ultimately, John bought out his partners and worked until he was 85. He sold the business to his daughter in 2010.
Battling the Recession
“It was a tough time to take over the business,” Peiffer says. “Coming right out of the Great Recession everything became ‘low-ball, low-quality’ pricing and our business suffered—but we’ve been rebuilding it. We lost about 75 percent of our business as a cheap bid/change order route was born…we hunkered down and cut overhead and staff. It was really difficult at first. Eventually, we started hiring people back.”
Within a year, Peiffer decided to tweak the firm’s sales strategy. Instead of working solely for contractors, REJ started doing more work directly for owners.
“We still do a lot of work with contractors,” Peiffer says, “but not ones who are slow to pay with low quality standards. We want to build relationships and that was part of our strategy. We won’t be everything to everyone, but we will be the best value company. In 2011, we were certified as a federal Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) and as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) by the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, which allowed us to enter the diversity markets.
“We’ve also diversified our service lines. We have gotten into project engineering, which basically means we’re completing the paperwork, submittals and job closing. For various contractors and construction managers, we are also a DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) stocking supplier with the state of Pennsylvania. We have a large shop at our office. As a stocking supplier, we can sell materials to people and they can earn diversity credits for purchasing from us.”
She plans to continue adding service lines to provide more value for customers and to give the company some cushion should another economic downturn or other unforeseen event causes a line of business to dry up.
With the market continuing to be driven largely by low bids, Peiffer says she finds herself competing against people with no insurance or workers’ compensation and who are unable to provide security background checks—and who are working out of their homes. That makes it hard to submit a competitive bid because customers are not always comparing apples to apples when taking hard bids. “They aren’t always looking at reputation of a company and the quality, safe personnel required on project job sites,” she adds.
Long History of Wall Coverings
For almost 100 years, REJ has specialized in providing painting, wall covering and special coating services for institutional, commercial and industrial clients. Over the years, the company has adopted new technology that allows it to deliver high-quality and reliable applications with less manpower and better accuracy. The company works throughout the state of Pennsylvania with the exception of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia proper. The firm also does a lot of work in Maryland and has completed projects in the District of Columbia, Delaware and New Jersey.
“We will do work in churches, large office buildings, treatment plants, manufacturing facilities—pretty much anything commercial,” Peiffer says. “One of the things that sets us apart from low-grade competitors is that we take the extra time at the onset of a project to accurately prepare surfaces and increase a product’s life span. We are a coating solution provider specializing in roof coatings, paint, wall coverings, spray-on textures, multicolored coatings and historical restoration solutions. We can apply fire-proof coatings, concrete coatings, epoxy coatings, anti-microbial sealants, caulking, paint and wall-coverings.”
“A lot of times we get called in after a project has been started by incompetent painting contractors,” Peiffer continues. “We might be the second or third painter to come in. …Some people go with the low bidder, they regret it and they call us in to repair the mistakes and do the job correctly. Think about it: when you go in any room in any building, you always notice what’s on the floor, walls and ceilings. You look at the finishes. You don’t want to skimp on that because it’s comparable to a smile on a face.”
“Our primary focus is ‘eds and beds,’ ” Peiffer says. “The firm’s biggest focus is on education from elementary and high school projects to college and universities. The beds part—that includes hospitals, nursing homes and other similar projects. There is no typical project, but for a university, we do everything from painting the auditorium to painting the president’s house. Or it could be painting a dormitory, classroom buildings or even a gymnasium.”
REJ has also done a lot of work at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. “We’ve done that since the company started,” she says. The firm won a craftsmanship award for a special building project in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. It was the only building remaining from the Civil War and the windows had been painted over so many times over the years that REJ had to strip the windows to their native state. The firm also won a craftsmanship award for refurbishing the stain and paint in an Allentown, Pennsylvania, church.
“We have done so many wonderful projects over the years that it is hard to pick a few to highlight,” Peiffer says. “Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the firm would paint the town Christmas tree on the market square in Harrisburg. That was really special. When I look at the photos we have of this, it is a wonderful legacy for the family.” There have been projects in the buildings on the Gettysburg battlefield and many projects in Hershey, Pennsylvania, including painting gold leaf and doing restoration work at the Hershey Trust Company headquarters in the 1990s, as well as repainting the sky and clouds in The Hotel Hershey lobby.
In addition to winning awards for their craftsmanship, the firm and Peiffer have also won awards for their contributions to the community. Peiffer was selected to receive the 2018 Tribute to Women of Excellence award presented by the YWCA. The annual award honors a select group of women who have given their time and resources to making Central Pennsylvania a better place. Criteria includes participating actively in the community as a mentor, volunteer or role model, demonstrating integrity, strength of character and leadership, and embracing the vision and mission of the YWCA.
Peiffer says she would like to start a grant process by year-end that would allow REJ to support a community project each year with its time and talent. Two years ago, for example, the firm teamed up with Sherwin-Williams and painted the clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club of Harrisburg.
Ultimately, everything the firm and its leadership does is for the people, whether it is the customers they serve or the employees on the team, she says. “As the leader and owner of the company, I’m at the top of the pyramid. But, I’m also at the bottom,” Peiffer says. “As a servant-leader, it is essential to serve everyone here and be nimble and willing to change. Change is essential to stay in business—especially in the post-recession climate—but change does not come easy or quick.”
REJ’s team is made up of long-term employees. “Our employees tend to stay here a while and work as a team,” Peiffer says. “We are a small company and we have to help one another out.” That teamwork results in a superior safety record, which also can be attributed to training and to only hiring quality employees who can pass a thorough background check.
“It is important to have a life-work balance,” Peiffer continues. “If you get sick and you can’t come in, you can’t help us. Or if you have a loved one in the hospital, you can’t focus on your work if your mind is somewhere else. We all have stuff we go through. I trust my employees to get work done, but I also expect them to take care of themselves first.
“This life is about caring for people; it’s not all business,” she says. “You need to have happy employees if they’re going to be productive. You are not likely to be miserable at work and happy at home or happy at home and miserable at work. It has to work together in harmony, and then everything kind of meshes together.”