Gagnon Inc., a quiet presence in the valleyThe quiet, understated office of Gagnon Inc., founded 60 years ago in Hudson, reflects the quiet presence the company has had in the St. Croix Valley – even its Web site is to the point and uncluttered. However, the projects it handles are bigger than life and require an expertise gained through decades of experience.
By: Margaret Ontl, Hudson Star-Observer
The quiet, understated office of Gagnon Inc., founded 60 years ago in Hudson, reflects the quiet presence the company has had in the St. Croix Valley – even its Web site is to the point and uncluttered. However, the projects it handles are bigger than life and require an expertise gained through decades of experience.
The company, now run by second- and third-generation family members, was founded in 1949 by Flavian and Bernadette (Plourde) Gagnon in Hudson. Flavian was a bricklayer from northeast Minneapolis and Bernadette was from Somerset. The young couple settled in Hudson soon after their marriage in 1940 and had three children, sons Ron and Mark and daughter Eugenia.
“Our dad had always worked for other builders but he always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Ron Gagnon, the eldest son, who is now president of Gagnon Inc. “Mom said, ‘Yes, as long as I can be your partner.’” Together they built their fledgling business, which initially included general construction, building an addition to St. Patrick School and the Hudson Hospital long-term-care unit in the 1950s.
Flavian never graduated from high school but later in life he took college level courses. He was trained as a bricklayer like his father.
In those days, almost every commercial building in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis had a coal- or oil-fired boiler for heating purposes and many rural towns had a creamery and power plant.
As a result Flavian started putting up the buildings and boilers, eventually specializing in boilers and furnaces.
“Dad was the bidder, project manager and in many cases the worker who did the work. Mom did all the paperwork, typing, billing and bookkeeping mostly in the evenings since daytime hours were filled caring for us three kids, housework, gardening and canning,” said Ron.
“I can remember lying in bed and hearing her typing late at night,” said Mark Gagnon, who is vice president.
Gagnon Inc. has operated under its current corporate charter for 60 years. Over the last 40 years the company has specialized in refractory work, adding an insulation and lagging division 21 years ago.
Refractory materials have been in use for 5,000 years. Today’s refractories are manufactured from scores of raw materials, in hundreds of forms, to contain heat (500 to 3200 degrees Fahrenheit) and to withstand the high temperatures in manufacturing conditions of nearly every kind of metal, glass, chemical, mineral or ceramic product.
While the refractory division is concerned with the interior of a piece of processing equipment, the insulation division focuses on the exterior insulation aspects of reducing process heat loss and conserving energy.
Therefore the two divisions are highly complementary to each other.
Although the company provides a host of services to its customers, including 24-hour, 365-day-a-year emergency response, Gagnon crews are most often found working inside industrial furnaces, kilns, smokestacks and steam boilers.
Oil refineries, paper mills, power plants, industrial waste water treatment plants and incinerators are just a few of the industries that rely on the skills and knowledge that Gagnon Inc. offers.
Both sons started to work in the business at an early age.
“I was 15 years old when I first started work. I spent the summer on a job in Missoula, Montana,” said Ron, who graduated from St. Thomas Military Academy and the University of St. Thomas with a degree in business and accounting and also completed his apprenticeship in the Minneapolis Bricklayers Union.
Like his brother, Mark Gagnon started as a child, and it is the only job he has ever had. He can recall as a youngster going with his father to the warehouse on First Street and pulling nails out of lumber so both could be used again — they were the original recyclers.
Their dad died in 1968 when Mark was 13. As a boy, Mark continued to work summers through high school and college, where he studied business. He started going out on jobs when he was 16 and learned to work with tools on jobs all over the country as Ron and his mother expanded the company.
“You had to learn as you worked on the job; there was no school to learn the type of work we do,” he said. By his mid-20s, Mark began preparing price quotes and bids and meeting with customers developing new businesses. He focused on refineries in North Dakota and Montana and continues to work with those businesses today.
As the brothers continued to expand the business, their sister, Jean (Larry) Clausen of Hudson, helped the family by taking care of their mother in her later years as her health deteriorated.
“We could not have done it without her,” said Mark. Bernadette Gagnon died in 2004.
Gagnon Inc. has uniquely positioned itself in the industry to provide comprehensive service to clients in either new construction or maintenance. Almost any product people use, from paper to gasoline, may have come from an industrial plant that Gagnon Inc. provided service to.
They have experience in the following industries: cement and lime, glass, incineration, industrial processes, metal processing, outage work/turnarounds, petroleum, petrochemical, power, steam, chiller, utility, robotic demolition, wood, pulp and paper and commercial insulation applications.
“Depending on the economy, the business is usually split between new construction and maintenance,” said Ron. “Refractories are a consumable item in the process industry. They don’t have an indefinite life. When the economy turns down and the new work dries up the maintenance items continue.”
Today, Gagnon Inc. is still incorporated in Wisconsin. The family continues to have a warehouse in Hudson on the same spot Flavian started the business 60 years ago, from which they stage materials and equipment. In addition to their office in St. Paul, they also have facilities now in Cedar Rapids and Bettendorf, Iowa, Bismarck, N.D., and a sales office in Milwaukee. A third-generation family member is now the secretary and treasurer of the corporation, Peter Gagnon, Ron’s son.
“We have clients in 21 states with the bulk of our business being in the upper Midwest,” said Judy Larson, controller, who has worked for Gagnon for 25 years. “We take key people to the jobs and then hire bricklayers, insulators and laborers out of local union halls.”
Last year, payroll topped out at 600 employees. Mark also credits the company’s dedicated employees for the success of Gagnon Inc. Many have worked for the company for more than 30 years, and there are several second-generation employees with the firm.
“It’s hard work, and it requires workers to be away from their homes for several days at a time, which adds additional stress,” Mark said. “We simply could not be successful without their skill and dedication to quality work.” Both brothers acknowledge the importance of good employees and often go the extra mile on their behalf.
The commitment to quality work, combined with more than 60 years’ experience in the trade, results in excellent relationships between Gagnon Inc. and its customers, many of which are Fortune 500 companies.