Galloy and Van Etten Inc., Chicago

By K. Schipper
   CHICAGO – When Galloy and Van Etten Inc. opened the doors on the first business day of 2003, a major piece of the firm was missing – after more than 30 years at its helm, 69-year-old Bernard Van Etten Jr., traded the workaday world for retirement.
   While such an event might devastate some firms, the Van Etten clan expects to go on much as it has for more than 100 years. If anything, the family presence is stronger than ever in the third and fourth generations of the business.
   Perhaps the Van Ettens know they can weather this latest change to the business given some of the hard times they’ve struggled with in the past, including the breakup of the Galloy and Van Etten partnership, a slumping market for natural stone in the 1970s, and a recent attempt by the city to move them from the site they’ve occupied for almost a century.
   Actually, to say that Galloy and Van Etten is a limestone-fabricating company doesn’t convey an accurate picture of the company. But, then a lot has happened since Abram Van Etten and George Galloy started the business in 1899.
   Bernie Van Etten says he’s not really sure why his grandfather – who moved to the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago from his native Holland as a child – was interested in the trade, although he has his suspicions. Other Van Etten relatives were masons who operated a business under the name of Van Etten Brothers.
   “Obviously, there was a lot of fabricating of limestone from southern Indiana going on in the Midwest at the time,” he observes. “His cousins were in the masonry business and they all lived within the same two or three square miles, and I think that’s how it got started.”
   And, while Van Etten Brothers was a good customer of Galloy and Van Etten in earlier times, a younger generation wasn’t interested in the masonry business and Van Etten Brothers dissolved.
   That’s certainly not the case with Bernie Van Etten’s family. When his grandfather died of pneumonia one day at work when he was only in his mid-50s, Bernie says his father cut short his education to run the family business.
   “I was only a youngster when that happened,” he says. “My dad was the only son in his family, although he had two sisters.”
   Bernard Van Etten, Sr. saw the company through two of its biggest changes: the acquisition of Murphy Marble – which the Van Ettens still operate under that name – and the breakup of the Galloy/Van Etten partnership.
   Galloy and Van Etten purchased Murphy Marble in the 1950s, following the death of its owner, Robert Murphy. For years, the limestone fabricators had been sending marble work to Murphy, and when he died suddenly with his wife as his only survivor, the widow asked Bernard Van Etten Sr. to buy the business.
   “We decided to keep the name because they’d been in business for a number of years and had good name recognition,” says Bernie Van Etten. “We moved the operation here, but it operates as a separate corporation owned by Galloy and Van Etten.”
   Adding the marble company to the limestone fabrication operation didn’t present much of a problem, either. In the early 1900s, the company relocated to a 3.5-acre site at the corner of 118th and Halsted, where it continues to this day.
   “We have our limestone fabricating plant with the offices attached to it,” Van Etten explains. “About 150 yards west of it is the marble shop and our garage. We also have a fenced-in area where we keep our granite and marble.”
   The year 1960 marked the demise of the Galloy/Van Etten partnership, and subsequently the start of Bernie Van Etten’s own career with the company.
   As with so many others who’ve grown up in the business, Van Etten explains that he and his siblings – four sisters and Jack, his junior by 14 years – grew up in what was then a neighborhood of  mainly Polish, Irish and German families and attended the nearby Catholic grade school. And, both the Van Etten brothers worked after school and summers at Galloy and Van Etten.
   “It was something I was always interested in and wanted to do,” says Bernie Van Etten. “I never thought of doing anything else, actually.”
   However, he says relations between the two families had begun deteriorating in the 1950s, and after college and a stint in the military, Bernie Van Etten went to work for a stone quarry in the Bloomington, Ind., area. He’d only been there a few months when the Galloys decided to sell their portion of the business.
   “They decided to have an auction, and fortunately my dad and I were the high bidders,” he says. “It was quite a traumatic thing, but I’ve been here steadily since then.”
   Approximately a decade later, when Bernard Van Etten, Sr., decided to semi-retire due to poor health, his son and namesake became the company president.
   Jack Van Etten joined the business in the early 1970s, at a time when both brothers agree things weren’t very bright for the industry in general or for Galloy and Van Etten.
   Although he, too, grew up working there, Jack Van Etten didn’t immediately decide to make the natural-stone business his career.
   “After I got through college I taught school for a year, and found that wasn’t the career for me,” he says. “By that time, my brother was deeply involved in the business and he needed help here. I came in to give him a hand, and I’ve been involved ever since.”
   Until his elevation to the position of president following his older brother’s retirement, Jack Van Etten served as the secretary/treasurer for the family’s corporation. However, he says the reality has been something else over the years.
   “Let’s say I’ve been involved in all phases of the business, from working in the shop to estimating to administrative duties,” he says. “I’ve had a finger in just about every phase of the business.”
   And, Bernie Van Etten admits to having need of that flexibility during the 1970s. Although the company’s biggest sales come from the fabrication of limestone for large commercial projects in the 1970s, he describes that part of the market as “iffy.” Nor was there anywhere near the interest in marble or granite for residential use that there is today.
   “Those were the times that when it comes to accounts receivable, forget it,” Bernie Van Etten says. “I can remember when somebody would want a marble countertop and we’d run over to the shop because we actually had an order. Now, we have a backlog.”
   It was those dark times that also brought Bernie’s spouse Sharon into the business. Her husband explains that when he could no longer afford a secretary, the couple’s youngest son, Tom, was just starting school, so it seemed like a good time to ask her to lend a hand on a temporary basis.
   “I asked my wife if she’d come in for a few months,” he says. “That was 25 years ago. For awhile we were just trying to survive.”
   Although Sharon Van Etten retired with her husband, Jack Van Etten’s wife, Kathleen, remains with the firm in what is truly a family effort.
   As to why Galloy and Van Etten is still in business when many of its competitors shut their doors, Bernie Van Etten describes the family as survivors. However, he admits he didn’t want to be the Van Etten to shut the doors, and he says a remark by his father one day did a lot to keep him going.
   “Even after he retired, my dad used to come around the shop for visits,” he relates. “I was sitting there and I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills, when my dad said, ‘I don’t know who’s going to be around here, when business comes back, to turn out all this stone work.’
   “I know I looked at him like he was crazy, but he was one smart guy. What he said turned out to be right, and we’re still here.”
   Although the business boomed as the popularity in natural stone grew in recent years, the company’s ability to continue at its current location was thrown into doubt by plans by the city to revitalize the neighborhood that includes tearing down many old homes and building a new library.
   “About two years ago they wanted to get rid of all the manufacturing in the area, and we didn’t know what we were going to do,” says Van Etten. “They wanted us to move onto property the city owns in an industrial area. It’s only in the last year they’ve decided that the cost of our moving would be prohibitive and we could remain at this location.”
   Now that the city’s threats of relocation have been lifted, Jack Van Etten, as the new president, says he expects the company to enter into a period of change and innovation.
   “Seemingly, the future is bright,” he says. “Stone is more popular than it’s ever been, and while there’s a lot more competition from more people entering the industry, with our history and reputation we’re certainly looking forward.”
   Among the possibilities the company is considering are the purchase of at least one CNC machine, and possibly a new building to provide more space for Murphy Marble. Despite the large lot the company owns, Jack Van Etten says he can’t see the logic in ever combining the two operations under one roof.
   “The two operations are different, from my experience,” he says. “The limestone is a cut-stone environment, while the marble and granite involves both cutting and polishing. They really don’t go hand-in-hand, and I don’t think we’d want them in one facility.”
   The Van Ettens have also operated them under separate philosophies. While the limestone fabricating employs approximately 25 people, the company only furnished the stone to a jobsite. One reason is the equipment and expertise involved in setting limestone; the other is a resentment against quarries that used to supply stone to fabricators, and then compete against them on the fabrication.
   “If we were selling the stone and then competing with our customers to set it, we’d be doing the same thing,” says Bernie Van Etten. “It doesn’t make for good business practice.”
   By comparison, Murphy Marble currently has about 15 employees, and handles both installation and fabrication. Now, with an upturn in the demand for granite on everything from kitchen countertops to building facades, the two companies do about an equal amount of business.
   Not that either side of the business has been shy about taking on large jobs. Galloy and Van Etten has provided the limestone for major projects at the Art Institute of Chicago, Notre Dame University, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.
   Limestone is also a popular stone in upscale residential projects, and the company worked on several homes where $200,000-$300,000 in stonework is the norm. One project the company’s currently finishing is fabricating more than $1 million worth of natural stone – much of it Kansas limestone -- for a private residence in Glencoe, Ill.
   Meanwhile, Murphy Marble recently finished a couple major Chicago projects: the renovations of the United Center sports arena and the Tribune Tower lobby. And, as work progresses on the rebuilding of Soldier Field, Murphy Marble will be supplying all the granite for all the stadium’s luxury suites.
   With so much going on for both companies, the presence of more Van Ettens is an important ingredient in the mix. Of Bernie and Sharon Van Etten’s four children who work for the company, Tom runs the limestone shop, Mike helps manage Murphy Marble, Bernie III does outside sales of the marble and granite (as well as supervising the installers) and Susan does inside sales and runs the company computers.
   As for whether any of Jack Van Etten’s four offspring will be joining the company at some point, he calls it a, “wait-and-see situation.”
   “The younger ones are still in school and the ones who are finishing school are undecided yet,” he says.
   As for heading a company that’s also full of family ties, the new president of Galloy and Van Etten says it’s not as difficult as it may seem to outsiders.
   “We all work well together,” Jack Van Etten says. “Family businesses are a special thing and there are some stresses and strains being with the family, but we all seem to work it out. We know we have a job to do and we get it done.”
   As for his own retirement – at the age of 55 and with children still in school – Jack Van Etten says the idea is pretty remote in his mind. Plus, after more than 30 years with the company, he still finds the work appealing.
   “I think a big part of that comes from the fact that we fabricate and sell a good material,” he says. “It’s a natural material and we think it’s the best building material there is. When you work with something you believe in, it makes your job a lot more enjoyable, and that’s the biggest thing. We believe in and appreciate the beauty and quality of our stone.”

This article first appeared in the February 2003 print edition of Stone Business. ©2003 Western Business Media Inc.