Do a little research on the lifespans of typical family-run businesses, and you will find that they last, on the average, for 24 years, and only in 30 percent of the businesses will the second generation succeed the founding generation.
This makes it all the more remarkable that the Robert B. Our Co., Inc., (RBO) at 25 Great Western Rd. in Harwich is celebrating its 60th year in business this year and boasts 13 members of the second and third generations. Robert Our was working as a commercial fisherman when he founded the company in 1957 with his wife Joan and five employees.
Robert Our died in 2007 at the age of 75; his widow Joan still comes into the office every week. “She’s always been very involved in the company from day one, handling the administrative side of the business when she and my grandfather started the company,” the couple’s granddaughter Abby, RBO’s project manager, said in an email interview. “She keeps us on our toes! She is the glue that held us together as we grew over the years.”
You have probably seen the company’s cherry-red septic pumping trucks somewhere around town. The company began by pumping septic systems and expanded into plumbing, mechanical and electrical divisions. It has worked on marine construction including pier reconstruction and revetments, wastewater plant construction and municipal water projects. The company will also deliver landscaping products such as mulch, loam, stone and shells to a residence or business. RBO will prepare a lot for building by removing trees, leveling the ground, digging a foundation, and installing water, a septic system and a driveway.
Robert’s son Chris is RBO’s president, his son John is vice-president and daughter Hope Our Cleary is in charge of scheduling. While Chris Our began in the family business as “a toddler,” according to the company’s website, his brother John at age 15 was “training professional drivers how to use pump trucks.” The business has expanded to 160 employees from its initial five.
Abby Our is the daughter of John Our. Abby Our grew up in Harwich and graduated from Harwich High. After that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in construction management from the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. She, too, grew up steeped in the family business – it was Our’s involvement in the business that led her to study construction management.
“I felt there was a critical need for construction management in the company and the effective role it could play in growing the business,” she says. “The bigger the projects we took on, the more paperwork and tracking came with them.”
As well as expanding in scope from its early days excavating and maintaining septic systems on Cape Cod, RBO has expanded its geographic reach. It is now what Our calls a “multi-faceted company” that has branched into southeastern Massachusetts and the North Shore of Boston. Look at the company’s client list, and you’ll see a range of clients from 13 towns on the Cape and Islands to McDonald’s Corp. to National Grid to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“RBO is now one of the top general contractors in Massachusetts with plumbing, electrical and mechanical divisions,” Our says. “One of the big changes is how technology has impacted our business, creating a lot of efficiencies.”
In late October the company was honored with two prestigious New England business awards. The first came from the Family Business Association which named RBO its Large Business of the Year. Businesses recognized by The Family Business Association in the Large Business of the Year category have more than 150 employees and multiple generations working for the business, or have successfully transitioned from one generation to the next. The second award came from the Utility Contractors Association of New England. It named John Our its Contractor of the Year. Both awards were handed out during banquets in Boston-area hotels.
As anyone who has worked in a family business will tell you, there are upsides and downsides.
“It’s fun to share so many experiences, professionally and personally with the people I’m closest to,” Our says. “You can tap into the strengths of people you know so well and it’s great to see them contribute to the success of the company. We are very lucky that our family is so close.”
On the other hand, “There is always someone watching and critiquing you, and there is no escape,” she says.
Having said all this, what are the secrets to staying in business for six decades?
“Keeping true to founding principles,” Our says. “My grandfather founded the company 60 years ago believing that the keys to success were exceptional customer service, building a relationship with local business and the community and the importance of employees and family. I’d also add that it’s important to keep an eye on opportunities that can grow the business—that’s how we were able to grow the business over the years.”
For more information visit www.robertbour.com.