JF Ahern, a pipe fabrication, mechanical, fire protection and building automation specialty contractor for commercial and industrial projects, has stood the test of time and been named ENR Midwest’s 2020 Specialty Contractor of the Year.

Founded in 1880, the company has 1,400 full-time employees. Based in Fond du Lac, Wis., the firm also has 14 offices throughout the upper Midwest. About 2% of its employees are part-time workers.

While most of JF Ahern’s business is in the upper Midwest, it worked last year in 35 states and had 2019 business in 10 of the 11 states in ENR Midwest’s coverage area, with only Ohio not having an Ahern project last year.

The company’s revenue climbed to $316.1 million in 2019 from $292.6 million in 2018, and it has steadily grown since reaching $180 million in revenue in 2011. JF Ahern has managed to far surpass the $212 million in revenue it posted in 2008 before the effects of the Great Recession worked their way through the economy.

Tripp Ahern, chairman and CEO, says the firm’s success is tied in part to the diverse range of services it offers. It has also taken steps to adapt to a changing market, which has helped the firm achieve a longevity that not many specialty contractors can claim.

“I think if you look at businesses across the U.S., it’s probably pretty rare that a company would have been around as long as ours,” he says. “We’re proud of our history and pleased that we’re able to continually have the business grow and remain successful.”

Tripp is among a fifth generation of family members involved in the business. Another is Tony Ahern, who serves as president and chief operating officer.

“We decided to rig the racks with come-alongs on one side of them and with slings on the other side so we could drift the racks into the building safely.”

– Mike Spittler, Project Manager, JF Ahern

The company got its start when Tripp Ahern’s great-great grandfather, David Ahern, an immigrant from County Cork, Ireland, and his son, John, opened a small steam heat and plumbing business serving residential and commercial customers in downtown Fond du Lac.

As ensuing generations came into the business, the company expanded into new services and sought large commercial, institutional and industrial work throughout Wisconsin and the greater Midwest.

The company continued to grow as a nationally recognized mechanical contractor and reported annual sales of $13.4 million in 1978.

It formed its fire protection division in 1981 and began fabricating piping for external projects in 1982.

Tripp Ahern believes the company has flourished because it meets so many of its customers’ needs.

“The industry has changed a great deal over many decades, and we’re able to provide a pretty broad array of services to our customers [starting with] traditional mechanical contracting work, in the sense of HVAC and plumbing,” he says. 

“We also do fire protection work,” he adds. “There aren’t a lot of mechanical contractors who also perform fire protection work, so that’s been great for us. We also do a lot of process piping, water and wastewater treatment, and we sell fabricated piping to other contractors.”

He estimates that about 25% of the company’s revenue stems from maintenance of fire protection and mechanical systems. 

The company has thrived by focusing on such generally stable markets as health care, municipal, water and wastewater, commercial office space, warehouse and data centers, Ahern says.

“We’re fortunate in that we work for many excellent general contractors and construction managers in addition to more than 100 Standard & Poor’s 500 companies,” he says.

One project that exemplifies the scope and complexity of what JF Ahern does is the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, a center for advanced care, in Milwaukee.

The medical center project covered 130,000 sq ft and contained more than 200,000 lb of ductwork, 18,000 ft of HVAC piping and 40,000 ft of plumbing piping. 

Ahern collaborated with nine trades including ductwork, fire protection, medical gas, mechanical piping and wall assemblies. It installed racks that enable these systems to be accessed through the ceiling without disturbing patients.

“At Ahern we’re equipped with the facilities to handle a project like this, the staff and the experience to manage the project,” says Peter Granlund, sheet metal design manager for Ahern, in a video about the project on the company’s website.

The company found an innovative way to bring massive racks into the upper levels of the multifloor building.

“We decided to rig the racks with come-alongs on one side of them and with slings on the other side so we could drift the racks into the building safely,” says Mike Spittler, project manager for Ahern.

Isaac Larson, executive director of the enterprise facilities services group at Froedtert, says JF Ahern’s ability to fabricate materials off site shaved about eight weeks off the project. 

“I think that one thing that stands out for Ahern is their evolution of off-campus fabrication and modular approach,” Larson says.

Conduits for electrical, plumbing and other utilities were incorporated into racks off site and then installed in the building. As a result, other contractors didn’t have to take turns running the materials.

The hospital was able to continue to treat patients without disruption during construction.

Another major project for JF Ahern is the SSM Health Saint Louis University and Ambulatory Care Center, which is slated to open in September. It will span 802,000 sq ft, have 12 levels and will include 316 private patient rooms, several large intensive care units, a Level 1 trauma center and an emergency room.

JF Ahern performed the fire protection for a total of 21 wet systems, eight standpipes and a fire pump.

According to John Willis, director of marketing for JF Ahern, the company used the Trimble total station to identify the location of pipe hangers as well as building information modeling to eliminate system interferences and ensure the installation of a fully functional sprinkler system.

“BIM and Trimble work together to build 3D design plan models that can be translated to the jobsite for accuracy,” Willis says.

Meanwhile, JF Ahern’s in-house fire protection shop fabricated 6,235 sprinkler heads.

When custom items are needed, the company turns to its integrated multitrade fabrication shops in Fond du Lac and Appleton, Wis. where it produces piping, ductwork, sprinkler pipe, plumbing assemblies, machine automation and industrial process components.

Over the last three years, JF Ahern has fabricated an average of 1.6 million lb of ductwork. In addition, it has produced 67,000 spools of prefabricated pipe lengths over the last eight years and, in the last year, prefabricated more than 3,900 HVAC and plumbing orders.

The fabrication shops in Fond du Lac and Appleton cover 327,000 sq ft. The company also has a 20-acre yard to accommodate projects that require fabrication of bigger assemblies. JF Ahern also offers a fire extinguisher recharge shop and a tool shop in Milwaukee.

“We’re proud of our history and pleased that we’re able to continually have the business grow and remain successful.”

– Tripp Ahern, Chairman & CEO, JF Ahern

Tripp Ahern says no one can predict how COVID-19 will affect the business over the next six to 12 months. Nonetheless, he feels the company is in a good place. Even after the pandemic started, the company was able to line up some new projects.

“We entered the pandemic with a solid backlog,” he says. “Our backlog today is actually a little bit higher than it was when COVID started, and we have a little larger payroll. We need to watch our backlog closely over the next six to 12 months to see what, if any, longer term impacts COVID-19 will have on work opportunities.”

The types of work Ahern expects to continue to grow include  service work, building automation and fire alarms.

As part of its COVID-19 response, the company has launched a healthy buildings initiative that focuses on providing health and safety products such as advanced filter HVAC systems and touchless plumbing fixtures.

While Tripp Ahern has an eye on what’s ahead, the company’s history is also never far from his thoughts. In recognition of its 140 years in business, the company purchased a storefront in the building at 17 S. Main St. in Fond du Lac where the company was founded. A replica of the 1880 space includes memorabilia and serves as a museum and meeting space.

The company invests in the communities where it works and supports dozens of charities such as the American Cancer Society, the Make a Wish Foundation, OshKosh Area United Way and Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

 “We’ve been in this for the long haul,” says Tripp Ahern. “We’re committed to the communities we work in. We’re also looking forward to the future and investing in and planning for our next 100 years.”