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Father’s Legacy Survives Decades in Family Firm

Thu April 02, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Mary Reed

The Geppert family entered the demolition business in 1925 when William A. Geppert Sr. founded William A. Geppert Inc. in the Germantown area of Philadelphia.

In those days demolition and salvage work was mainly carried out by hand, augmented by crowbars, sledgehammers, steam shovels and finally, loaders. The company performed small demolition jobs and excavated basements and cesspools for new homes under construction. It also demolished a number of the older mansions that peppered Philadelphia and its surrounding counties at the time.

In a noteworthy anniversary, the founder’s oldest son, William A. Geppert Jr. and his youngest, Richard P. Geppert, both recently celebrated 60 years with the company.

But had things worked out differently for William Jr., he would never have reached this major milestone, and indeed may not even have been alive to see Geppert Bros. Inc. founded.

He was attending LaSalle College in Philadelphia as World War II began. He entered the Army in September 1943 and after training with the 63rd Division in Mississippi, he was shipped off to France. At the age of 20 he was wounded while aiding in the setting up of an outpost near the village of St. Malo, and as a result spent 44 months in hospitals being treated for a shoulder wound and a femur shattered by a bullet.

“Prior to the Battle of the Bulge, I was in an English hospital where my leg had been set in pin traction,” he recalled. “From there I was moved to the U.S., to McGuire Hospital in Richmond, Va., remaining there for a year and a half. Finally, I was transferred to Valley Forge Hospital, Pa.”

By the time William Jr. arrived at Valley Forge Hospital, he had received three bone grafts to his leg. Then in April 1948 his father suffered his fourth heart attack and asked if it might be possible for his son to take a 30-day leave.

William Jr. took up his story again. “After I spoke with Major Scaderi, Head of Orthopedics, he suggested that I pursue an emergency medical discharge. On May 20th, 1948, my mother came to pick me up and we drove straight to the office, which was still located at that time in Germantown,” he said. “My father held a meeting in which he presented the idea of establishing a new company for his four sons, myself, age 24, Joseph, age 22, who had been recently discharged from the Navy and was a crane operator, Jim, age 17, who was a year away from being drafted had the war continued, and Richard, age 10.”

Thus it was that Geppert Bros. Inc. (GBI) was founded by William Sr., for his four sons. James (Jim) and Joseph have since retired.

As is the case with many family enterprises, the brothers began on the bottom rung of the ladder and worked their way up in the organization. William Jr.’s first job at GBI was in charge of tools/runner in the field. Later he worked as an estimator, and now holds the post of secretary. Richard began as a laborer in the field and has progressed to the office of president of GBI.

William Jr. and Richard now co-own the business. Based in Colmar, Pa., it carries out demolition projects in the Tri-State region of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, specializing in larger jobs as well as handling selective and interior demolition.

William Jr.’s daily routine as secretary of GBI involves spending a lot of time “executing all the new crazy forms that are now a part of the bidding process,” as he put it. In fact, if he could change one thing about the industry it would be doing away with this mass of paperwork, which he described as “absolutely horrendous,” adding “You could spend months in your office signing all the new forms that are issued.”

In addition, William Jr. also attends meetings and conventions of the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA), National Demolition Association (NDA), the Laborers’ District Council (LDC) and numerous other organizations.

William Jr. is philosophical about the lasting results of his war experience.

“Having both my leg and shoulder injured would have to be the thing that made the biggest impact in my life,” he said. “In some ways, due to the disabilities it has caused in me, it has helped to prevent me from doing certain things in life. These disabilities, though, have driven me to strive harder and succeed in the professional arena.

“GBI has always functioned in the demolition industry, although on a much smaller scale in the earlier days,” he continued. “The city of Philadelphia went through a massive transformation after the war due to post-war redevelopment and the age of the baby boom, which took it from a manufacturing center to a high-tech corporate and service center. Factories, old homes, state hospitals were taken down to make way for high-rises, condos, convention halls and stores and strip malls.”

Geppert Bros. Inc. has performed a number of memorable jobs over the years, including demolition of more than 20 buildings at Philadelphia’s Byberry State Hospital and work on the Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion.

One of William Jr.’s favorite jobs was the demolition of Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia in 1976. The stadium had been abandoned in 1970 and despite a fire that destroyed the stands the following year it was not torn down immediately. GBI used a concrete demolition ball weighing 3 tons for the project.

Sometimes the work has provided a touch of humor, such as when GBI demolished Moyamensing Prison in South Philadelphia.

Moyamensing was to be demolished during a highly sensitive political period. The mayor of Philadelphia, James H. J. Tate, was up for re-election at the time, and found the need to make a large showing for the South Philadelphian voters he was courting. He asked Geppert Bros. Inc. to be at the prison site early one morning with their wrecking ball painted silver and 12 silver hard hats. The company, which had long been a part of Philadelphia’s Emergency Contractors, was pleased to accede to the request. Light relief occurred during demolition when quite a few of the previous residents came to the job site to view their old cells.

More recently, one of Richard’s favorite jobs was the Pennsylvania Convention Center Expansion Project-Demolition Contracts No. 1 and 2. Jointly, both phases involved the demolition of 17 buildings and one 12-story building was imploded. Demolition of one 11-story building involved the complete shutdown of Broad Street, one of Philadelphia’s busiest thoroughfares. The job was handled by conventional means with a 225-ton (204 t) crawler crane with a 250-ft. (76.2 m) boom attached. Three 9-story buildings were conventionally demolished with the use of a 100-ton (90.7 t) crawler crane with 200 ft. (61 m) of boom and excavators, while three five-story buildings were brought down with the help of cranes and excavators. The other buildings removed consisted of one-to-three-storied structures, including a pizza shop, fire house, car wash and offices.

The mayor of Philadelphia granted permission for the company to shut down Broad Street for a week and move its equipment into the road in order to safely bring down the Odd Fellows building as part of the job. Geppert Bros. Inc. completed the job two days ahead of schedule and had the thoroughfare cleaned and reopened before the anticipated date. The original hope was to implode the building, but the cost was exorbitant and there was no guaranteed result so ultimately it was decided to take it down with a wrecking ball aided by two cranes working 24 hours a day, including through Memorial Day.

Two of the biggest contracts the company has handled were the preparation and implosion of the l3-story Philadelphia Naval Hospital and demolition of its surrounding buildings and demolition preparation and implosion of three l7-story high rise apartment buildings at Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Mill Creek, again followed by complete demolition of the surrounding buildings, in this case 52 low rise buildings.

GBI also has handled projects with unusual aspects.

One of its largest was the demolition of Byberry State Hospital.

“As if this project was not difficult enough in the undertaking, with dilapidated buildings first being abated and then demolished, on top of massive amounts of site work, the site was overrun with people who refer to themselves as Urban Explorers,” Vice President of Estimating Pasquale Marconi recalled. “Trespassing was a daily offense that resulted in equipment and materials being tampered with and even destroyed on different occasions. At the end of the project, over 100 individuals had been arrested and charged with trespassing. The judge assigned to this district became frustrated with the amount of trespassing and utter lack of respect for the law and sentenced everyone to the maximum sentence, which included strict fines and a class to educate on the dangers of trespassing in construction/demolition zones.”

Another unusual job undertaken by GBI was removing the mast from a naval vessel. The mast had to be deconstructed in pieces, given the size and complexity of the project, located in the Philadelphia Ship Yard.

“The task involved assisting in removal and salvage of all radar equipment and antennas, and the mast itself had to be destroyed as per some very stringent codes and regulations due to the sensitive nature of the material involved,” Marconi noted, adding that demolition of the mast was assisted by the use of a 200-ton (181 t) hydraulic crane.

Geppert Bros. Inc. also was responsible for the 1980 demolition of Whitemarsh Hall, a beautiful Gilded Age mansion located on a 300-acre (121.4 ha) estate near Philadelphia. Built by multimillionaire banker E. T. Stotesbury for his second wife at a cost of $2 million, the house was by then in a decayed and vandalized condition. It originally boasted more than 147 rooms and 45 bathrooms, not to mention a ballroom, library, gym, theater and a refrigeration plant among other amenities. It was the last word in 1920s luxury, with three stories constructed below or partially below ground level devoted to domestic offices, including a bakery, coal storage and a wine cellar.

A grimmer story is connected to GBI’s demolition of the first house occupied by MOVE, located at 33rd and Spring Garden Streets in the Powelton Village area in western Philadelphia. MOVE was a counter-culture movement whose members lived collectively. After the former occupants had relocated to another house on Osage in the same city they became involved in an armed confrontation with the authorities. During the stand-off Richard suggested to the Philadelphia Bomb Disposal Unit that a company crane could be used to remove a bunker from the roof of the house. The offer was rejected because it would cost $6,500 and this was considered too expensive, and also because the crane operator — Richard had volunteered to carry out the task — would be exposed to gunfire from members of MOVE. In a still highly controversial decision, the removal of the bunker was attempted by dropping explosives from a helicopter, resulting in a fire that destroyed 61 row houses and caused the death of 11 people.

Major jobs performed by the company include demolition of Liberty Bell Racetrack and the Reading Terminal Viaduct, both located in Philadelphia. Upcoming notable projects include demolition of the Philadelphia Overseas Terminal at Philadelphia International Airport, an old hangar off Island League Boulevard in Philadelphia to make way for a movie set, and the demolition of Goodhart Hall for Bryn Mawr College.

Noteworthy clients through the years have included L.F. Driscoll Company located in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., Intech Construction of Philadelphia, and more recently Hunter Roberts Construction Group, also of Philadelphia, and IMC Construction, located in Malvern, Pa., as well as a number of companies that have since gone out of business.

In connection with industry innovations, Richard said he thought that the biggest advances during the past 60 years were the introduction of portable crushing plants and the use of implosion techniques to fell multiple storied structures. He also singled out the arrival of excavators and its attachments, such as grapples, concrete pulverizes, shear jaws, hydraulic hammers and concrete cracking jaws.

Geppert Bros. Inc. was one of a select few group of contractors to field test a loader with a demolition bucket for Caterpillar. The Gepperts recommended Caterpillar add teeth to its demolition bucket and provide better protection for its hydraulic lines for demolition applications.

One signature of a Geppert Bros. Inc. project is that it is not unusual for Richard to visit a job site daily, keeping an eye on the progress of the work and ensuring all goes smoothly and safely for client and employees alike. The company has been recognized a number of times for its safety efforts, including presentation of the Merck Contractor Safety Award and the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA) Safety and Best Specialty Contractor Awards.

The current workforce includes Marconi, who joined GBI in 1989 and is involved in estimating, project management, staffing and scheduling. Marconi’s father also had worked for Geppert as one of its operators for a number of years.

Edward Burns is estimator and project manager, arriving at the company in 1997 after 18 years with a national demolition contractor. His responsibilities include turnkey cost estimating and project management for residential, commercial and industrial demolition as well as interior renovation and hazardous remediation projects.

Lars Paul Taboga holds the same title. He started with GBI in 2005, after five years in the Army Corps of Engineers during which he served a tour in Iraq stationed at Camp Anaconda. His duties while in the Army included surveying, drafting and soil science. He specializes in estimating and project management for the company.

Another notable employee at GBI was Mary Pat Geppert, who is no longer with the company as she now runs her own Minority-Woman Owned company, M.P. Demolition Inc., specializing in safety and contract management services. When with GBI she was involved in its safety program, and William Jr. praised her as having strengthened and revitalized this aspect of GBI’s organization.

There have been memorable employees at the company over the years. William Jr. mentioned Harry Quirk, hired by William Sr. in 1951. Quirk, he said, was the company’s first dispatcher and was “very instrumental in establishing that department with its rentals and equipment moves.” Quirk has since retired.

Richard also praised GBI’s foremen — Jack Wilson, John Sirianni, Jimmy Sirianni, Chris Brown and Gary Patrick — as the “guys who make sure everything runs smoothly and on time.” They are, he said, “all exemplary employees, some of whom have been with us for 20 plus years.”

William Jr. is a charter member of the National Association of Demolition Contractors (NADC) and helped develop the association’s first Demolition Safety Manual. He also served on the NADC’s board of directors during the second, third and fourth years after its founding in the early 1980s, and was recently presented with the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

After 60 years on the job, William Jr. still enjoys it. What does he like most? “Working with all different types of people, from our employees in the field to other contractors to government officials,” he replied. “And I also enjoy seeing the end result in a job well done and completed.”

Asked what he considered the company’s greatest accomplishment, William Jr. had no hesitation. “One of the greatest, I would say, would be in the amount of growth since the days in Germantown. Our first year as a company, we only saw sales of $37,000 with eight employees and we have now grown to a multimillion dollar company with 100 plus employees,” he said. CEG

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