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PROGRESS 2019: All in the family

R.A. Townsend grows on bottom-up expertise

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Over the years, the Townsend company has morphed from a coal business to be an industry leading distributor of plumbing, heating and air conditioning products. Its current location is on Bagley Street, but there also showrooms in Burton and Warren.

ALPENA –Family, hard work, and the ability to adapt to changing market trends have been the recipe for success for R.A. Townsend in Alpena, which is quickly closing in on its 100th anniversary in business.

It has been a long road for the Townsend family, which grew its business from a meager beginning as a small coal delivery company to a large distributor of plumbing, heating, and air conditioning products from various locations in Michigan.

The story began in 1928, when Russell Ambrose Townsend Sr. established the R.A. Townsend Coal Co., which delivered coal to residents and businesses from its shop at the corner of 9th Avenue and Ripley Boulevard. From there, the business was moved near the Thunder Bay River to the end of 3rd Avenue, near where the Holiday Inn Express & Suites is today. The move allowed ships easy access to the business and easy unloading of the coal.

In 1947, Russ Townsend Jr. took the reins of the company and, later that decade, the company began offering contracted services for heating, in addition to coal delivery.

In the 1950s, Townsend, his family, and brother-in-law Bernie Lamp realized there was a change in the way people were heating their homes. So they decided to transition from a coal business and heating retail service to become a wholesale business. In 1962, the company officially became incorporated and the coal business was abandoned all together.

Today, the family has locations in Alpena, Saginaw, Burton, and Warren.

Co-owner Tom Townsend said both his grandfather and dad were versatile businessmen, even during times of economic uncertainty, and were always looking for a way to change and adapt when needed. He said their foresight helped the business grow.

“One thing our father was was always early on the scene, and a real visionary,” Tom Townsend said. “Sometimes, the changes were made too quick and before any of us were ready to do things.”

Jim Townsend said he and his brother, Tom, and sister, Therese Shaw, all were raised learning about the business and every aspect of its operations, which benefits the company today. From the warehouse to the administrative offices, his father wanted to be sure they learned the importance of each job and the benefits of hard work, he said.

That practice is still utilized today with all of Townsend employees.

“We always start people in the warehouse, just like we did,” Jim Townsend said. “That is a great way to learn the product and business. They learn every aspect of this building, from purchasing, to the counter, inside sales, outside sales. They all started there in the warehouse.”

Tom Townsend said the business is still very family-oriented and that Bernie Lamp is still regularly at the facility, making sure things are in order. Over the years, a staff has been created that has lots of experience, which will help move the company into the future.

“We have a really good group of young people who are working with us now, and they have consistently grown in what they can do, and we continue to challenge them,” Tom Townsend said. “A few of them started here 20 or 25 years ago, when they were 18 years old, working part-time while going to Alpena Community College. We also have fifth-generation family working here, so family will still be involved.”

To ship product farther than they are able to now, Jim Townsend said more locations would need to be open.

He said that is a future goal.

“That has to be one of our goals, and that is where our future growth will come from,” he said. “I think having more operations in other parts of the state will make up our future growth.”

Shaw said there are no plans to move far from Alpena when the business expands. Unlike her two brothers, who moved away from home for a period before returning home, she said there is one main reason she hasn’t.

“Family,” she said. “We have nine kids in our family and eight live here. I was born and raised here, love the area. I can’t fathom living anywhere else.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.

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