By Len Lear
All good things come to an end. That was never more clear than in the case of Len Magargee, whose family’s Germantown house-painting business, Magargee Brothers, Inc., lasted from 1932, during the Great Depression, until 2001, whereupon they merged with Nolan Painting of Havertown, one of the largest residential painting contractors in the U.S. with more than 100 employees. Their average job is about $4,000, but their biggest paint jobs have been in the $250,000 range.
But Len, now 75 and a legend in his industry for the highest ethical values and quality of work he has embodied, is retiring at the end of this week. “It just seems like time to move on,” Len told us in an interview last week. “More time for travel and keep up with the nine grandchildren we have in this area.”
For his part, Nolan Painting founder Kevin Nolan, 57, is going to miss Len Magargee big-time. “Len and I have a great relationship,” said Nolan. “He called me up one day in 2011 and asked me if I was interested (in a merger). Was I ever! Magargee Brothers was my role model when I started in business over 35 years ago. They’ve been my mentors for all those years.
“(Since the merger) Len has brought in a lot of business, especially in Chestnut Hill and Mt Airy. I love having him around … We are gonna save his Rolodex and put it in a museum. It’s a who’s who of 20th century Philadelphia.”
The Magargee firm was founded in 1932 by Len’s father and uncle, Len and Bill Magargee. The family was able to make ends meet, due to the grandmother’s family owning a corner store and thus being able to buy food wholesale.
The second generation — David, Len and Stephen Magargee — took over the company in 1976 after their father passed away. Together they bought out their father’s estate. “When times are bad, though,” said David in an earlier interview with the Local, “it’s tough to get work. It’s a constant juggling act. I read a quote from Ross Perot, who said, ‘Whatever business you’re going into, never go into a seasonal business.’ After I read that, I kind of swallowed and thought ‘Well, I wish I would have read this a long time ago.’”
Magargee Brothers’ location went from the basement of David’s grandmother in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia in 1932 to 525 E. Armstrong St. in Germantown. Its location was convenient due to its proximity to Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and the adjacent suburbs.
Stephen retired in 2008, and David retired in 2012, one year after the merger with Nolan. “We each have a son, but they were not interested in pursuing the company,” said David. “We each have daughters, but they were not interested either, and their spouses weren’t interested.”
Long before Nolan and Magargee became business partners, they lobbied together for causes that affected their industry. In 1992 the PA. Dept of Revenue put a sales tax on painting services. Len and Kevin led the effort to get the tax overturned, and to this day there is no sales tax applied to painting services as a result of their efforts.
They also tackled Workers Compensation reform. They worked with then-Gov. Tom Ridge to get lasting reform, and they were invited to Harrisburg to meet with Ridge for the signing of the legislation. “We were a powerhouse of a team!” Nolan declared. “It was an amazing experience and a defining moment in my life … I followed in Len’s footsteps.”
When any two or more human beings become business partners, it is almost inevitable that there will be differences of opinion, sometimes irreconcilable, but the Nolan-Magargee union has been about as harmonious as is humanly possible. “Things went very well,” said Len, “although it was strange having a boss after 40-some years of being the boss myself. It was a relief in many ways to not worry weekly over meeting the payroll and being able to get Kevin Nolan involved if a really big problem or decision needed to be made.”
Len, who is also Secretary of the Bachelors Barge Club, a rowing club on Boathouse Row, and his wife will be traveling quite a bit “as long as we can still walk.” For the next two years he will also be President of the Appleford Committee. (Appleford is a historic property and bird sanctuary in Lower Merion.)
Len, who also enjoys gardening and reading novels, has some very fond memories of his 40-some years in the business. “They have to be the interesting customers and characters we met over the years,” he said. “We got to meet people with real Picassos and Monets hanging on the walls to people of very modest means needing a problem solved. Also, some of the really skilled craftsmen we had working for Magargee Brothers, many of whom were also real characters.
“I always enjoyed estimating some really unique buildings and figuring out how we could get the job done. We did a wallpapering job in the Virgin Islands once and hung an enormous mural in the Center City Marriott. We painted and wallpapered homes of all shapes and sizes, from large estates on the Main Line and Chestnut Hill to modest cottages and row homes.”
Interestingly, when asked what was the hardest thing they ever had to do in business, both Magargee and Nolan had similar answers. Magargee said, “By far the hardest, most unpleasant thing to do was lay people off or fire someone.” And Nolan said, “The hardest thing was laying off folks. It is an up-and-down business hit by recessions and the seasons … I will never forget how it felt to lay off 50 people in a matter of a few weeks in late 2008.”
What was the best advice Kevin ever received? “Nothing is ever as good as it looks or as bad as it looks. So don’t get too high or too low. Stay calm and carry on” And what was the best advice Len ever received? “If you have a complaint from a customer or employee, meet with them and let them talk. Keep quiet until they’ve had their say. Often the problem is not what you anticipated, and maybe they just wanted to talk or complain a bit.”
For more information, visit www.nolanpainting.com or call 215-849-0950.