A lot of business owners in this country can point to old photos adorning the walls of their offices and recall with a smile the countless hours they spent as children shadowing their fathers at work, learning the ins and outs of the business before it was passed down to the next generation. Many can even remember sharing that time with grandfathers who founded the family business two generations before.
But there are few, regardless of the industry, who can trace their business back not just to their grandfather, but to their grandfather’s grandfather. As the fifth-generation owner of railroad contracting firm Fritz-Rumer-Cooke, Clem Cooke can. Though the jobsite photos on the wall of the company’s Columbus, Ohio, offices date to the early 20th century, his company has been building railroad track, structures and bridges for 139 years.
Pride and compassion fuel Cooke as a business owner. He knows what a rare opportunity it is to sustain a business nearing 150 years old, but apart from Fritz-Rumer-Cooke’s impressive legacy, Cooke can trace his infatuation with the work back to his earliest memories.
“Dad would always come home from work at night, and we’d have dinner all together. Just hearing him talk about what he did during the day always intrigued me. I can remember going to the office with him on Saturdays with papers and pencils, and I grew to really love the business,” Cooke says.
“The work,” he says with a pause, “it just got ingrained in your soul.”
Fritz-Rumer-Cooke got its start in 1879 building stone structures in Franklin County in Central Ohio. “We had a stone quarry that we mined, cut and hauled stone here for that work,” Cooke says. Many of those stone structures were railway bridges and, over time, relationships with folks in the railroad industry were forged. By the 1930s and into the ’40s, the company began to devote its focus and expertise to that industry. The shift to performing railroad work exclusively was gradual, Cooke says, adding that the company was performing highway work as late as the 1950s and ’60s.
Today, the company primarily builds and repairs railroad track, not only for the seven major (Class 1) railroads in the country, but also for short-line railroads and many other companies in the manufacturing, distribution and intermodal industries that rely on rail to bring materials and products into their facilities, to ship them out, or both.
Fritz-Rumer-Cooke employs around 50 people and in 2016 brought in about $7 million. The company has a sprawling service area including all of its home state of Ohio, each of the states surrounding it and other states contiguous to Ohio east of the Mississippi. In all, the company has authority in 23 states. Cooke says the company typically has five crews at work in the field. “What we do can get very spread out,” he says.
Despite its long history and the high regard in which clients across half the country hold the company, there’s a distinct humility and focus about Fritz-Rumer-Cooke. Take for instance the fact that for nearly 30 years, its offices operated out of two rail cars. The company’s original offices were at Union Station in downtown Columbus. But when the station was demolished in the late 1970s to make way for a convention center, Cooke says, his father and uncle bought two rail cars and moved them to the site of the company’s current equipment yard and shop.
“They put them on a rail spur, and that’s where we moved our office,” Cooke says. The company only moved into its current offices, less than a block away, because the staff outgrew the cars.
With its huge service area and the multiple offices that many of its clients operate, it would make sense for Fritz-Rumer-Cooke to open another office or two. But Cooke says the company is content to operate from a central location. “We have no desire to be the biggest out there,” he says. “We just want to be the best. When someone thinks of something that has to do with railroad, they call us.”
Service and attention to the small details
Clem has been a part of the company for 43 years, taking over for his father, Carl, who guided Fritz-Rumer-Cooke for more than 50 years. “Ever since I’ve worn short pants, I’ve known what I wanted to do,” says Clem, who as a child opted to come to work with his father rather than play sports with his friends.
Clem says he has always enjoyed the unique and challenging work his company performs. “Part of our business is designing the railroad track that we construct. There are seven Class 1 railroads like CSX, Norfolk Southern and so on. And then there are a lot of smaller companies. There are commonalities between the standards for each railroad you build, but there are also a lot of unique parts to the specifications,” he says.
Fritz-Rumer-Cooke’s biggest concern is delivering exactly what its customers want at the highest quality possible. After all, the railroad track Fritz-Rumer-Cooke designs, constructs and maintains is often the “lifeblood” for many of its clients, Cooke says.
“When their track is down, they’re not bringing in raw material,” he explains. “While they can truck product in, it takes time to convert from rail to truck. So we jump in and we move, and we get to the problem and fix it for them quick.”
Cooke says his company is so committed to helping clients in times of a rail emergency that it will pull crews from other jobsites at a moment’s notice.
“Every once in a while, you have a customer that’s disappointed to have us start a job and then leave, but I always tell them, we’re leaving to help someone else today, but in the future, it could be you,” he says.
Guy Oster of Southeast Railroad Supply says such customer service has led Fritz-Rumer-Cooke to be viewed as a top-tier contractor in the rail industry. “They do quality work – honorable, professional,” he says. “…They’re just different. Something about them separates them from the other guys.”
Andy Prenger of Precision Strip says the company “is committed to the success of each project.”
“FRC has demonstrated a professional and ethical caliber,” he says. “They build quality into their projects and do not take shortcuts. I trust that everything is done correctly, the first time.”
A family business run like a family
While serving the customer is FRC’s main focus, Clem’s top personal priority is caring for the people who make up the company. “When people come here, they become part of this family. We care about what we do. We take pride in producing a quality product that lasts, and we care about each other in this business.”
Cooke says he considers the times in his youth when relatives and employees at Fritz-Rumer-Cooke spent time with him and mentored him to be the foundation for how he runs the business today.
“When I was younger, I appreciated people who took a personal interest with me and spent time with me and had patience with me and gave me an opportunity, and that’s what I try to do with our people,” he says. “I truly want people here to go home at night having pride in what they did during the day.”
Few things make him happier, he says, than hearing about employees out driving with their families, making a quick detour to show off a job they did.
Honored for safety
Cooke’s care for his employees can perhaps most be seen in Fritz-Rumer Cooke’s sterling safety record, overseen by safety manager and project manager Ben Swope.
The company was named as Equipment World’s 2018 Safety Award winner at our annual Contractor of the Year awards in March.
“I think in large part the safety culture here has come from Ben’s stewardship,” Cooke says of his safety manager. “I think that because the people that we have are long-tenured people, they genuinely care about each other, and that whole philosophy exists at this company. We don’t want to see our friends get hurt.”
Unlike most contractors, Cooke’s company is subject to the rules of three regulatory agencies: OSHA, MSHA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The company performs periodic jobsite inspections and holds frequent safety meetings throughout the year, including MSHA training and training specific to certain customer specifications.
Swope authors the company’s weekly tool box talks, and Cooke says, “If we get the feeling we need to focus on something specific, we use the weekly meetings to focus on that.”
It’s been more than three years since Fritz-Rumer-Cooke has had a recordable OSHA incident, and the company holds a mod rate of 0.56. This commitment to safety has earned the company nearly a dozen Contractor Safety Awards from the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association. Many of these awards are “Platinum Level” – the highest the NRC awards.
The company’s latest two safety awards come from the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, which requires the company to perform annual drug-free workplace training. The OBWC is only one of three drug-free workplace plans the company uses. The others are mandated by the USDOT and the FRA.
“We give constant encouragement to our crews,” Swope says. “If we go through a jobsite and find no serious violations, the entire crew, including the foreman, gets a safety award, usually a $25 gift card. We gear our safety plan to encourage them to be safer rather than beat them up.”
That said, the company does have a disciplinary plan in place for when it’s necessary.
“More than anything, we want you to go home at night with everything you had when you showed up to work with us. We want you to go home to your family in one piece every night. The industry we work in, there are plenty of chances or plenty of ways to get yourself injured,” Cooke says. “We work around live railroad tracks. Whether it be a piece of equipment or a truck moving down the track or a train, if you’re struck, there’s probably going to be dire consequences. The margin for error is slim.”