Shortly after John Fithian joined his father’s contracting company in 1974, he knew the company was at a crossroads. The residential gas distribution line installation business that was long the company’s foundation was declining as a result of a housing decline leading to a steep decline in revenue.
For the company, formally established in 1963 as John Fithian Contracting Co. but with roots in a company founded by Fithian’s grandfather in the 1920s, it was time for a change. “My grandfather only had one customer, East Ohio Gas (today known as Dominion East Ohio Gas),” says Fithian, the company’s vice president. “When my father took over and incorporated the new company, he also only had the same customer until my three brothers and I came in.”
John Fithian’s brother, Larry, oversees the company’s work crews, equipment, scheduling and safety programs, while his other brothers, Jim and Jeff, work in the company’s shop and as a foreman, respectively.
After the residential market in the company’s home base of Youngstown, Ohio, took a downturn in the mid-1970s, John Fithian looked to expand the company’s capabilities in boring, which it had performed for roughly a decade at that point using a coal auger machine manufactured by Salem Tool. Fithian in 1975 purchased a used Richmond Mfg. Co. boring machine and started performing water and sewer installation.
By 1980, John Fithian Contracting left the field of gas line installation entirely, focusing instead on horizontal auger boring. The company later started to use guided boring techniques, small diameter tunnel boring and hard rock boring. Today, the company owns nine boring machines ranging in diameter from 4 to 72 inches and typically runs two to three crews at a time on different projects both in and out of state. In addition to its base in Ohio, the company regularly works in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia.
All of the company’s projects are a result of referrals and its positive reputation from decades of successful work. “We don’t place advertisements or go to trade shows,” Fithian says. “We realized a long time ago that word-of-mouth is the best way to get the word out.”
The company works as a subcontractor to excavating companies as well as a general contractor for clients including Norfolk Southern Railroad, for whom it replaces aging culverts located under railroad tracks.
A Bright Future
With the company marking its 50th anniversary in 2013, John Fithian Contracting continues to grow into new markets. In 2012, the company started work boring gathering lines and well lines used to transport gas from mines to processing plants in the Utica and Marcellus shale plays. “We’re just starting here,” Fithian says. “We’ve done several of these jobs and quoted a number of others.”
Like many other contractors, the company has seen a decline in revenue in recent years as a result of the recession, but its entry into the gas market as well as its capabilities in other markets keeps it thriving.
Fithian attributes the company’s success to two factors. “There are two factors that are most important on a job – equipment and people,” he says, noting that the company regularly purchases new equipment and employs a full-time mechanic to keep its fleet up-to-date and operable. “Anybody can buy the same equipment we have – it’s the employees on the crew who matter the most.”