Above: Farmer’s Marine Copper Works, founded in 1920 by Les and Sidney Farmer Sr., was originally a marine repair shop. This photo was taken June 2, 1937.
From humble beginnings to four generations of family partnership
March 2013 - When people stepped off the boat in America, they dreamed of new opportunities. Those dreams, along with hard work and dedication, allowed some to start their own business.
Les Farmer Sr. was one of those dreamers. In 1919, after World War I, he left England for America. A coppersmith by trade, he and his brother, Sidney Farmer Sr., began working and repairing ships in a Boston shipyard. Once enough money was saved, they traveled to the Gulf Coast. From Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans, the Farmers moved along the coast in search of opportunities, finally settling in Galveston, Texas.
In 1920, Les and Sidney Farmer Sr. founded Farmer’s Marine Copper Works, originally a marine repair shop that grew into a metal service center known today as Farmer’s Copper Ltd., one of the oldest family-owned and operated metal service centers in the United States.
“The metals distribution part evolved in the ’50s and ’60s and really took off in the ’70s, and that’s where we’ve grown enough to really be an independent entity,” says Bruce Farmer Jr., vice president at Farmer’s Copper. “Our father, Bruce Farmer Sr., founded the supply company, and his four sons followed in his footsteps,” says Bob Farmer, co-president of Farmer’s Copper.
The four Farmer brothers—Bob, Bruce, Richard and Keith— always had been interested in working in the family business. Their interest piqued during their teen years. “Every summer during high school we worked for our dad here at the company, cutting metal and delivering to customers,” says Bob. Once family members started earning mechanical engineering degrees, including Bruce Farmer Jr., Bob decided he should pursue the same field.
“It was a good base for knowing what’s going on at the company,” he says, “because we were doing some intricate welding and designs that were important to the refining industry—the chemical plants and refineries here along the Gulf Coast—so that’s how we ended up in the business. We all grew up in the business. This is a nice area to live in and it’s a good place to work, so we stuck around.”
When Farmer’s Marine Copper Works opened its doors in 1920, its focus was shipyard repairs. Over time, the company expanded its services to include petrochemical fabrication and maintenance. Soon customers began purchasing raw metal and finished products, leading the company to open two metal service centers, Farmer’s Copper Ltd. and Great Western Metals. Today, Farmer’s Copper is run by the four Farmer brothers and Great Western Metals is operated by their cousin, Don Farmer Jr., and his son, Don Farmer III. In 1980, with the business growing in only a portion of the state’s wide expanse, the company realized the value of opening a second branch.
“We felt there was more business to be had with a location a little more towards the center of the state that would pick up some of the business around Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi down towards the border,” says Bob. “It was an expansion to service more Texas customers.” Now Farmer’s Copper serves domestic and international customers. From 20,000 square feet of facility space and 12 employees to 250,000 square feet between the two service centers and 115 employees, Farmer’s Copper has made a name for itself.
In most industries it isn’t surprising to see companies start out family-owned; however, once companies are passed down from generation to generation, that’s where it gets tricky. “As my brothers and I have been working, we’ve seen several of the family-owned copper service centers go by the wayside, either sold or gobbled up by somebody, so there’s not many of us left,” says Bob.
According to the Small Business
Administration, 30 percent of all family-owned businesses survive into the second generation, dropping 12 percent for third-generation businesses and 3 percent for fourth generation. So what makes a company like Farmer’s Copper that has had four generations involved in the company, so successful? One answer lies in the family’s ability to work well together and value each other for what they contribute to the business. “Everybody has their own niche that they bring,” says Richard Farmer, co-president at Farmer’s Copper. “We have some engineers that are family members and they bring their abilities and we have business majors. Everybody brings their strengths to help run the company.”
Another characteristic that makes the company successful is the way it views the industry as more than just the business of buying and selling. “For me, there’s always something to do that’s not just selling the same little widget every day,” says Bob Farmer. “There’s a new twist or angle that comes along where we find customers needing different products and we try to satisfy their every need while expanding these different niche areas.” Farmer’s Copper is customer-driven, and with satisfied customers comes a steadfast loyalty. “We’ve been in the company since 1980, and we still have some of the same customers,” says Bob.
“We have a good supply of quality products, strive to do business with reputable mills and do our best to supply material on time with the ability to ship the next day or same day or whatever [the customer] needs,” says Bob.
“There are a lot of good relationships with our mills and vendors,” says Bruce. “They are very strong and very long-lived, and we value that.”
So what makes a family-owned business different from a non-family-owned business? “There is a little more attention to detail and being aware of the competition,” says Bob. Whether it’s family or not, a successful company is only as strong as its employees, and for Farmer’s Copper, the company’s dedicated employees have helped it thrive. “We have a great staff, and I think they take ownership in their jobs,” says Bob.
Another success for Farmer’s Copper is the interest the young Farmers have in the business. Bob, Keith and Richard’s children all work for the company. Bob’s son Brent started working for the company in September 2012, after graduating from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. “I wasn’t always sure that I wanted to be part of the family business,” says Brent, “but as I got into college, many of my classes began to show me how all businesses were constantly improving and where I could potentially help improve Farmer’s Copper. I found myself thinking more and more often of the business, and that’s what made me want to work here.”
Brent, quality control manager at Farmer’s Copper, checks test reports and materials, and handles customer issues. He says, “Quality is very important to our staff and also our customers. We strive to get customers quality material in a timely manner. It’s very important to ensure that the products being provided by Farmer’s to the customers are exactly what they require from us.”
Working with family, he says, “helps me really care about the job I’m performing much more. It’s one thing to disappoint your boss, but I’m sure it would feel a lot worse to disappoint your whole family.” Those he works alongside everyday are people he remembers from childhood visits to the office. “I like coming to work, and I like all the people that are working here. I’ve known them for a long time,” Brent says.
With the fourth generation of Farmers now working in the family business, there’s definitely a strong sense of accomplishment. “I think it shows a pride in the family and wanting to have something to pass on to our children, to our nieces and nephews, and there’s a sense of importance in that,” says Bruce. “They are still young and still learning, and it’s our responsibility to teach them well so when the times comes, they are ready to take over.”
“For me, the pride is probably the relationships that we’ve built over the years with our customers, our vendors and our employees,” says Richard. “Our employees have helped build this business. Some have been with us since the very beginning, since the ’80s. We have a lot of longevity with our employees, and that’s what’s important.” MM
Interested in purchasing reprints of this article? Click here