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5 Businesses That Have Survived 50+ Years

Larson & Darby Group
Rockford, Ill.
40 employees

July 3 marked the 50th anniversary for Larson & Darby Group, an architecture and engineering firm.

The company has learned a lot of lessons along the way that have helped it survive this long. Most importantly, keeping employees happy so there is little employee turnover. In addition, the company prioritizes continuing education so employees can keep abreast of constant regulatory changes as well as environmental trends, the company's chief executive Bill Waldorf says.

Staff is also very close knit and driven by the same goals, Waldorf says.

"We do good, reliable work for our clients for a fair price. Most of our clients are repeat clients or recommendations from our clients. We are very fortunate to have a lot of work come to us by recommendations ," he says.

Larson & Darby was forced to consolidate during the worst of the economy, cutting nearly half of its employees. Rockford saw one of the highest unemployment rates in Illinois and in the country. Today, Rockford still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 9.9% vs. the 7.6%, according to Department of Labor data.

However, business is booming for overall architectural, engineering and related services, according to the Sageworks report. The industry tied with employment services and computer systems design for the second highest annual sales growth among service industries of 14.9% in May.

Waldorf points to the company's versatile offerings, which helped offset business lulls, and employees that specialize in everything from hospitals to churches to keep the business going.

Keeping the architectural firm up-to-date with the industry isn't cheap. It takes constant investment in technology training and education on things like energy efficiency as well as sector specification.

"Thirty five years ago when I started all we had were pencils -- and some days I long for that," Waldorf says. That said, Waldorf emphasized how important it was for the firm to keep up with the rapidly changing digital world, another reason for the firm's staying power, he says.

"We were one of the first people in our area to start with computer-age graphing. We were on version 1.5 and [are] constantly updating our skills and training people," he says. "It's now moved to the three dimensional and building informational modeling... if you want to survive the industry. Our clients expect that."

"Continuing education is another expense as the CEO of the firm I sometimes I look at. We have to do that. We have several architects that work exclusively in health care. Just to keep them up to date on the new technology, the new codes and new rules of a hospital is a never-ending battle," he says. "We are constantly sending our people to seminars, classes so they can talk intelligently and understand what the client needs."

When asked about the effects of the upcoming health care reform though, Waldorf says again, the expenses are necessary. Larson & Darby already picks up a large percentage of their employees' health care benefits because cutting back on health care benefits is not an option.

"That's how we keep and retain employees," he says. "As painful as it is, we will keep covering them with insurance."

So what will keep Larson & Darby around for the next 50 years? Innovative designs and the "best solution" for the client, Waldorf says.

""We have to give them the options -- how can they get the most building for their money and that's why we've survived," Waldorf says. "Maybe we don't make the most money in the world but we have happy clients."
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