By Gregg MacDonald
The Washington Post/Fairfax County Times
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Herndon Ornamental Ironworks, the family-owned business John Owen, 89, started 50 years ago, still is going strong.
But the World War II veteran said the company's future was not always ironclad.
In 1960, at 39, Owen was working as a welder at the U.S. Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., and decided it was time to go into business for himself.
Owen had worked for others since he was 5. He grew up working for his family on their 400-acre tobacco plantation in South Boston, Va., later joining the U.S. Army and serving in the European theater during World War II.
While in the military, he picked up some basic welding skills. He later returned to Newport News, where he began welding ships for the U.S. Navy. Owen and his wife, Joan, moved to Vienna in the late 1940s, and Owen began working in at the Naval Gun Factory.
"By 1960, I just decided it was time to work for myself," he said.
Owen took his life savings, bought some commercial property in Herndon and built his facility.
"I'd been doing some welding jobs out of the garage of my house part time for about two years before I bought the property and had the building built," he said.
By word-of-mouth, Owen built up his business. The company made ornamental gates, fences and guardrails for homes being built in the area.
Owen's middle son, Barry, was 10 years old when the company opened in 1960.
"I began working there from day one," he said.
All three of Owen's sons worked at the company from young ages, eventually becoming full-time employees. But job security, even in the family-owned business, was not a foregone conclusion.
"Sometime in the early '80s business dropped dramatically, and our father had to let us all go because he couldn't afford to pay us," Barry Owen said.
"That was a rough time," John Owen said. "That was one of the many recessions we worked our way through."
"I got a job working at Boeing in 1982 and worked there for three years until the economy improved and I could come back," Barry Owen said. "My father officially retired in 1985, and my older brother Tom and I then took over the business," he said.
Today, Barry Owen said the company has found its niche in custom-built homes that call for unique ornamental ironwork the company makes at is downtown Herndon office.
"Upper-class custom homes seem to be where the market is at these days," said John Myseros, 47, of Hercules Wrought Iron Works in Chantilly, a friendly competitor. "Herndon Ornamental Ironworks is our competition, but they are good guys, and we occasionally have lunch together."
According to both Barry Owen and Myseros, commercial construction is at a standstill and high-end residential homes are keeping the ornamental iron industry alive in Fairfax County.
"Unfortunately, that's true that the iron industry is hurting in terms of commercial construction," said Fred Coddings, executive vice president of the Iron Workers Employers Association, based in Fairfax City.
The association represents nearly 100 local ironworker companies. "There is no immediate prospect that the commercial market will come back anytime soon, either."
"We go up and down with the economy," Myseros said. "We currently have five employees when we used to have 18. Last summer was mediocre, but business is starting to pick up."
Myseros, also a second-generation ironworker, took over Hercules Wrought Iron Works in 1988 from his father, who started the company in 1959.
"Ornamental ironwork is sort of a dying art form," Barry Owen said. "Albeit a very messy one."
"I take care of the business end of the company at our home in Herndon," said Barry's wife, Luanne. "That shop is too dusty and dirty to keep computers and fax machines running properly," she said.
John Owen said after all the economic ups and downs he is proud that his company still is in operation, but these days he prefers working in his garden to heating and twisting iron.
With nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, there is no shortage of personnel to keep the company running well into future decades, he said.