DES MOINES, Iowa — When the Equitable Building, Iowa’s first skyscraper, was constructed in 1924, Bob Kurtz’s grandfather supplied some of the hardware.
Today, the 19-story building in downtown Des Moines is under construction again, being renovated into loft apartments, and Kurtz is providing doors and hardware for the project.
Things tend to come full circle when you have been in business for a century and a half.
The Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/2bKOYcS ) reports that one of the oldest family-owned businesses in greater Des Moines, Kurtz Hardware Co. is celebrating 150 years.
Despite its longevity, Kurtz is far from a household name. The company is in a tan, nondescript building just north of Interstate 235 on Keosauqua Way.
Most of its customers are commercial contractors. Inside, walls are studded with hundreds of doorknobs, locks and other hardware on display.
The company is relatively small, with about a dozen employees. But it has carved out a niche in the construction industry, surviving economic depressions, natural disasters and the emergence of big box stores.
Bob Kurtz, the fifth-generation owner, credits hard work, stubbornness and a little bit of luck.
“There are not many people that can have a business for five generations in the same family,” he said. “Now, there are a lot of businesses that are old, but to be in the same family, I think that is relatively unique.”
L.H. Kurtz founded the hardware store in 1866, where the Plaza condo tower stands today. A German immigrant, he sold hardware and worked as a tinsmith, making pots, pans and stovepipes.
In the following decades, Kurtz Hardware evolved, adding sporting goods and housewares to its shelves. Loyal customers occasionally stop in and talk about buying their first bike or baseball glove at the store, said Ann Kurtz, Bob’s wife and the company’s chief financial officer.
In 1983, Kurtz Hardware moved to its current location. In the late ’90s, the company eliminated its retail business, and began focusing instead on supplying doors for commercial projects such as apartments, hospitals and universities.
Few central Iowa companies can claim deeper family roots.
The Iowa Star, a predecessor to The Des Moines Register, was founded in 1849, but it has not been family-owned since Gannett bought the news organization in 1985.
Des Moines-based Weitz Co., a construction firm also started by a German immigrant, was founded in 1855. It was purchased in 2012 by the Egyptian firm Orascom Construction Industries.
West Des Moines-based Hubbell Realty Co. just celebrated its 160th birthday. Founder Frederick M. Hubbell made his first land purchase in 1856, but the company wasn’t officially incorporated until 1903.
Gilcrest Lumber was founded in 1856 and later merged with Jewett Lumber. Gilcrest/Jewett Lumber Co. still operates in central Iowa, with its headquarters in Waukee.
Kurtz said it’s hard to pinpoint why his company has outlasted so many others.
“It’s just the old stubborn German in us, I guess,” he said with a laugh.
There were difficult times. The Great Depression brought lean years and World War II made materials scarce.
During the farm crisis of the 1980s, many reliable customers disappeared.
“We would wholesale a lot of material to the small town community lumber yards, and they were dropping like flies,” Kurtz said.
Perhaps the biggest test came in 1998. The roof collapsed during a heavy rainstorm, flooding the store and sending merchandise floating down the street.
The flood forced Kurtz to re-evaluate the business. Lowe’s and Home Depot were opening massive hardware stores in the metro at the time, so Kurtz decided to get out of the retail business and focus instead on commercial contracting.
Kurtz has had a front-row seat for downtown’s evolution. He saw the heyday in the 1960s, when downtown was full of shops and theaters. Then he saw people and business flee to the suburbs in the ’70s and ’80s.
Today, he is happy to see downtown booming again, with new apartments, hotels and offices rising from the ground.
“Look downtown and look at the number of sky cranes that are down there. We haven’t seen that much activity in a long time,” he said. “It’s a far cry from 2008, 2009 when everyone was just hanging on.”
Keo Way, in particular, is seeing a mini-resurgence. A new gas station, bank, strip mall and apartment building have been built along the road in the past few years.
One developer plans to turn a four-story office building into a large artist studio complex. And the city has identified Keo Way as a street ripe for improvements.
All of the projects along Keo Way are south of Interstate 235. Kurtz said he hopes the redevelopment moves north of the interstate, where his shop is located.
“I would like to see that development keep coming,” he said.
The challenge of maintaining a family business is a familiar story in Iowa. Across the state, family-owned farms and small-town businesses regularly go up for auction after children leave for bigger cities or to pursue other careers.
Kurtz said he feels lucky his family has been able to keep the business. He started working in the store in high school. After escaping briefly to Arizona in his 20s, he returned and took over the operation in 1983.
A sixth generation is in the waiting. Patrick Kurtz, one of Bob and Ann’s three children, is learning the family business. The 28-year-old has been keying locks at the shop since second grade and said he hopes to take over one day.
That’s a relief for his dad.
“We’ve been fortunate enough that (family members) have wanted to be in the business,” Bob Kurtz said. “I’m just hoping the next generation wants to carry it on.”
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com
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