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A.J. Allen Mechanical Contractors Inc.: Expect Nothing but the Best

Archie J. Allen believed the only way to do a job is to do it right. Archie’s family has carried his motto through generations to establish A.J. Allen Mechanical Contractors Inc. (AJA), a company he would be proud of. Iowa-based AJA has solidified a strong reputation across the state as a reliable commercial, industrial and maintenance mechanical contractor.

Archie and his brother Lester initially founded Allen Brother Plumbing and Heating Company in 1932. The two-man operation focused its efforts on plumbing and heating, boasting that the company did much of the original work on Camp Dodge. The first large job Archie contracted was as a subcontractor on the Naval Air Station building project in Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1943.

By the 1940s Archie’s sons, Jack, Dick and Bill (William), were involved in the family business, which allowed Archie to retire by the end of the decade. Jack and Dick were responsible for bringing in business at major sites, including the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, Lucas State Office Building and Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The company become incorporated and adopted its current designation in 1970.

Today the family’s third generation is paving AJA’s road to success. Mark Allen, current president of AJA, joined the company in 1975 and is proud to usher in the fourth generation to the family-owned and –operated business.

AJA employs about 95 people during peak season, providing everything from refrigeration to medical gas piping, air conditioning, plumbing, ventilation and some underground utility work. Many of the projects AJA is currently involved in are within the industrial and commercial sector, but the company also has experience working in hospitals and schools.

Projects that Showcase Skills

According to Mark, the economy has strongly impacted his business since 2008. “Things went so strong for about seven years in a row,” he says. “It had to go down at some point. Money got tight and private investors got nervous. We’re just starting to see more activity with architects and engineers.”

Fortunately, such activity has translated into some large jobs for AJA. “The biggest job we’ve got going on right now is for Kemin Industries Inc. [Kemin],” says Mark. Kemin is a world leader in science and research that enhances nutrition and health for humans and animals alike. The firm produces more than 500 specialty ingredients used by the feed and food industries, as well as health, nutrition and beauty markets.

“We’ve done a lot of work for Kemin over the years,” explains Mark. Kemin is headquartered in Des Moines with additional plants located around the world. AJA is involved in the construction of a new research and design building for Kemin, with the work including plumbing, mechanical and lines for gases to all the laboratories.

AJA is a reliable company for many local and government agencies, as well. Recently, AJA participated in new construction of a transit hub for the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART). The project received a $10 million grant to help with construction of the hub that was designed to create new jobs, improve public transit and improve the experience for DART’s 15,000 daily riders.

“The hub is LEED-certified,” reports Mark. “It’s a classy looking center for the people who use public transit.” The project was a great boost to AJA’s business, but did not go without challenges. “Working downtown is tough because you’ve got no place to lay down materials,” he adds. Despite obstacles, the AJA team delivered successful completion on time and on budget.

Another challenging project AJA is currently undergoing is the expansion of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW). Part of the Iowa Department of Corrections, ICIW is a medium- to minimum-security prison that includes dorm-like living unites and celled-housing. Mark details that the facility is undergoing a huge expansion, and that AJA is involved in the construction of four new buildings.

“It’s tough to work in there,” Mark explains. When crews arrive at the facility, each employee has to be searched and the equipment inspected. Guards then escort the crew to the work site. If someone has to go back to the truck for more supplies that person has to go through security each and every time. “It’s costly to do work in the high security areas because of the down time waiting for searches to be done,” Mark adds.

Success through the Fourth Generation

With impressive feats come even more impressive growth; and AJA has achieved just that. Archie’s great-grandchildren are now involved in the family business. It is Mark’s hope that smart business moves will help AJA come out of the recent economic slump in a strong position.

“We had enough backlog work for a while to help ride out the pain felt initially,” he says. “When our backlog got finished, it was a pretty dry market for the past four years.”

According to Mark, employment numbers during the winter months at AJA often slump to around 60 people. He estimates the company’s largest expense isn’t just salary, but paying out unemployment for those laborers he is forced to lay off.

“We’ve been getting a lot of work for schools, but those projects we start in May and have to have done by August,” says Mark. With such a tight turnaround, AJA hires additional staff to get projects done in a timely manner. The downside is that the company then has to do layoffs afterward.

Mark goes on to detail that many of AJA’s upper level employees, such as management and superintendents, have spent many years working for the company. AJA’s long-term experience of such employees, coupled with the young energy coming in with the Allen’s fourth generation joining the company, is positioning AJA to capitalize on the rebounding economy. The work Archie, his sons, grandsons and now great-grandsons are doing will help keep A.J. Allen Mechanical Contractors Inc. leading the field for years – and generations – to come.