Although Bruce Frasier will say he did everything he could to “escape” working in the family business begun by his grandfather, George, in 1918, his smile speaks otherwise. And after handing the reins over to his son, Phil, upon his retirement, Bruce is proud to see Frasier’s Plumbing and Heating still serving the Northwoods today.
“This business is hard on the family,” he says, recalling meals, holiday celebrations, trips and even an outing to the Ice Bowl game in Green Bay that were interrupted by emergency service calls. “It’s a hard business and here we are, still in it. I guess insanity runs in the family.”
Bruce was 8 years old when he started cleaning up in the old shop on Davenport Street where the family lived. “My dad always said idle time breeds trouble,” he says, “so he kept us busy.”
During his time, Bruce’s father, Bill, expanded the plumbing business that George had started, adding service to heating systems. “Once, he took a water pump from an old Packard automobile to use for hot water heating indoors,” Bruce says. “Changes were slow back then. The Depression prevented much in the way of technology. They used all hand tools, except for an old pipe thread-cutting machine he had set up in the shop.”
Through the war years, there was a shortage of materials for plumbing, but business picked up in the mid-1950s. “Things became more automated and mechanized,” Bruce recalls. “Lots of buildings started going up, including a veteran’s addition on the south side.”
Bill and his wife, Roselynn, tried a number of expansions over those years, including a retail store in Rhinelander. Besides Bruce, siblings Dave, Larry and Beverly helped out off and on. “My mother was the bookkeeper,” says Bruce. “She was very involved in the business, but worried a lot. When my dad made plans to hire his first plumber, she said, ‘You’ll never pay him.’”
After Bruce’s marriage in 1953 to childhood sweetheart Joan, he joined the Navy and served in California for several years, working in electronics. Joan recalls enjoying the warm weather. “I lived off base with the kids, and it was nice,” she says, “But I missed home. I really longed for four seasons again.”
Upon arriving back in this region in 1957, Bruce was determined to pursue an electrical engineering degree at Michigan Tech in the UP. “The GI bill only paid after the first semester,” he says. “Before I’d even made a start, though, the mines closed up there and things just shut down. We had to come back.”
Phil and his siblings have childhood memories of going out with their dad on service calls over the next couple decades. “I remember the cold, hard seats in those trucks,” says Phil. “Sometimes we’d go along in the middle of the night to hold the flashlight. I remember falling asleep on the job and hearing my dad yell, ‘Wake up and get the light over here.’”
The nature of the business has had the Fraisers fighting the elements that take the hardest toll: snow, flooding, cold. Joan relates a time when much of downtown flooded. “The kids and I were all out there going up and down the streets, passing out flyers on how we could help people,” she says.
Sometimes over the years, important business decisions had to be made. In addition to expanding the shop to include a plumbing supply store, the family had started selling appliances and Bruce’s brother, Larry, seemed to have an affinity for that. He eventually went off on his own, setting up a kitchen store on Brown Street that is still there today.
“At one point we had to choose whether to do sales or service,” says Bruce. “We made the right choice, I think. The big box stores took business away, and during the slow economic times, like the 1980s, there wasn’t a lot of building or remodeling going on. But even in hard times, people need service, so we made it through.”
Bruce and Joan’s children also helped out as the years went on. “That’s one of the best things about the business,” says Bruce. “It gave the kids a place to start out working when they were young.”
He emphasizes the importance of Joan’s help along the way. “All the women – my mother, my wife, my daughter-in-law – we couldn’t have done it without them,” he says. “Not just taking care of the home and family, but ideas and suggestions about the work. There’s a lot of white knuckle time in business, and they share all that.”
Joanna, too, recognizes her mother-in-law’s role. “Joan contributed for 30 years,” she says. “Every morning, opening every bit of mail, she worked in the bath shop and the office, typing proposals, payroll and business letters. She was there for the computers when they first came in; she went to Florida for training.”
Phil didn’t officially join the family business right away. “I remember my dad asking me what I really wanted to do,” he says. “I told him I felt called to youth ministry. What I really loved was getting kids outdoors, camping and fishing. I watched kids from the city seeing the stars for the first time. That was wonderful.”
Phil met Joanna during such an activity and the couple spent several years in the field with ministry programs, including Headwaters Christian Youth in Rhinelander, while raising their own five children.
Eventually, though, Phil realized his dad would soon be ready to retire, so he returned to pitch in and get ready to take over. “It was great working with him until he retired,” he says. “I’d say that a career spanning from age 8 to 71 was a good long time.
“One of the best things Dad did was to join a best practices group in 1991,” he continues. “Hundreds of member businesses share ideas and techniques. There’s a training center, a code of ethics and opportunities to share with members all over the country.”
The company’s present business goal includes ideas garnered by working with this best practices group, which is now called Nex Star. “When our technicians make a service call, they talk to the customer, find out how their water is, if their indoor air quality is good and their furnace running quietly,” Phil says. “We do the best we can by our employees, too. How can we provide the best training, top pay and benefits? Same with our business, making it efficient and running smoothly. Win, win, win.”
Technology is put to good use, thanks in part to Phil and Joanna’s five children. “They suggested new ways to use things I’d never heard of,” says Phil. “Now, when customers make an appointment, they receive an email with the photo and bio of the technician that will be coming. Our people carry iPads so they can input information right away and we always know what’s going on. Our trucks are all monitored for maintenance. We’ve almost done away with paper altogether.”
Improvements in communication have also allowed Frasier’s to expand their service as far north as the UP and south to Mosinee. “We have technicians who live in those areas,” Phil says. “We’re able to manage things from here and it works very well.”
After years of home schooling, Phil and Joanna’s kids are now almost gone from the nest. “The oldest, Jared, went off to school in Bozeman, Montana,” Joanna explains. “The next two followed him, and the two still at home here have plans to move there, as well.”
Being hundreds of miles away hasn’t stopped Jared from contributing to the family business, though. He handles marketing for the company, maintaining a website complete with a blog (commentary) about various aspects of home heating and plumbing, and directs advertising.
“For years, my mother wrote notes to customers,” Phil says. “We decided we’d like to come back to this, so our son Scott and his wife, also in Montana, have taken over, sending messages to customers, following up on service calls.”
The future looks bright for Frasier’s, according to Phil. “The business will continue, the family will continue. After almost 100 years in Rhinelander, we’re looking to a future beyond us.”
Bruce is also very pleased. “Since the Lord came to us, He’s brought new meaning into our lives,” he says. “I feel He is the reason that Phil came back to the business and that we took on service. The Bible is a good guide for our business.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond and Living on the Lake magazines.