Roanoke College

Ward’s business is a trip back in time

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  • Ward’s business is a trip back in time

  • 03/26/10
  • Andy Ward '82 started his career sweeping floors as a 12-year-old at P.E. Guerin. He got started in his family's business in New York's Greenwich Village when his Dad handed him a broom and put him to work. Young Andy had been in the principal's office, and this was meant to teach him a lesson. Beginning that day, Ward fell in love with the company that was started in 1857 by his great grand uncle, French immigrant Pierre Emmanuel Guerin.

    Within the brick building, where the decorative hardware company moved in 1892, Ward often would sneak up to the fourth-floor foundry and watch the workers. "I still have the locker upstairs with my name on it," he recalls. "Sparks flying, shavings of brass in the air and a battlefield of guys with smocks, boots and goggles" are what Ward fondly recalls. "I walk around the factory every day, and my eyes light up. I'm not a business major or one of those executives who runs GM but can't put a car together."

    Ward actually had no formal business training. At Roanoke College, he majored in biology and planned to go to medical school. Reasoning he could always pursue medicine later, he graduated from Roanoke and returned to P.E. Guerin. Ward says his father taught him the business as the two commuted daily between the Village and New Jersey. After several years, Ward's father offered two options - they could either sell the business or he could take it over. Ward never made it to medical school. "The problem is," he says, "I love this business so much."

    Even Martha Stewart praised Ward's company on her TV show. "Lower Manhattan bustles with 21st century life but walk through the door of P.E. Guerin and take a step back in time," Stewart says. "Here more than 80 craftspeople from around the world create beautiful, decorative hardware, entirely by hand."

    As you enter the P.E. Guerin showroom on Jane Street today, you see towel bars, light switch plates, doorknobs, hooks and hangers - most of which look like jewelry than functional pieces of art. Further back is a pattern room - a space dating to the early days of the business and now boasting thousands of patterns tucked in old drawers, which rise to the ceiling.

    "Visiting Andy at P.E. Guerin is a trip back in time - you see a level of craftsmanship that is rare in today's world," Roanoke President Mike Maxey says. "You also see that Andy is clearly beloved and respected by his employees."

    The company is the oldest decorative hardware firm in the United States. One magazine described its products as "jewelry for the home." P.E. Guerin's masterpieces can be found in the homes of celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey. "We made money during the Depression because we dealt with the Vanderbilts," Ward says.

    The real estate where P.E. Guerin sits is now worth more than the business itself, Ward says, and he receives a lot of offers. "I own three buildings, the four-story factory and a townhouse," Ward says. "People have always told me to move the company where it's one level and efficient, but I would love to keep it where it is. We converted from DC to AC in 1992. There are belts on the ceiling, and old-fashioned machines run the lathes. The elevators are pulled by ropes!"

    "We're blowing out smoke, melting down ingot at 2,000 degrees and pouring metal from crucibles into molds," Ward says excitedly. The work today is much like that produced when the company was founded. Craftsmen from around the world make the custom pieces by hand. "My employees come from Peru, Argentina, China, Russia, Transylvania and England." Ward expanded the business to six showrooms across the U.S. with foundries in Valencia, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal.

    Despite traveling around the world, Ward stays connected to Roanoke College. He has been a co-host of the College's annual alumni reception in New York City for years.

    On the heels of such successes and as sole owner, Ward now faces the dilemma of who will next inherit the business.

    "I don't have any partners," he says. "I don't take commissions. But I have six kids. They range from second year in med school to four years old. I have to figure out a way to keep it. Hopefully, one or two of the children will want to go into it."

    Although a career saving lives never happened for Ward, he has instead breathed life and passion into a heritage of artisanship that has died out in most other parts of the world.