Survival secrets: 147 years in same location, Auburn business wears like iron

Harris Industrial Gases retains Auburn Iron Works business legacy dating to 1865, creates own
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Secrets of Survival

Harris Industrial Gases’ President Kathleen Harris provides these tips for surviving in business.

n Customer service is king

n Don’t be afraid to hire family and friends

n Provide a workplace where people remain loyal

n Get to know your customers on a first-name bases


AUBURN CA - In terms of survival as an Auburn business, it’s hard to beat Harris Industrial Gases.

And business president Kathleen Harris says that it comes down to a few simple but important secrets of success to keep the lights on through recessions, depressions, wars and the boom times.

“No. 1 is customer service,” Harris said. “Our major competition is large, with thousands of stores, but they’ve lost that family touch. We have a small but excellent staff who know a lot of our customers personally.”

Harris Industrial Gases is at one end of an Auburn business legacy that started just after the Central Pacific Railway line was constructed through Auburn. Then a blacksmith shop, it was strategically located across from the railroad station – providing a high-profile spot as wagons and riders pulled up for freight.

In 1890, the Lincoln Way shop in Downtown Auburn was officially named Auburn Iron Works and the building retains that name. While no blacksmith work is currently being done full-time at the location, the forge, tools and implements remain in a prominent position in the shop, seemingly ready to go to work again at a moment’s notice.

Retail has become an increasingly important part of the old Auburn Ironworks building’s modern-day strategy for survival while the gas-supply side provides revenues for the business from a variety of clients, large and small, including Folsom State Prison, Hewlett-Packard and Caltrans.

Auburn’s Sean McCormick arrived at the rustic ironworks building at the corner of Elm Avenue and Lincoln Way on a recent Friday to buy welding equipment for a course he’s taking at Sierra College.

“All I know about the building is that it used to be a blacksmith shop,” McCormick said. “I’ve come back because of the customer service. It’s been really good the last couple of times I’ve been here.”

Located on Elm Avenue near Harris Industrial Gases, The Black Forest auto repair shop has been a neighbor for more than 30 years.

Co-owner Paul Gilbert has had plenty of time to observe what makes a business like Harris Industrial Gases a survivor.

“I think their secret is outstanding customer service,” Gilbert said. “And fair pricing. If you treat people right, they keep coming back.”

Harris said the business is not averse to hiring “friends and family.” That familiarity has bred loyalty, with two employees (Harris is one of them) at work for more than 30 years and another five with 20 years or more of experience.

“We don’t have a corporate ladder,” Harris said. “If someone decides to do something a different way, there is no corporate chain of command to maneuver through.”

Harris Industrial Gases was founded by Harold A. Harris on Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights and the family business bought Auburn Iron Works in 1973. Kathleen Harris’ father, Kent, died in 1974.

“He had the foresight to see that a lot of business would be coming out of construction of the Auburn dam,” Harris said.

Norma Harris, Kathleen’s mother, took over the business after her husband’s death and helped it move through uncertain times into its status by the 1980s as the largest independent supplier of industrial gases and welding supplies in the Sacramento Valley.

“Not only have we survived the recent recession but it was not very long ago that we survived being the victim of a $300,000 embezzlement,” Kathleen Harris said. “We have an excellent CPA and now look at finances in a different way.”

Over the current recession, no employees have been laid off and the business continued to give raises and bonuses, Harris said.

“There was just one four-month period where everyone took a cut in pay,” Harris said. “It’s like a big family. We’ve been through marriages and divorces, births and deaths, family tragedies and celebrations.”


Secrets of Survival

Harris Industrial Gases’ President Kathleen Harris provides these tips for surviving in business.

n Customer service is king

n Don’t be afraid to hire family and friends

n Provide a workplace where people remain loyal

n Get to know your customers on a first-name bases