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Posted: September 01, 2012

Rundles wrap up: ( ) Promises

Jeff Rundles

I walk a lot, daily, mostly on the sidewalks around my older south Denver neighborhood, and the exercise has done a lot for my weight, my health, my stamina, and my overall well-being. It has also, believe it or not, given me a perspective on modern-day business, and not an altogether good one.

With not much going on beyond my strident striding, I think a lot and notice the little things – and I have been very much taken with the sidewalk signatures that cement and concrete companies used to routinely impress in their work. There was – and "was" is the operational word – an obvious pride taken in the work to lay a sidewalk in earlier times. There are a ton of newer homes, and newer sidewalks, in the area, and none of the modern sidewalk makers feels the need, apparently, to sign their handiwork.

That’s too bad. Not that the newer sidewalks are any less well made – I’m no expert in sidewalk work – but it seems to me that the guys who signed their work in the past did so after painstakingly ensuring that the job was done right. Their names speak in some small, yet long-lasting measure to a bit of Denver business history. Not to mention the workman’s pride.

Here’s some I found: "City Sidewalk 1960," "Laid By K W Walker Concrete Construction 1988," "A. B. C. Concrete 19 (year left blank)," "Ideal Portland Cement Laid By Louis C Liley 1960," "Ideal Portland Cement Laid By W. R. VanHedkelem 71," "Laid By John Sandoval 1960," "George Kling 1957," "Q P Napue Contr. 1952," Laid By Ray H Otto Contractor 1950," "J K Wirsing 1952," "Laid By Westra Bros. Construction 1952," "Albert Stavast 1965."

My absolute favorite isn’t an impression made in the cement, but rather what looks like a brass plaque inlaid into it, found twice on my walk: "The Hinchman – Renton Co." There was no date, but it looked old. According to some research, Hinchman was James Barton Hinchman (1859-1944) who formed the Hinchman Roofing Co. in the 1890s, and merged it with the Renton Fireproofing Co. in 1902, and the company persevered for 40 years. I found nothing on Renton, but apparently the company was a national pioneer in the then-new use of strengthening concrete with steel (today, I believe, we call that rebar), and the firm supplied fireproofing concrete for Union Station, the U.S. Denver Mint, and several sugar refineries throughout the state. Hinchman is buried in Riverside Cemetery, along with many Colorado notables. I bet he has the strongest crypt in the place.

Today’s sidewalk makers tell this story: ( ).

You see a little bit of this personal badging also on fences – e.g. Elcar Fence, Split Rail Fence Co. – and, of course, on the back of automobiles – e.g John Elway Chevrolet, Planet Honda. And, yes, it’s advertising to some extent.

But what it really represents is a promise – in the case of sidewalks, a promise etched in stone. I’ve had experiences over the last several years with plumbers, tree removal services, electricians, roofers, even concrete guys, and I had to cut through a lot of clutter to find someone who I thought was a craftsman, someone who would deliver on the promises they all made. Someone who would sign their work.

I’m sure even in the old days there were fly-by-night outfits – not all the very old sidewalks were signed. But I have been around long enough to remember true craftsmen, and they seem to be harder and harder to find – not only in sidewalks, but in banking, law, computers, phone service, dry cleaning, restaurants, car repair, and, well, everything.

I want a promise of workmanship. I want a promise of quality. I want a promise that the job will be done on time in the way it was promised. If they are willing to sign their work, it seems to me, that will happen.

Today it seems that what I get a lot of is ( ) promises.

All too often these days I come away feeling ( ).

Today I get a ton of "customer service," but what I want is craftsmanship. Are all those guys dead?

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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