This company has spread the shade for Northeast Ohio homes and businesses for 100 years.
In this day of air conditioning and tinted windows, some may scratch their heads over the survival of South Akron Awning, which has been making and installing fabric awnings to keep the sun out since 1913.
“This is all we’ve ever done,” said the straight-talking owner Ranell Minear, who inherited the business from her father in 1978. “We care about what we do and we like what we do.”
On Saturday, the company will celebrate — with a public open house — its perseverance as one tough small business. The place is easy to find — just look for the bright orange awnings at 763 Kenmore Blvd.
The business — which once made canvas garages for Model T automobiles — has made it through the Great Depression, the aluminum awning craze of the 1950s, the sudden death of one of its leaders and the Great Recession.
“You have good years and bad years. We’ve somehow managed to survive the ones that aren’t so good. This year is a good year,” said Minear, 63, who has no plans to leave anytime soon.
“My boyfriend [David Seitzer] is 72 and he’s still working,” Minear said. “Work gives you a sense of purpose, and I like what I do.”
For decades, South Akron Awning’s business has been split fairly evenly between awnings, for homes and businesses, and tent rentals.
Sales and rentals of the products fell off during the 2007-2009 recession, but have since picked up.
“The commercial side has really taken off in the past few years — especially with the outside smoke rooms [framed shelters that the company makes],” said Mike Halasa, company vice president. Voters approved Ohio’s indoor smoking ban in 2006.
Minear notes that businesses are feeling a bit freer with their cash and want to spruce up their exteriors.
Prices can range from roughly $250 (for an awning to shade a small residential window) to $12,000 to $30,000 for large commercial units that have a frame.
Lots of experience
Minear, who is chatty and quick-to-laugh, began at South Akron Awning in 1973, after her father, Doy Minear, suffered a stroke. Ranell Minear did a myriad of jobs — everything from office work, to scheduling installations.
She began helping to oversee operations in 1978, when she was 28, and credits her employees — many of them longtime — in helping to keep the business viable.
Mike Halasa has worked there for 36 years, working his way up from a part-time job as a tent installer to vice president. Don’t let the title fool you.
“I do just about everything,” said Halasa, who wears a South Akron Awning T-shirt like those worn by those doing installation work.
“This gets in your blood and you enjoy doing it,” said Halasa, who has overseen the fabrication of thousands of awnings and still does installation when he’s needed. “You’re getting to create something to give a building a totally different look,” he said.
Company secretary Kathleen Mueller surpasses Halasa in terms of seniority. She’s been at South Akron Awning for 38 years, working part time. Mueller, a friend of Minear since childhood, also is a longtime teacher at Redeemer Christian School in Cuyahoga Falls.
Other longtime South Akron Awning employees are salesman/installer Tony Wills, with 26 years, and his brother Ron Wills, with 14 years. Their father worked at the company decades ago with Minear’s father.
“The only thing we change around here is our hair color,” Minear said — a phrase she says often. “Same friends. Same employees. Same jobs.”
The payroll totals eight full-time workers and four part-time and seasonal employees, and includes sewers, installers and one worker who welds and installs.
Things do change, of course. “The product has evolved,” Minear said, noting that these days, vinyl and acrylic fabrics are used to make awnings. “We don’t make canvas horse covers anymore,” she says with a chuckle.
And the residential side of the business has decreased, as awnings haven’t proved to be as popular with younger generations of homeowners.
In the early 1970s, South Akron Awning had about 1,200 residential customers who would pay for the removal and storage of awnings in the winter. Today, there are about 250.
Cynda Zuch became a loyal customer, paying for take-down and storage, about 20 years ago. That’s when she and her husband, Fred Zuch, a retired Summit County prosecutor, bought a Silver Lake home, adorned with the company’s awnings.
Cynda Zuch enjoys the look of them. “But they are also a practical thing,” she said. “They really help with the air-conditioning cost.”
Old company files include addresses of homes that have boasted the company’s awnings for decades. Goodyear CEO Paul W. Litchfield was a customer in the 1940s, and the current residents of his West Akron mansion called the Anchorage are current customers.
Other remnants of earlier days can be found at the company, including a decades-old wood sewing table.
Founder Ray Garman in 1970 willed the business to Minear’s father, Doy Minear, who had worked for Garman since the 1940s. Shortly after Doy Minear inherited the business, he suffered a stroke. His wife, Ruth, then worked at the company until she died in 1973.
Ranell Minear, then in her 20s, quit her secretarial job for the city of Akron, and she and her brother, Doy Jay Minear, took over the enterprise, with their father teaching them the business.
The elder Minear died in 1978, and then in 1980, tragedy struck again, when Ranell’s brother died in a car accident.
“I had good people here” to carry on,” she said. “I have a never-give-up attitude.”
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.