Where It All Began
In 1968, Don acquired an electrical contractor that had a few employees making signs in the back of their Bellwood facility. Not quite sure what to do with that end of the business, but always looking to preserve jobs, Don was introduced to Steve Pellegrine, the cousin of a Blair Electric office worker. Steve was a talented sign maker who had apprenticed in both Pennsylvania and Florida, but was building signs in his garage in Altoona. Recognizing their common goals, Steve and Don founded Blair Sign Company in 1971.
The Blair Companies was established in 1959 when organization founder Donald Devorris returned to Altoona to run Central Blair Electric from a career with GE and a large New York electrical contractor. A few years earlier Don’s father, Mike, had purchased 50% ownership in this three-employee motor repair business. Don soon branched out and founded Blair Electric Service Company, a small electrical contracting business. With the help of dedicated associates, the business grew; specializing in wiring large industrial projects, coal preparation facilities throughout the US, and bauxite facilities in the West Indies.
Foundation Built Through Service
With a reputation for delivering high-quality products on time, Blair stepped from fabricating wood-encased cabinet signs for Electronics Boutique, to fabricating all of their wood display cases, store fixtures and millwork. By the early 1980's, Blair had spun off a third division, Blair Fixtures & Millwork to focus on these products. Soon after, Blair Lighting was created to distribute lighting fixtures to Blair’s growing base of national accounts, followed by Blair Design & Construction to build their stores.
Soon after Blair Sign was established, a call came in to repair a local sign for GNC. Steve’s exceptional service led to a nationwide contract to manufacture and install signs for GNC. This experience paved the way to strong relationships with major retailers and developers, and Blair grew rapidly as shopping malls spread across the country. Blair’s other “first” account traced its roots to 1966, when Steve built the sign for the first Sheetz convenience store. Blair has built signs for every Sheetz facility since.
Strong, Steady Growth
Toward the end of 1989, Don's son Philip began working with Ron Ritchey, Blair’s long-time head of operations, to improve Blair Sign's systems. After three years working late-nights and early-mornings over the phone, Philip left a career with Sony to begin full-time with Blair.
From 1983 to the late 1990's Blair’s wholesale letter business took off. Blair fabricated 30,000 sets of Texaco letters; other wholesale production programs included Gulf Oil, Chrysler, and Chevron; large POP orders for Fuji, Budweiser, and Coors in the Japanese market; and over 100 enormous backlit billboards for Philip Morris. As the production staff grew, Blair increased its project management and engineering capabilities to handle larger programs directly. More manufacturing capacity was added in 1994, then more sales people to keep the buildings full. By 1997, Blair’s sign operation was spread over six locations, and Blair’s fixture division had moved five times.
Finally, after 30 years of making do with a hodge-podge of buildings, Blair bought the 150,000 SF facility on Kissell Avenue, and moved the entire sign operation under one roof for the first time in 17 years. The consolidation into one building enabled them to focus attention on providing even better service to their customers. Larger accounts followed, Kmart, Sunoco, Bank of America, Verizon Wireless, BP, Regis, AT&T, Sprint, Nextel, General Motors, Rite Aid, UPS, FedEx, Target, and Starwood Hotels. In 2001 Blair’s fixture and logistics divisions moved into their own first-class 120,000 SF facility next door.
Donunderstood how to spot winning businesses and to partner with exceptional people, and relied on these dual strengths to greatly expand the overall Blair Companies organization. With every new business started or acquired, Blair’s deal flow expanded, creating additional opportunities. In the early 1990’s Don began to acquire major active interests in existing ventures, including Piedmont Aviation, Cummings International, Building Concepts Unlimited, Coal Resource Partners, Mar-Par Industrial Insulation, Blair Telephone, Marriott Courtyard Altoona, TEAM Automotive, American Eagle Paper Products, WIN Capital, Chemcut, Delta Health Technologies, Juniata Fabrics, Lee Food Service, and Small Tube Products. The formula was simple – invest with the right people in the right business at the right price.
Over 100 real estate projects were developed even as the operating companies expanded. Significant properties include the 50-acre Elmwood residential development, 60-acre Strawberry Meadows shopping plaza and commercial site, the 250,000 SF M&T Bank Office Complex, the 210,000 SF Station Medical Center, the 350,000 SF SKF factory/retail site, the 450,000 SF / 160 acre Corning Asahi plant, and numerous warehouse facilities and retail centers. Unique properties were added to the group as well, including the Sylvan View Golf Club, Lakemont Amusement Park, Galactic Ice, and the Blair County Ballpark. Blair’s current real estate portfolio includes over 4 million square feet, with over 700 acres developed, and 2000 acres of timber and coalfields.
Blair’s reputation of integrity and fairness enabled deals to get done quickly. While every deal had a unique story surrounding its creation, several factors were always present –
- Sound judgment on the partners involved and business valuation
- Opportunistic timing and willingness to take risks
- Focus on business growth, job preservation, and community service
Among the many awards for business excellence and community service, few captured the essence of Don’s career as well as the 2005 Blair Chamber’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Business Excellence, and the 2006 Entrepreneur of the Year award from Ernst & Young. An unequaled number of Blair businesses have also been inducted into the Blair County Business Hall of Fame and won associated awards.
Partners and Associates
Blair believes community service starts with a strong feeling of community at work, a sense of family that has always been evident at Blair. Through all of the growth, changes and moves, dozens of the people and partners that built Blair Electric in the 1960's, Blair Sign in the 1970's, and Blair Fixtures in the 1980's are still with the company. Many of these associates worked at Blair until they retired, and quite a few still have family working for the company today. Blair began and leads today with the same core values–
Blair's history of community service includes major gifts to endow entrepreneurship, education, the arts and other programs throughout the community. The Devorris Center for Business Development houses the Altoona Blair County Development Corporation, the Blair County Chamber of Commerce, and a business incubator that helps fledgling businesses to flourish. The Devorris Downtown Center houses the Penn State Altoona Campus’ Continuing Education & Training Center.
Excellence – Integrity – Innovation – Family
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