Blair Companies had its start in 1951 as Blair Electric Service Company when Mike Devorris invested $5000 for a 50% passive interest in the fledgling business. The company grew slowly, as Mike worked full time at Penelec, where he eventually became EVP Operations, while his partner was already running another electrical contractor. Realizing the business would not succeed without a full-time leader, Mike offered his interest to his son Don, who was building a career with a large electrical contractor in New York. Don returned to Altoona in 1959 and refocused the business on complex industrial projects. Within a few years, he had bought out the partner and began building a great team of dedicated associates.
Don met the growing need for space and employees by acquiring a small electrical contractor in 1968 and moved Blair into their Bellwood facility, a deal which included a few employees making signs. While always looking to preserve jobs, Don wasn’t sure what to do with that end of the business until his office admin introduced him to her cousin Steve Pellegrine. Steve was a talented sign maker who had apprenticed in both Pennsylvania and Florida, but was building signs in his small Altoona garage. Recognizing Don’s expertise in business and Steve’s knowledge of signs and service, they soon established Blair Sign Company.
Foundation Built Through Service
Great service set Blair Electric and Blair Sign apart from their peers, and both firms grew quickly within their industries. By 1975, Blair Electric was the largest electrical contractor in the coal industry, with a new office servicing Gillette, WY’s Powder River Basin, the world’s largest coalfield. Blair’s global customers helped it to become the largest electrical contractor in the West Indies bauxite mines as well.
Meanwhile, Steve’s total customer focus enabled him to turn a local service call for GNC into Blair Sign’s first national account. As shopping malls boomed, Blair soon became both the largest neon channel letter manufacturer in the nation and the first to receive a UL listing for those signs. The combination of Blair Sign’s national retail accounts and Blair Electric’s lighting expertise led to the 1975 founding of Blair Lighting to distribute lighting fixtures to Blair’s growing base of national accounts. Blair’s ability to deliver high-quality products on time had customers encourage product expansions from wood-cased cabinet signs to complete wood display cases and the founding of Blair Fixtures & Millwork, soon followed by Blair Design & Construction in 1979 to manage complete store build-outs nationwide.
Partners, Family and Growth
Partnering eventually with nearly every major contractor and developer in Central PA, Don began a real estate portfolio that would eventually comprise over 4 million square feet of space. In 1988, Don’s daughter Andrea gave up her Washington D.C. based career in Sports Marketing to begin marketing for Blair. Within a few years, Andrea moved her new family to Altoona and expanded her activities to include managing Blair’s growing real estate portfolio.
The following year, Don’s son Philip began a major systems project working part-time from his home in New York City. After three years working late-nights and early-mornings over the phone, Philip left a career with Sony to begin full-time with Blair. Philip helped with the acquisition, management, and divestiture of numerous Blair businesses, but increasingly focused on the sign manufacturing operation. Within a decade, it grew from a niche player to an industry leader, with a blue chip account base including Sheetz, GNC, Regis, Gulf, Texaco, Chevron, Chrysler, Kmart, Sears, Target, Bank of America, Verizon, AT&T, BP, Sunoco, General Motors, Sprint, Nextel, Rite Aid, UPS, FedEx and Starwood Hotels.
Kathy Wagner, joined Blair as CFO in 1998 after 16 years at Blair’s outside accounting firm. Later becoming a partner in several ventures, Kathy played an integral role in Blair’s growth.
By 2000, Blair’s neon expertise was traded for leadership in applying LEDs to signage, as Blair developed LED price change units and message centers that met the value and reliability standards global petroleum required. As had happened 20 years earlier, Blair’s customers encouraged them to expand their product offering to include LED lighting and create a global service network.
Don understood 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. By the mid 1990’s Blair began to acquire major active interests in existing ventures, including Cummings International, Piedmont Aviation, Building Concepts Unlimited, Coal Resource Partners, Mar-Par Industrial Insulation, Blair Telephone, Altoona’s Marriott Courtyard, TEAM Automotive, American Eagle Paper Mills, WIN Capital, Chemcut, Delta Health Technologies, Juniata Fabrics, Lee Food Service, Small Tube Products, Empower3 Center for Health, and ADI software. The formula was simple – invest with the right people in the right business at the right price. Partners with an ownership interest lead every business Blair is involved with.
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 real estate portfolio grew to include 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 positive community impact
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. Andrea, Philip, Kathy and others on Blair’s leadership team continue this focus on business and community, with many leading numerous businesses and community organizations.
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.
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:
Excellence | Integrity | Innovation | Family