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BUILDING AN EMPIRE At 60, Reading company has grown to 200 employees, six divisions

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A crew from Empire Services works to stabilize
and then repair an area damaged by a sinkhole. (Contributed photo)
A crew from Empire Services works to stabilize and then repair an area damaged by a sinkhole. (Contributed photo)

No one enjoys receiving a call late Saturday night, asking for an emergency highway-spill cleanup or to fix a giant sinkhole.

But if you are part of The Empire Group of Reading, that's what you do. Whether it be a house fire, explosion or building collapse, employees from the six companies under the Empire umbrella are cross-trained to work together in emergencies.

Even Harry J. O'Neill III, Empire co-owner, gives up his Saturday nights to join the task at hand in an emergency response.

The dedication of its workforce helps explain why The Empire Group has lasted for 60 years and remains a close-knit company with a family like environment and small-company feel while servicing diverse branches of the construction industry.

“We have an awesome group of employees,” O'Neill said. “That's the strength of the company. That's the reason for the company.”

It began with Empire Wrecking Co. in 1955, which now does business as Empire Services. Since then, it has grown from a lone demolition company into five more companies that are Elk Environmental Services, Delaware Valley Contractors Inc., Delaware Valley Utility Contractors and Berks Transfer, all based in Reading, and Empire Surplus Home Center in Leesport.

When O'Neill took over the business at 22, there were fewer than 20 employees.

Today, Empire has more than 200 employees and more than 400 construction vehicles and heavy equipment pieces. A privately held business, The Empire Group has annual revenues of about $50 million and has a service footprint extending into central Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey.

“Our success came from great people,” O'Neill said.

Harry “Whitey” O'Neill Jr. founded the company as a demolition services provider for Berks County and surrounding areas. Today, his son, Harry III, 65, is president, and son Todd, 53, is executive vice president.

“My brother is phenomenal,” Harry O'Neill III said. “My brother runs the day-to-day operations. I couldn't ask for a better operation.”

Harry III's son, Harry O'Neill IV, 44, is vice president of Empire Surplus Home Center.

“The business will stay in the family,” Harry O'Neill III said. “The issue becomes, what's the family?

“To me, the family is everyone that's here.”

The demolition technique has changed over the years. Until about 2000, most companies performed demolition with a wrecking ball and bucket, O'Neill said.

Today, it's done with a hydraulic crane, which offers a lot greater control. And since the machine is more precise, companies can considerably slash labor costs, he added.

Regarding the use of explosives, demolition companies generally do not blast buildings unless the structures are higher than six stories. In the past, workers used wrecking balls mainly for cutting steel and breaking concrete, but today, demolition companies have crushers at the end of the crane booms that eat concrete, O'Neill said.

Empire Wrecking's proficiency is in specialty demolition, he said, as many of its workers are highly experienced. He has demolition foremen that have been employed with the company since the 1980s and one since the 1970s, O'Neill said.

O'Neill said he still works 13 hours a day, six days a week because it's something that he said he loves to do.

“If you are in it for the money, you're in the wrong business,” he said. “… You have to find a reason to get up and come to this place every morning.”

Though the work is enjoyable, it is not without its challenges. The territory is large, and Empire can have employees working five 10-hour days anywhere from North Jersey to the Poconos to Williamsport.

Faced with the need for expanding territory, O'Neill said he tries to retain the family relationship – but it is challenging, as is finding good personnel and skilled workers willing to travel and to meet the company's standards.

One of Empire's noteworthy projects included a complex, multistep project for St. Joseph Hospital in Reading that began in 2007. Steps included the remediation of hazardous materials, selective demolition, total demolition and façade stabilization of various portions of the hospital.

Upon completion, the property changed ownership to the Reading School District for the construction of the Reading Intermediate High School at the site, 215 N. 12th St.

Another project of note involved responding to a 30-by-40-foot sinkhole that opened in a grassy area in the parking lot of Reading Health System's Spring Ridge Campus in 2014.

Employees from Empire Services, Delaware Valley Contractors and Delaware Valley Utility Contractors arrived on the scene within 30 minutes and restored safety and stability to the site.

In 2013, Empire Services demolished selective parts of the historic Dime Bank building at Seventh and Hamilton streets in Allentown – part of the complex that included the PPL Center arena. Empire Services also demolished the Ribbon Mill, a vacant factory on Front Street in Allentown.

Having started in Reading, the business plans to stay there, even as it keeps expanding.

The company bought another five acres on Spring Street in the city to provide warehouse, storage, space for equipment and extra parking for its fleet of vehicles. Since it will be hiring more staff, Empire Group will expand its Clarion Street headquarters, O'Neill said.

And it will continue to strive for a family like atmosphere.

“I have retired employees who come to visit me,” said O'Neill, who is called “Dad” and “Pop” by employees.

Both O'Neill brothers, Harry and Todd, often are available on-site, every day, interacting with employees, said Christine Goerner, an executive assistant with The Empire Group for 26 years.

“I like that they care about everything,” Goerner said. “I like the diversity of the company. Because of the company, you are not just lost in the shuffle.”

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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