All In The Family: Oregon Equipment is still thriving after 72 years

Photo by Ginger Shepherd

By Ginger Shepherd

THE DALLES – It isn’t possible for the smile on Hewitt Hillis’ face to get any bigger when he talks about Oregon Equipment.

His pride can’t be contained, and it fills the front office.

There is a good reason for that phenomenon. Oregon Equipment has been around since 1946 and after 72 years of business, it is still thriving.

And the business that was started by Hillis’s father Joseph, is still run by family – Hillis’ son Ron Nelson.

The idea of a business still thriving as it is handed down to younger generations is unique. Forbes reports that less than one third of family businesses survive a transition from the first to second generation. About 50 percent don’t survive the transition from second generation to third generation.

That little statistic is something Nelson and Hillis are aware of and they have worked hard to avoid.

Oregon Equipment adopted a plan of flexibility – changing with the needs and demands of its customers. Hillis said his father, Joseph, started the company after he returned home from World War II where he served as a bomber pilot.

At the time Oregon Equipment was founded, the focus was on appliances and equipment, including refrigeration. Joseph had a choice of where he could sell the items: Coos Bay, Ontario or The Dalles.

When asked where to ship the equipment, Joseph said “Send it to Oregon Equipment in The Dalles.”

Back in 1946, the washing machines that Oregon Equipment would sell were sold and shipped by a box-car load and they required the user to anchor them to the floor, Hillis explained.

Washers weren’t the only appliances that Oregon Equipment sold.

“We sold TVs too,” Hillis said as Nelson points to a picture in the front office that shows the words Philco Appliances and Television on the side of the old Oregon Equipment building in downtown The Dalles.

Over time, the business changed. Oregon Equipment focused less on equipment and more on heating and air. For more than 60 years, the company has sold and serviced Carrier equipment.

Even with today’s focus on heating and air conditioning, Oregon Equipment continues to evolve. The company provides commercial and residential services. For a period, there was a focus on new construction.

But then there was a change in the housing marketing. Nelson said they then started focusing on residential retrofits. The move allowed Nelson to focus on customers and not finding big projects.

“I would rather be working at a customer’s home than sitting in a meeting to bid on a project,” he said.

Taking care of customers is another element that has helped Oregon Equipment keep its footing for so many years.

“You treat people right,” Hillis said, explaining that customer service is the key to getting and keeping customers.

But it goes beyond the basic idea of just treating customers well. It is about community.

“I like dealing with people,” Nelson said, but he likes the idea of being part of a community. It is the idea of people supporting one another. “It is small town, close knit. It is the American dream.”

It makes it hard to walk down the street sometimes, he said, because there is always someone he knows.

“I feel like a bird flapping sometimes as I wave to everyone,” Nelson said with a smile and a laugh.

Oregon Equipment has coupled good customer service with employee retention. Nelson said they have employees that have been with the company for 20 to 40 years.

And their customers know that. Many times, customers will call for service and will request a specific technician because that person has been at the customer’s home before and they are comfortable with that individual, he said.

For those more rural customers, he explained, it is important to know who is coming to their home. In some cases, these customers may leave their home open, so the technician can come in when they aren’t there.

“There is a layer of trust,” Hillis said. “Lots of customers call their technician by name.”

Part of being in business for so long, means knowing what the long-range goals are and how a company wants to grow.

“I want us to be who we are,” Nelson said.

For Nelson, it’s about being the right size to be able to keep employees busy and provide them with a decent living. He explained he doesn’t want to have to hire a lot of workers for the busy time – like the summer – and then let them go when the work slows down. It isn’t fair to the workers or to the company, he added.

“We are as big as we want to be,” Hillis said.

As far as keeping Oregon Equipment in the family – that is a hope, a goal. Neither Nelson nor Hillis wants a future generation to feel obligated – forced into taking it over.

Hillis is adamant about that point.

If family wants to be part of the company, Hillis said, they need to want to. They need to have time away from the business too.

He started working for his father when he was a child. But he went to college and came back. Oregon Equipment is where he wanted to be.

Nelson worked for Hillis as a teenager. And like Hillis, he went away to school. When he came back to the Columbia Gorge, he went to work as a park ranger at Maryhill. He also got married, and his wife worked for the Corps of Engineering, working four 10-hour shifts. As a new park ranger, he worked on the weekends.

“I never got to see my wife,” he said. “So, I called Hew and said I was in for the long-haul.”

Nelson has two children – a son and a daughter. He said it “would be cool” to have a fourth generation, but they don’t have to.

“It should not be any kind of burden,” he said. If Nelson’s children do start a career at Oregon Equipment – they will start at the bottom just like Hillis and Nelson.

Regardless of what happens next, there is a lot pride built into Oregon Equipment.

“I’m proud of it,” Nelson said.

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