How to stay cool after 75 years: Century Mechanical in Cincinnati decides to behave like a start-up

NORTHSIDE - Reinvention is the key to business success for Century Mechanical Solutions, Inc. (CMS),  a 75-year-old Northside business specializing in HVAC and industrial refrigeration solutions and controls.

Long before Cincinnati became known for its entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, the privately held local company remained successful by acting like a start-up.

Founded in 1938 by Harold "Cookie" Koch, CMS was one of the first companies in the city to install and repair air conditioners and refrigeration, when both were new and precious commodities. During its early years, the majority of the company's business was the city's bars and taverns which needed walk-in boxes, refrigerated storage lockers and butchers' meat cases.

"When Cookie started the business, refrigeration was in its infancy. I just think he saw this to be an innovative business to be in. He saw a unique opportunity to be THE ground-floor refrigeration supplier," said Tom Lienhart, current CMS president. His father was Frank S. Lienhart, Sr., a former sales manager and chief engineer who purchased the company in 1965 and took over as president.

Since those early days, when the company was called 20th Century Refrigeration, CMS has remade itself regularly to stay up with technology, stay relevant in an ever-changing business environment and to continue the vision of the company's founder.

Lienhart says constant reinvention is just good business.

"It keeps us developing new customers and new markets. We're always looking for better ways to get our solutions to our customers," he said. "It keeps us on the cutting edge of things. We try to stay up with innovation so we can meet all of our customers' needs. We've kind of taken the vision to be their sole provider."

A cool track record

Amid the the city's historical floods of the 1930s, company employees worked day and night removing and reinstalling refrigeration equipment. In the 1940s, during WWII, the company worked and supported military projects like specialized refrigeration atmosphere-testing chambers that simulated high altitude temperatures and low pressures. This work was considered so important to the war effort that several employees were granted deferments from military service.

With the advent of air conditioning, company leaders again recognized a new opportunity and decided to go after this burgeoning market. The company was renamed 20th Century Air Conditioning and added new customers: Movie theaters, beauty shops, and small stores wanted new climate-controlled comfort to attract customers.

This embrace of change was always an integral part of the business plan, said Lienhart, who took over the company from his father in 1989.

"What we do has changed because we evolve as the new technologies do. As one technology or market matures, we move into a new one," he said. "It always keeps you ahead of the wave."

Under the elder Lienhart's reign, CMS kept pace with changing technologies:

  • 1960s: Pursued customers with machine tool and computer room systems requiring close temperature and humidity control.
  • 1970s: Amid the the energy shortage, CMS computerized of the company with software to simulate hour-by-hour energy usage.
  • 1980s: Implemented computerized accounting, job costing, and computerized drafting.

In 1984 the company received the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) technology award for reducing electric costs by $100,000 a year in 1984 for Dover OPW,  a fueling services and equipment company.

The test of time

According to Bob Coy, President & CEO of CincyTech, a public-private seed-stage investor, businesses that embrace change will stand the test of time.

"Companies with staying power are focused yet adaptable," he explained. "They see where the markets are going and leverage their core competencies to leap frog into adjacent industries."

Even as CMS has remained a fixture in the community, it has re-imagined itself time and again to meet the needs of an ever-changing business environment.

Lienhart, the current president, has continued the company tradition of change. In 1999, in anticipation of the new millenium, the company was renamed Century Mechanical Solutions.

Dave Kramer, former vice president of engineering for Sara Lee Foods, worked with CMS for 25 years before his retirement.

"Tom (Lienhart) is a first-class engineer who cares about my money just as much as he does his," Kramer said. "We were always looking for new things (at Sara Lee) and Tom and CMS helped us accomplish that. It's gonna work when he's involved. His father set the path and he's followed it well."

Under the younger Lienhart's reign, CMS ventured into ammonia refrigeration

in the 1990s and developed a specialty for food processing customers, such as clean packing rooms.

In the 21st Century, CMS has been responsible for many more specialty projects including air conditioning for the The Basilica in Northern Kentucky; relocation of US Playing Card, providing more than 185,000 square feet of constant temperature and humidity control; and, a 1,750-ton chiller plant which saved about 1,000,000 gallons a day of city water for Wornick Foods, makers of the ready-to-eat meals for the military.

CMS recently completed a large refrigeration, heating and ventilation project for beer and wine wholesaler Heidelberg Distributing Company which has about 18 acres under one roof. 

Today, the company does work throughout the United States in nearly every industry and institution, including food processing and meat packing; pharmaceuticals; cold storage and ice-making; distilleries and breweries, chemical processing, food flavoring, paper making and printing; and, aerospace and manufacturing.

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