CINCINNATI -- In its 175 years, Cincinnati's one-family-owned The Verdin Company has grown from two to 155 employees, weathered threatening economic downturns that killed many companies and switched its client base from churches, schools and courthouses to golf courses, parks and zoos and the like -- all without a documented master plan.
What started in 1842 as a clock tower company, with its first installed at Old St. Mary's Church in Over-the-Rhine, is now known worldwide as the maker of great bells. Yet, through a lot of scrambling for survival and product diversification, Verdin is much more than clocks and bells today.
Would you be surprised to know that it is in the digital organ business, the carillon business and the chime business? Perhaps not because, like bells, they're music-oriented.
Surprising, however, is that Verdin manufactures cast metal benches, bicycle racks, tree grates, planters, drinking fountains, memorial sculptures, amusement park figures and more.
Drive around the region and you'll see Verdin's work everywhere: bells in dozens of churches, such as Little Joe at St. Francis de Sales Church in Walnut Hills; post clocks along the streets of communities such as Montgomery and Mariemont; benches on the Purple People Bridge; the giant piano at Smale Park; the War Memorial to the Common Man on Lawrenceburg's waterfront; and, most notably, the world's largest cast bell erected in the name of peace in downtown Newport.
"It just dawned on me one day all we did was make bells and ringers," said company president Jim Verdin, who credits serendipitous changes for his company's success. Verdin, 81, still works a full shift at the company's Pendleton headquarters in the absence of his deceased cousin, Robert, and ill cousin, David, who are the fifth Verdin generation to run the business.
The cousins led a steady diversification campaign in their nearly 60-year tenure, buying up related-but-different companies. The Verdins before them had purchased the old Cincinnati Vanduzen bell foundry, but it was Jim, Robert and David who added more than a half-dozen more companies to their repertoire.
A favorite acquisition of Jim Verdin's came in 2010 when an old business associate gave Verdin his Canterbury Studios in Los Angeles. Canterbury makes the aforementioned metal hardscape items such as illuminated benches and whimsical bike racks.
"I like this art business because it falls right in with what we do," he said.
They also saved the 1848-built St. Paul Church and its campus of buildings from demolition in 1981 and turned it into their company headquarters and a popular events center.
"It doesn't sound like a typical successful company would do it that way, but that's how it works," Verdin said. "It sounds like a bunch of hodgepodge, but you can see how it all holds together."
Innovation, courage, flexibility and business acumen seem to run in the Verdins' veins, but, he said, so does luck and loyalty to family. His father Ralph's generation had plenty of spats when they were rearing their families in Mariemont and sharing one car, Verdin said, but once they got to work, it was all for one and one for all.
Verdin, who once owned a bar in Madisonville and built manufactured houses out West, has amassed many great memories working with his family. The 1999 Peace Bell project in Newport was difficult but rewarding, he said. Pouring and polishing Ohio bicentennial bells for each of the state's 88 counties on the world's only foundry on wheels -- it's comprised of two trucks -- was an unprecedented feat, and working with the Walt Disney Co. was amazing, Verdin said.
"To be a little company ... that was the biggest thrill for me to be hired by the top people at Disney to build things for them," he said.
The company is not so little anymore, and it is known around the globe from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Some see Verdin as a takeover target.
"We could sell it in a heartbeat, but I don't want to do that," Verdin said.
What he hopes is that a sixth generation of four Verdins -- all cousins like Jim, Robert and David -- will pick up the company's mantel when he retires, but he wouldn't tip his hand as to when that might be.
He continues to plot the course for The Verdin Company and said he hopes to grow a high-end bell-making effort that produced the company's brand new 175th anniversary bell. Images on the intricate bell tell the company's story, and the names of the living Verdins are engraved on its crown.
"When one of us dies, I guess we'll have to cut the crown off," Verdin joked.
Then he became more serious: "This is so spectacular when you see it. Nobody in the bell business could do this."