Contractor's projects include Churchill Downs.

Kevin (left) and Mike Harpring of Louisville, Ky.-based Harpring Inc.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The two spires that grace the grandstands at Churchill Downs, home of the world-famous Kentucky Derby, had not been touched in 107 years - and it showed.

When they and the steeples underneath were temporarily removed in 2003 as part of a four-year, $121 million restoration of the landmark horse-racing complex, workers found the wood rotting inside, all the way up to the rusted, metal-covered top.

The renovations at Churchill Downs were badly needed, but horse-racing purists and fans of the "sport of kings" did not want to see the character of one of the sport's most important tracks ruined.

The job of restoring the landmark "Twin Spires," without altering their classic appearance, was awarded to Louisville, Ky.-based Harpring Inc.

Harpring workers removed the spires, piece by piece, and covered them with zinc. Now they're expected to endure for years to come.

Although not as old as Churchill Downs, Harpring is a company that has also endured. The third-generation sheet metal company was started by the grandfather of current owners Mike and Kevin Harpring, who serve as president and vice president/general manager, respectively. They oversee a company with up to $10 million in annual sales and an average of 90 employees.

Harpring Inc. restored the landmark "Twin Spires" at historic Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Custom projects are key

The company's specialty is high-end projects, like Churchill Downs. But Harpring projects also include custom-copper kitchens, stainless steel fireplaces and ductwork for hospital HVAC systems.

Much of the work is done at the company's 45,000-square-foot Louisville shop, which sits on more than three acres.

Focusing on such high-end specialty sheet metal projects has helped the company deal with the downturns in the economy, although it hasn't made them immune, Kevin Harpring acknowledged.

"Business has been very, very slow," he said, adding the company has lost a number of its automotive and industrial clients. "When those automotive plants go down, all the plants that serve them also (start) hurting."

Still, Harpring said he tries to stay optimistic. "You just have to be somewhat flexible with the changes in industries and companies coming and going.

"We've had to adjust and reinvent," he added. "Over the last four or five months, we've seen an up-tick in the economy."

Kevin Harpring has seen business fluctuations before. At 52, he figures he's been in the sheet metal business 30 years - more if you count the days when as a teen, he drove the company's trucks to work sites.

"My father was one of those guys who believed you started by pushing a broom and worked your way up," he said.

However, Harpring did not originally plan to enter his family's 60-year-old sheet metal business. After graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in agriculture, he went to work for a Lexington, Ky., racehorse farm.

But that job didn't last too long. In 1979, his father made Kevin and his brother Mike "an offer we couldn't refuse," and they bought the company.

Regardless of how the economy fares, the next year is likely to be a busy one for Harpring, since he has accepted the position of president of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association for 2004-2005.