October 1, 2008
It’s easy to get frustrated with the day-to-day challenges of running a modern heating and air-conditioning company. But step back for a moment and imagine what it would have been like doing business 100 years ago.
Try to picture a company transporting heating equipment by mule-drawn cart to a ferry that would take you across the San Francisco Bay to your jobsite in Oakland, Calif.
That is what Atlas Heating and Air Conditioning had to do when it was first started in San Francisco in 1908. The company, one of the oldest heating and air-conditioning companies in the San Francisco Bay area, celebrated its centennial May 13.
Four generations and 100 years later, the company is still going strong, but without the mule-drawn carts.
Pieces of the pastBob Tuck, the third-generation owner of Atlas Heating and Air Conditioning, is in some ways the company historian. Ask for a few stories, and the 53-year-old Bob can show you everything from photos to letters written by satisfied customers dating back to the 1920s.
Bob even has a copy of a receipt from 1937 for a furnace installation. The customer put $10 down for the furnace and then $5.47 a month for the next 12 months to pay it off.
Recently, company technicians pulled out one of those Atlas furnaces from a home where it had been installed approximately 80 years ago. According to Bob, it is not uncommon for his company to go into area houses and find an old Atlas furnace.
In fact, that’s how Atlas Heating and Air Conditioning got its start. Besides installing heating systems for consumers, it also made them. Bob’s grandfather, George Tuck, was one of the co-founders of Atlas back in 1908. At that time, the company was known as the Atlas Heating and Ventilating Co.
Bob says that his grandfather was “the driving creative force as far as development of new products.”
At a time when most homes were heated by potbellied stoves or kitchen ranges, George Tuck designed and manufactured wood and coal furnaces. He was also the first to develop a practical and usable gas safety pilot light, Bob says.
He also claims that his grandfather was one of the first to design furnaces with steel instead of cast iron. This made the furnaces lighter and easier to install.
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, there were plenty of homes that needed to be rebuilt. Many would benefit from the new furnaces George Tuck had developed. The company was officially established May 13, 1908, with the first office at 557 Fourth, in the neighborhood south of Market Street in San Francisco.
As the city grew, so did Atlas Heating. Between 1910 and 1920, the city’s population went from 417,000 to 507,000. The company secured a lot of work installing then-modern heating systems for the custom-built San Francisco homes of new residents. During this time, only the wealthy could generally afford these “gravity furnaces.”
Atlas got its big break when it was commissioned in 1914 to install the heating and ventilation system at the city’s civic auditorium. The auditorium, known today as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, was a multiyear project for the company.
In 1927, the company moved to its current location across the bay in west Oakland. As time went on, Atlas expanded its reach beyond San Francisco and even beyond the borders of California.
By the mid-1930s until World War II, San Francisco was one of the biggest builders and suppliers of gas furnaces in the country. It was also during this time that Atlas began shipping its furnaces for use on U.S. military bases as far away as Alaska, the Philippines and near the Panama Canal.
GenerationsWhen George Tuck died in 1959, Bob Tuck was only four years old. So firsthand knowledge of his grandfather has been limited to stories passed on from family. He recalls his father discussing the great sense of humor the Atlas founder had.
“You have to have a good sense of humor in this business,” Bob says.
Bob’s father, Robert Tuck, and his uncles Jim and Doug ran the company for the next 30 years. In 1972, Bob graduated from University of California-Berkeley and says he was “dead set” against working for the family business.
“I just wanted to do something that was different then the rest of the family,” he recalls.
Bob also acknowledges that it’s hard for children to grow up sitting around the dinner table and hearing the family discuss the day’s business frustrations.
“It’s not the most robust recruiting tool,” Bob says.
But after taking various career paths after college, including stints as a stand-up comic and selling radio advertising, Bob eventually joined the family business in 1981. He was 26 years old. Bob’s wife, Lisa Tuck, also got involved with the company around this time. As Bob worked for his father as an estimator, Lisa handled the phones for sales calls and later moved to collections.
She wasn’t the only family member in the business. All of Bob’s seven siblings have had a role in the company “at one time or another,” he says.
In 1986, the company split into two businesses. Part of the family began focusing more on commercial work and based their operations in the city of South San Francisco, Calif., while taking the original name of Atlas Heating and Ventilating Co. Bob stayed on to operate the Oakland location, now named Atlas Heating and Air Conditioning, with the focus on residential installation and service.
RepeatingWhile half the family is doing commercial work in South San Francisco, Bob and his wife Lisa are busy running the west Oakland operation. There are 44 employees there that Bob and Lisa manage, and one of those employees is their son Hunter.
The addition of Hunter to the Atlas staff brings a sense of déjà vu. Like his father before him, 27-year-old Hunter didn’t have much interest in joining the family business. He too attended college, graduated with a degree in marketing and did some “job hopping” after graduation. One of those jobs was working as a company recruiter.
After a bit of soul searching, Hunter decided to give Atlas Heating and Air Conditioning a try. He is now responsible for the company’s marketing and recruiting efforts. Hunter’s decision was one that definitely pleased his parents.
“It’s very exciting to have one of our sons in the business,” Lisa says. “(It’s) very enjoyable to train a family member.”
Having your parents as your bosses may induce cringes in some people. But for Hunter, “It’s surprisingly been a great experience,” he says. “It’s really special when that’s your family.”
Lisa keeps busy managing the office, taking care of human resources, and making sure that work leads are followed up on. She said that Hunter could usually be found with his father, either on a jobsite or discussing current and upcoming projects.
“They have a great relationship,” she says.
And Hunter has found that his relationship with the company is one he doesn’t want to pass up. Being a part of the family business is now something he said he could see doing for “the rest of my life.”
With the company moving on to its fourth generation and celebrating 100 years, it would seem that there is a lot of pressure to make sure that Atlas Heating continues to live up to its high profile. But everyone in the family agrees that the long history is actually a motivation.
“It’s a positive burden,” Lisa says. “I can’t let this company down.”
For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail email@example.com.