The year 2009 marked the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of Builders Fence Company, Inc. (BFC), a leading manufacturer, importer and distributor of chain link and ornamental iron products and accessories.
Based in Southern California and operated under the direction of president Marshall Frankel, BFC delivers fencing materials nationwide from its five West Coast locations.
Like most of the “legacy” firms in the fence industry, BFC's beginnings were rather modest: it all began with a foldaway clothesline pole!
Marshall's father, Herman Frankel, bought a patent to a collapsible clothesline pole immediately following World War II. The pole — made of 2 3⁄8" and 1 5⁄8" tubing — did not sell well, so Herman was faced with the question of what he should do with the inventory of tubing. The answer was, build fences.
In 1947, Frankel Fence Company started operation in South Los Angeles, employing Herman, his wife, Belle, and Marshall, who at that time was 10 years old.
Marshall said he remembers, even at that early age, cutting posts and learning how to drive a truck (or at least how to start one up, back it up and pull it forward when no one was looking).
Herman took a partner and later sold his share of the business to move to the San Fernando Valley and start Builders' Surplus. The small yard was located on Lankershim Boulevard.
The name changed to Builders Fence Company when Herman moved the family-owned and operated business to a larger yard on Sherman Way.
At that time, Marshall remembers, the San Fernando Valley was the fastest growing region for housing construction in the country. BFC was perfectly positioned to grow along with the industry.“We were in the right place at the right time,” Marshall said.
Soon the company ceased installation and focused on distribution.
Marshall worked with his parents after school and during summers through high school, but never intending to make fences his life's work.
He entered UCLA planning to become a medical doctor, but he returned to the family business.
“It just sort of happened,” Marshall said. “Once I really got involved in the company I saw there's really nothing more creative you can do than own a business.”
The early days were characterized by hard work. Marshall remembered that all BFC deliveries were made by the family using a two ton truck or a pickup. “Mom and Dad would make deliveries at night up to Bakersfield or down to Calexico. At that point we didn't even own a forklift,” Marshall said. “Chain link came in 100 foot rolls, and my dad and I had to maneuver these rolls of chain link fabric – by hand – up boards into the customer's stakeside truck. I thought to myself, 'This has got to go.'”
The next day they called up a couple of forklift distributors.
The evolution from chain link to manufacturing iron panels was a natural progression, Marshall said.
“We had a customer in Woodland Hills who was making and installing ornamental iron fence. Once I was at his shop while he was welding panels. It looked pretty basic, and I thought, 'I can do that.' Then we happened onto somebody who wanted an iron fence. We bought all the materials cut to length from a local distributor, welded it up and installed it. We didn't make any money; actually, we probably lost money on the project, but that was the beginning. We grew from there.”
A half-century after its beginning, family is still the foundation of Builders Fence Company
Marshall recalls how he crafted a pointed picket, which has become the industry standard in ornamental iron fencing. "I took a piece of square tubing and flattened it on an anvil, then took a hacksaw and cut some points on it."
Marshall took the prototype to a fence fittings fabricator in El Monte, who made a die for the picket.
“I'd fill up the bed of a pickup truck with pickets and drive them out to El Monte and they'd flatten and point them for us,” he said.
BFC incorporated in 1959, and in 1961 moved to San Fernando Road in Sun Valley, where the original yard is still located.
It was about this time that Jerry Dowling became associated with the company, starting work in the yard and then progressing to sales.
Marshall said he recalls the long-time salesman as one of the “biggest characters he ever encountered.”
“Jerry was a guy I learned to not underestimate,” Marshall said.
“If he didn't get there the first time, then he would on the second time, or the tenth, or the fifteenth. When he wanted to do something, he would not quit.!”
Dowling went on the road to sell product for BFC in March 1968, helping the company expand into San Bernardino and San Gabriel. Eventually the company opened additional California locations in Sacramento, Fontana and El Cajon (San Diego), as well as a branch in Tacoma, Washington.
“Everyone knew Jerry,” Marshall said. “At tradeshows, people would come up to us to say hello to him, and then ask me what I did with the company!”
Sadly, Dowling died of a heart attack in 1985 while attending an industry event.
As the firm grew, others like Dowling joined the company and today Marshall said he thinks of the 160 BFC employees as an extended family. Many have been with him for decades.
“BFC is a true family business,” he said. “For 34 years, my partner in business and in life has been my wife, Elizebeth. She serves as BFC's vice-president. She has taken a critical, active role in expanding the company's operations beyond the Los Angeles area — reaching out to new customers and suppliers to grow business, and tackling the logistical challenges of establishing new branch locations.
“Elizebeth has directed the development of the loyal, dedicated workforce that is BFC's great strength,” he added.
The couple's four children are all involved in the business. Steve Frankel is ornamental iron production manager, Stacy Frankel is in advertising,
Gabrielle Frankel is chief operations officer, and Danielle Frankel Kennedy is a corporate auditor and Sacramento branch manager. Like Marshall, the siblings all grew up around chain link and ornamental iron.
“To those in the industry, BFC's commitment to customer service is paramount,” commented James Pearsall, president of USA Industries in Salt Lake City, a supplier for Builders Fence since 1977.
Marshall commented, “When you call for an order, you get an absolute, not a maybe. Taking a customer from initial order through delivery is not always an easy thing.”
“There's no magic formula to running a successful fencing business.
Luck is a big factor, along with solid business ethics, sensible risk management and, foremost, a sense of family.”
“One of the pluses I have,” Marshall said, “is I can't think of anything anyone does in this company that I haven't done, whether it's drive trucks, weld gates, dig holes in the ground, or stretch fence. I've done pretty much everything. It lets me know what's going on, and know how it's supposed to be.”