Celebrating Taco Inc., Cranston’s manufacturing success story

Jun 21, 2012

There was a time when the managers of great American manufacturing companies loved their products, cared about their employees and customers and valued the communities in which they did business. Factories were run by people who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty working in the same space as blue-collar workers.

Too often these days, that seems like a quaint time, more like the middle of the 20th Century than the nascent days of the 21st Century. Nowadays the financial pages are filled with buyout specialists and Wall Street financiers buying and selling companies like so many chips on a roulette table. Buying and flipping companies generates millions in fees and profits for the Wall Streeters but doesn’t do much for workers or the Main Street communities where the factories are located.

So it was uplifting to attend today’s dedication of  a new $20 million 24,000-square foot expansion at the Cranston plant of Taco Inc., one of Rhode Island’s top manufacturing companies. The new addition, dubbed the company’s Innovation and Development Center, is a wonderful tribute to a family-owned, Rhode Island-centered company that is doing well in the brutally competitive international marketplace for its sophisticated heating and cooling equipment for hydronic-based applications in residential, commercial and institutional buildings.

The architecture, designed by the Boston-based Baker Design Group, incorporates modern Green building techniques while preserving the integrity of the red-brick style of the original buildings nearby on Cranston Street.

Design isn’t the only throwback for Taco. The company’s DNA is all about investing in its 500 employees and the Rhode Island community while at the same time working smart with the latest technology to remain viable in a competitive environment.

Taco was originally known as Thermal Appliance Company. The firm was founded in 1920 by Elwood White, grandfather of John Hazen White Jr., the company’s current president. The company built water heaters, tempering valves and boiler controls. In World War II, Taco switched to war production, building gun mounts for U.S. Navy warplanes and steel tube heat exchangers for warships.

Taco is still closely held by the White family. John Hazen White Sr., ran the company for many years and along with his wife, Happy White, carved a reputation in Rhode Island as a generous philanthropist to a passel of good causes in open government and education.

The White tradition has been carried on by John Hazen White Jr., a down-to-earth executive who is also known for generous support of Rhode Island community assets, good works and charities.

White was beaming this morning as he sat next to Governor Lincoln Chafee and Cranston Mayor Alan Fung at the dedication ceremony. White was, as always, the eclectic executive, wearing his long salt and pepper hair in a pony tail, sporting a white linen sport coat, a pink and white oxford shirt and casual slacks with loafers and no socks.

There was a bittersweet note, as White almost choked up when invoking the memory of his father and mother. “I think they would be very proud, not of me but of all of us.’’

For White, universally known as Johnny, the dedication was a celebration of his employees. Conventional wisdom is that manufacturing cannot be done profitably in New England, a region with high wages, soaring utility costs and too many under educated workers. Taco has been proving that cliché wrong for years. White and his team have built Taco into a $200 million a year company here in Rhode Island. Taco is one company that is serious about investing in training workers, from providing basic math and literacy skills to enrolling executives in MBA programs.

“This project was undertaken and completed for you,’’ White told a company-wide meeting of employees. “This for you from me.’’

Chafee lauded White for pouring profits back into the company and having faith in its Rhode Island workforce. White, said Chafee, “could have bought a big yacht or a house in the Hamptons,’’ but instead has invested in innovation and training his work force.

After the ceremonies, White threw a party for everyone in attendance, with a chicken and seafood lunch for all current and former employees in an air-conditioned white tent outside the new building.

The small things about a company are often revealing.  A sign over the reception desk informs visitors that the receptionist is the “Director of First Impressions.” White knows the names and family backgrounds of his workers. He is committed to diversity in his work force;   every ethnic and racial group in Rhode Island’s rich immigrant tapestry is represented in his employee pool. White loves to say that he wouldn’t  trade his “500 people for 500 people anywhere.’’

The White tradition may continue for a fourth generation. Both of White’s sons, John Hazen White, III and Benjamin White, are learning the ropes in the company. Both young men are recent graduates of Wheaton College. And both started working at Taco in their teens as janitors and working at odd jobs.

“I’m learning the business,’’ said Ben White as he hustled off to lunch with the rest of the workers.

One comes away with the feeling that he means it.