Martha Hulgan Speaks about Starting a Business during a Recession, Work Ethics, VIEEW and Family
One of the industry’s leading ladies speaks about starting a business during a recession, work ethics and more.
Although she has more than 30 years of elevator-industry experience and has been a significant contributor to organizations such as the Vertical Initiative for Elevator Escalator Women (VIEEW), Martha Hulgan insists her life-long dream was not a career in the elevator industry. Born in Gadsden, Alabama, and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hulgan’s dream was to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. “I studied voice at the Cadek Conservatory in Chattanooga from Doris Doe, who had a career training many great singers such as Jeanette MacDonald,” Hulgan said. From the age of 16, Hulgan wanted to sing opera, “But, fate has a way of changing our direction and puts us where we ultimately realize we were meant to be.”
Hulgan got her foot in the elevator business when she met her husband, Gordan “Bud” Hulgan, “an elevator man,” as she puts it. They married in 1965 and have three sons: Buddy, Jock and JoeDee. “Any profile about me must include Bud. He taught me almost everything I know about elevators. We were partners in every sense of the word,” Hulgan said. Hulgan’s husband passed away in November 2010 while working on his farm in Sand Rock, Alabama (ELEVATOR WORLD, January 2011).
In 1979, during an economic recession, the Hulgans founded Elevator Maintenance & Repair, Inc. (EMR) in Chattanooga. “If you are willing to sacrifice (and it is not easy), a recession can be a good time to start a business,” Hulgan explains. She insists that during challenging financial times, companies are not brand conscious and always watch their bottom line, “so they are more open to equal products at competitive pricing,” (EW, March 2012).
In 1980, Hulgan attended her first National Association of Elevator Contractors (NAEC) convention with friends and mentors, Jimmy and Nancy Haines,(EW, January 1981). “I was hungry for information and went with the sole purpose of learning everything I could about elevators and the business,” Hulgan explains. Although she went in with a positive attitude, Hulgan left the convention furious. “Each time Nancy and I walked into a booth to discuss products, vendors handed us a trinket and dismissed us. They did not give me the opportunity to explain that I was in the industry and needed their help,” Hulgan adds. Initially, Hulgan says she did not plan to attend another convention, but soon changed her mind: “I told myself I would make them talk to me the next time. And, talk to me they did. They have not stopped talking to me since.”
At the next year’s NAEC convention, Hulgan’s experience was more pleasant. “I met William C. Sturgeon, founder of Elevator World, Inc. He became my friend and personal mentor,” she explains. Hulgan also insists Sturgeon was one of her best industry resources: “I still lean on [Sturgeon] today and ask him for advice. I’ve been blessed to know someone with so much global experience,” Hulgan says. She explains how her relationship with Sturgeon enabled EMR to explore the global industry: “So often, small elevator company owners never have the opportunity to see the bigger picture in the industry because they work in one area or state,” Hulgan said. “Through [Sturgeon], I was able to grow in my knowledge of the industry at large, long before I knew about the Internet.”
Throughout her career, Hulgan has served on more than a dozen boards for various associations, including NAEC, the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, and Elevator World, among several others. She has received various awards and recognition for her industry achievements, and in 1994, was awarded the Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Council and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. While reminiscing about the award, Hulgan said of her late husband, “I could not have done it without him, and he could not have done it without me.” According to Barton Close, who chaired the awards committee, the companies were selected based on their staying power, employee growth, increased sales, response to adversity and contributions to community projects. When the Hulgans founded EMR, they had three employees. By 1994, they had 19 full-time staff members. Additional criteria for the award included volunteer work and community development, both of which the Hulgans were very involved in.
For decades now, the Hulgan family has been recognized for their industry efforts. Hulgan has written multiple articles for EW throughout the years and continues to contribute her knowledge and experience. She often participates in other industry engagements, such as NAEC certification audits and the American Institute of Architects Lunch & Learn – Elevator 101 sessions. In the 1990s, Hulgan established the Archives Committee for NAEC, which she says is the only association she knows of keeping a “verbal” history by continuously interviewing NAEC’s members.
Hulgan believes she has been fortunate to have worked with so many industry experts. Years ago, when EMR was about 10 years old, Hulgan worked with Tom Haney, a consultant on a job where EMR was the maintenance provider. Hulgan insists she will never forget Haney who said, “Martha, if you will just ask your men to do what is in my report, I promise your reduction in call-backs will pay for the labor it takes to perform this work.” “Haney was right, and I will always remember what I learned from him,” Hulgan says. She also gives credit to former EMR employees Steve Grissell, who is now retired; Tony Schmitt, who now works with KONE; and Mike Thaver, who now works with ThyssenKrupp Elevator, for their consistent support, especially during difficult times – or, as Hulgan puts it, “When the ox was in the ditch.”
According to Hulgan, EMR was a family business in every way: “Each of our children worked in the company in some capacity from the time they could shovel mud while drilling a cylinder hole, to the time they started their own elevator companies or went to college.” Buddy Hulgan had a residential business and JoeDee Hulgan specialized in van and handicapped lifts. “We were all about taking people up and bringing them down,” she remembers. Jock Hulgan was the only son who stayed with the family business and was their hope for retirement. Jock received a degree in Business Management from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and went to work for Amtech Elevator in Houston for two years, then came back to work at EMR. However, on May 1, 1999, a tragic accident took Jock’s life. “Bud and I and our other two sons lost our heart for the business,” Hulgan says. Shortly after, they put the company up for sale. “Jock was a tremendous young man and brought our company a young perspective that was badly needed,” Hulgan says. “Our elevator family, close friends and church held us up during this horrific time and still continue to today. We will forever be grateful, you know who you are,” she explains.
In 2001, EMR was sold to Otis, and Hulgan worked with the company as a regional business-development manager. In 2005, Hulgan received the Otis Elevator Superstar Award. And, in 2006, she was awarded the BOMA Associate of the Year award. In 2006, she retired. “I didn’t like retirement; so, with the encouragement of Richard Baxter, I started MMH & Associates. I would not be in the consultant business if it were not for him. I will never be able to thank him enough for his help,” Hulgan said.
In 2004, with the help of other industry women, Hulgan founded VIEEW, and today, serves as its chairperson. “Our mission statement is, ‘Women in the vertical-transportation industry helping each other through communication and education,’” she explains. Today, VIEEW has more than 200 members and continues to grow. “We meet every year at the NAEC convention, and this year we had our first regional meeting in New York City in conjunction with the Elevator Conference of New York,” Hulgan said (EW, July 2012).
As an elevator consultant, Hulgan works primarily with two large health care companies. “Their projects always inspire me, because consulting is not always about technical issues. There are times when you have to dig into the day-to-day details to find the problem and resolve it,” Hulgan said. Owning and operating a consulting company and working as an independent elevator contractor has equipped Hulgan with a perspective she says many consultants do not have, unless they have worked as an independent contractor. Being able to see projects from both sides is an advantage, she says.
Although her company consistently grows, Hulgan reveals she is selective about who she works with: “The companies I work with believe in high ethical practices, fairness and a high performance standard.” Hulgan does not bid on elevator contractor’s work, and her clients do not always give their jobs to the lowest bidders. “My customers are more concerned with performance than low costs.”
Hulgan’s office is located in Chattanooga, but she resides in Leesburg, Alabama, on Weiss Lake, where she enjoys watersports. She also enjoys traveling to Europe, painting and singing, but insists her most surprising hobby is riding her Honda Goldwing Trike motorcycle. “However, I think my grandchildren, Gordon, Kate, Savanna, Ragan and Delaney, are probably my biggest hobby,” she clarifies. When asked about her family life, Hulgan says her children have given her great joy: “I wouldn’t be half the person I am today if it had not been for them. They all worked for our company. It took us all, and we have truly been blessed.”