SYCAMORE – Jane Sullivan remembers riding in her father's truck as he went from job to job around DeKalb County, usually including a surprise for her.
"He always knew a place where there was a horse," she said.
Her father, Paul Swedberg, founded Paul Swedberg Construction Company in 1927. On Thursday, the general contracting firm, now Swedberg & Associates, celebrated its 90th anniversary at an open house at St. Mary's Parish Activity Center in Sycamore.
Sullivan said she felt nostalgic being at the event. She recalled how her father would come home for lunch everyday, set an alarm and take a 10-minute nap while lying on the kitchen floor.
"My mother used to have to step over him," she said.
The business has remained a family operation for all 90 years, although through the years other partners have bought into the company. Steve Swedberg is one of the current owners of the company and the great-nephew of Paul. Steve's father, Bill, along with his partner, Bernard McCormick, purchased the company from Paul in the 1960s. Steve and his partner Cheryl Nicholson purchased the company from Bill in the 1990s. Matt Gehrke later purchased Nicholson's stake.
There was a reason the event was held at the Parish Activity Center. Steve said the business has a long history with the church: Paul was a plasterer in the 1920s when the church was first built and the company would work on expansions and constructions for the next 90 years. Steve owned the company when it built the activity center.
As a centerpiece, each table at the event had a red balloon with a miniature trowel for a weight. Near the stage were pictures and mementos from the past: A bid for a "Milk House Job" in 1941 for $125; a list of hourly wages from 1940, when an asbestos worker could make $1 an hour and a structural iron worker made $1.75 an hour; and a newspaper clipping from 1970, when Bill Swedberg helped break ground on an addition at Seymour of Sycamore.
As Steve addressed a crowd of employees and customers, both past and present, he stood in front of the portraits of the previous owners. Employees were easy to spot – they wore shirts the same shade of red as the company logo.
Steve read the names of 32 Swedbergs that had worked for the company over the years, representing five generations, including Paul's father, who worked for the company briefly in the early days, and he told stories about the work ethic of his predecessors: Paul leaving a bid meeting asking how the other bidders could want the job if they weren't dressed for it (they were wearing suits, Paul was wearing bib overalls). An email from one of Paul's daughters said he once accepted a chicken as payment.
Or the time Bill was on a job site and someone drove up and shouted out the window at him "It's a boy!"
"He passed out cigars and went back to work," Steve said.
Buildings such as the Sycamore Public Library and Sycamore Fire Station No. 2 have been built or renovated by the company, and for many years, Swedberg said, about 90 percent of the company's business was in DeKalb County. The recession that began in 2008 changed that.
Gehrke said the company started looking across all of northern Illinois and found work in new places to make ends meet. He said they built about 20 McDonald's restaurants across the state, including the one in DeKalb.
The project Gerhke is most proud of, he said, is the Hy-Vee in Sycamore. It was the largest bidded job he had ever done, he said, and it came at a crucial time for the company in 2010, when the economy was still slow.
"It got us through the hardest year when no work was going on," he said.
Before Gehrke bought into the company 2011, Swedberg's partner was Cheryl Nicholson, who had worked for the company for many years, beginning as an administrative assistant. She and Steve bought the company in 1995 from Bill.
She said it was difficult when she first worked as an owner.
"When you buy a business, you realize you're responsible for the whole thing," she said. "I went through a period of being overwhelmed."
She said she asked Bill once if he thought she and Steve could handle the business.
"He said 'If I didn't know you were going to be OK, I would have never let you buy it,'" Nicholson said. "They recognized more in me than I recognized in myself."
Steve wrapped up his speech by talking about what he learned from his father when they both worked in the business together.
"He was my mentor in business and in life," he said.