When prominent grocer Frank Harper took a chance and made a $500 loan a significant amount in 1885 to a young clerk to begin his own business, little did he know that he was helping lay the foundation for a company that would serve the City of Alexandria for the next 125 years.
Initially, the small company delivered wood, then coal, and now fuel oil and heating and cooling products to homes and businesses throughout the region, witnessing myriad changes in the marketplace, their hometown and their customer base.
But, through it all there has been one constant that is as valid today as it was in the beginning their creed: “If you give the buyer, with spirit and enthusiasm, what the buyer wants when the buyer wants it, 99 times out of 100 your business is bound to achieve its legitimate successful end.” That admonition was given by Francis Fannon on the 75th anniversary of T.J. Fannon&Sons. It was directly in concert with the philosophy of the firm’s founder, Thomas J. Fannon, and a statement he made in 1941 on the occasion of the company’s 56th Anniversary: “In 1885 I was determined to give the people the best quality merchandise at fair prices and prompt, courteous service. As a result our firm has grown and prospered.”
Today, Thomas J. Fannon&Sons is one of the longest, continuously operating family businesses in Alexandria as well as in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It celebrated its 125th anniversary on May 1.
There is another factor to that success, according to the younger Thomas (Tom) J. Fannon, who shares the company vice presidency with his brother Jack Fannon.
“There have always been great key people associated with this firm giving us a fairly stable work force, that now totals 35 employees,” Fannon said.
Among that work force are two families that are now third generation as members of the T.J. Fannon & Sons organization the Lawrence and Grimes families. There have been four members of the Lawrence family and three of the Grimes family to tie their careers to T.J. Fannon & Sons. Collectively they have logged 132 years of service.
However, the longest serving single employee is 73-year-old George “Sonny” Robinson, who will celebrate 53 years with the company this September. Starting in 1957 as a night duty oil driver, “He has seen it all and can handle any piece of equipment we have,” Tom said.
“In his prime he knew as much as anyone about all the new technology as it came on line. He became a master mechanic. When I first came on board, I loved to work with Sonny because he actually had me working and I learned from him,” Tom said.
“These past 52 years seem like only yesterday. When I first started here I was told that there were three ways of doing a job the right way, the wrong way and the Fannon way. I’ve learned that the Fannon way is so close to the perfect way you can’t tell the difference,” Robinson said.
The founding father
T.J. Fannon & Sons started in 1885 when 25 year-old Thomas J. Fannon, son of an immigrant from Roscommon County, Ireland, found himself unemployed when that “new” innovation called the railroad made obsolete his job on the Alexandria Canal where mule drawn barges carried coal to Virginia’s tidewater region. However, it was that same upstart railroad industry that would eventually contribute significantly to the growth and success of his yet unfounded business.
First, he turned to the livelihood of his father a grocery merchant. Within a year his natural talents in that field enabled him to start his own grocery store at the corner of Duke and Henry streets, where curiously enough, two others before him had failed. But his tenaciousness proved otherwise.
In those days such enterprises where known as the “general store” stocking everything from food to fabrics to fuel supplies. The latter led him to establish what would become an Alexandria institution.
He purchased a piece of land to the south of his store and stocked it with coal and firewood that customers could pick up by the bucket or wheelbarrow full, thereby increasing his merchandise offering. In 1895 that sideline enabled him to buy more land about 100 yards from his store and initiate his fuel business which became his primary endeavor.
It was also at that point that T.J. Fannon’s business life came full circle when he established a commercial relationship with the Richmond and Danville Railroad to supply coal and wood for his wheelbarrow retail trade. That partnership blossomed with the evolution of R&D RR into the Southern Railway Company.
In 1960, during the company’s 75th Anniversary celebration, Francis Fannon, then head of T.J. Fannon & Sons, declared, “We would have been powerless without the railroad.”
There were two large coal silos in the 200 block of Duke Street.
“Trains came through the Wilkes Street tunnel, across Route 1 to fill the silos with two or three cars of coal per day. Remnants of the tracks can still be seen at the corner of Duke and Route 1 in front of the SunTrust Bank office,” Tom said.
That office is directed by his cousin, Alexandria City Councilman Frank H. Fannon IV. The reason that there are no juniors or seconds, thirds or fourths in the T.J. Fannon & Company line of heirs is that the “J” in each who is named Thomas stands for something different, Tom explained.
But, it wasn’t all success for T.J. Fannon & Sons as no business ever is. Fires leveled the fuel yards in 1903, 1908 and 1911. Storage of firewood in large quantity is always dangerous, according to Fannon. In 1910, the company’s firewood sales reached a peak of 384,000 cubic feet.
As the day of primary heating and cooking by firewood drew to a close, King Coal stepped onto the economic stage. In 1920, founder Thomas Fannon retired at age 60 and his sons Francis and Chester took over the company.
Throughout World War I deliveries were made by mule drawn carts. Then they acquired their first truck from Fort Belvoir, according to Tom.
The silos were erected, mule drawn carts were replaced with one-ton trucks which were replaced with two-ton trucks and then with three-ton trucks. Eventually, they, and the American family’s way of heating their homes, gave way to fuel oil.
In 1923, an 18,000-gallon oil storage tank appeared on the Fannon lot. Eight years later, on the site of an unused railroad roundhouse, Fannon built seven storage tanks capable of holding 168,000 gallons of fuel oil. The world had changed and with it T.J. Fannon & Sons.
Now another change is advancing technology and new products. “Fuel oil is declining continuously. You’ll see more accent on more complex technologies aimed at higher efficiencies,” Tom said.
“This business is now being determined by the products sold. Before it was wood, then coal, then fuel oil and now it’s the product line,” he said.
That was evident in the last couple of weeks when customers and potential customers began receiving a large postcard announcing the company’s 125th Anniversary and their service to the community. It featured, along with pictures from the company’s past, the product Carrier “The world’s leading brand of heating and cooling systems,” the card proclaimed.
In 1963, T.J. Fannon & Sons split into two separate components with both corporations run jointly T.J. Fannon & Sons as a retail heating/cooling company and Fannon Petroleum Services. In 2007, Fannon Petroleum Services moved to Gainsville as their own petroleum company, according to Tom. “We maintain a small amount of petroleum here at the Duke Street site for residential use only,” he said.
The tradition lives on
Tom and Jack jointly oversee the operation of T.J. Fannon & Sons on Duke Street. John and Chet Fannon, sons of David and Bill Fannon, operate Fannon Petroleum. And, 80-year-old T.J. Fannon is still
active in his namesake company, as well as Alexandria business and civic affairs such as Alexandria Rotary and Inova Alexandria Hospital.
“During the 50 years I’ve been active in this company there have been many changes in industry. But not much has changed in the way we do business. We still offer the best equipment and know-how at a fair price,” the elder Fannon stated.
In addition to their involvement with a host of local activities, the Fannons and their company have also contributed to the national landscape.
“During World War II my grandfather, through his connections with the railroad, was able to purchase and sell feathers to the U.S. government to stuff the bedding of GI’s. There were both chicken and duck feathers,” Tom explained.
In those days both the fuel oil and gasoline businesses were greatly constricted due to the on-going nationwide war effort. Consumption of both by the general citizenry was restricted.
They also have fulfilled oil contracts with the U.S. government over the years, according to Fannon. And, T.J.Fannon & Co. “installed the first automatic anthracite coal stoker to warm the reception building at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery,” according to an article on their 75th Anniversary.
On May 1, at the Radisson Crown Plaza Hotel, T.J Fannon & Sons hosted an anniversary celebration for their employees and their families as well as their close business associates. It also served as a trip down memory lane, both in personal recollections of the past and in company history.
But, in the final analysis it personified that old axiom “What’s past is prologue.” Tom emphasized, “You have to deliver service. Our plan for the future is to follow the formula. I attribute much of our success to the good people we’ve had over the years who deliver for our customers.”