Spokane Journal of Business

Duesenbergs to dough makers

Crescent Machine Works Inc.

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Squeezed between a neon-illuminated bail bond office and a corner caf painted in vivid art-deco colors, rustic Crescent Machine Works Inc., at 821 N. Monroe, looks distinctly out of place.

The only thing along the weather-beaten front of the machine shop that appears to have been updated in recent times is a number, followed by the words years of service, on a garage door near the main entrance. Nevertheless, that numbercurrently 84may be what captures the attention of many passing motorists.

Im sure people drive by and wonder how we ever survive, says Dan Mengert, 41, who together with his brother, Mark, 36, now owns the third-generation family business. The answer, he says, lies in being flexible.

Since its origin, dating back roughly to 1916, Crescent has transitioned from a heavy automotive focusincluding making pistons and axles for Duesenbergs and other early-era automobilesto a commercial food-service niche.

It now repairs and rebuilds everything from food mixers, slicers, and steamers, to ovens, water heaters, and espresso machines. It also does a mishmash of machining, welding, and small-fabrication work for clients in other industries, although that accounts for less than a third of its revenue.

Weve kind of had to change over the years, Mengert says. We didnt really plan for it. It kind of came to us naturally.

Behind its dated Monroe Street facade, Crescent Machine Works operates a traditional-style machine shop, with drills, lathes, and welding equipment, where it does some of its work. However, Mengert says a lot of the companys work is out in the field and is more service-oriented in nature, involving plumbing, electrical, or gas-related repair work or part replacements, and occasionally some welding.

We try to get it (customers machinery) working on location. We try to get them up and going the same day. Thats whats kept us going, he says.

The machine shop does work for restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, hospitals, nursing homes, and other clients of that type within about a 90-mile radius of Spokane. A sizable chunk of its business, though, comes from customers in or near downtown.

Despite the companys somewhat cramped quarters, just east of the Spokane County Courthouse complex, Mengert says, Our location has helped us over the years, because most of the machine shops are out in the Valley now.

Crescent employs three service technicians, two full time and one part time, in addition to the Mengert brothers. Dan, who received a bachelors degree in business management from Gonzaga University and a masters degree in business from City University, handles most of the administrative tasks, such as bidding and scheduling jobs, ordering parts, billing customers, and doing payroll. Mark, who received a bachelors degree in industrial engineering from Washington State University, acts basically as shop foreman, handling some jobs himself and overseeing the work done by others.

Weve kind of combined our two backgrounds to keep the business going, Dan Mengert says, adding, Marks kind of like my dad (Richard Dick Mengert) in that he can repair anything.

Dick Mengert operated Crescent for most of the last three decades. He retired in 1997 and turned over his remaining shares in the company to his two sons last year. He also has three other sons and two daughters who arent involved in the business.

Dick Mengert had taken over the machine shop from his father, Otto J. Mengert, whotogether with partner Fritz McGarryhad bought the business from Peter Briggs in 1921. Otto Mengert, who was raised in an orphanage and had limited formal education, became a machinists apprentice at about age 14 and later served as foreman of Briggs machine shop, then operating under a different name, before he and McGarry bought it.

Mengert and McGarry operated Crescent together for nearly 50 years, until McGarry died in 1970. Early in that period, the machine shop swelled in size to eight to 10 machinists, but a decline in auto-related work due to manufacturers retooling after World War II caused that number to dwindle.

The machine shop remained healthy, though, by gravitating toward food-service equipment repair and becoming a parts-and-service center for a number of companies that made and sold such equipment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its long history, the machine shop has a timeless quality about it. Except for a token amount of computer equipment in its small office, it looks much like it probably did 30 or 50 years ago. Faded photos, plaques, and religious icons adorn the walls of the office and pay tribute to the shops early origins, as well as to the familys inseparable attachment to the business, its love of golf as a favored pastime, and its strong Catholic faith. In the shop itself, the various pieces of metal-working equipment look mostly old and heavily used, but sturdy and capable of operating indefinitely.

The business kind of becomes like a family member in a way, Dan Mengert says, while contemplating what caused him to follow in his fathers footsteps after college rather than pursuing some other career.

The familys steely work ethic is evident in the two third-generation brothers, who toiled in the business while growing up and, according to Dan Mengert, now spend 60 hours a week there just to keep it going.

Operating the shop is a challenge, he says, because the equipment it repairs and rebuilds is so diverse that its hard finding machinists or service technicians with broad enough skills and expertise to handle the workload.

Hes not complaining, though. To the contrary, he says the machine shop is operating profitably, never borrows money, and has a solid future, despite competition from other machine shops and development activity going on around it.

Things always break down, and most food-service businesses here find it more cost-effective to repair a $10,000 to $20,000 piece of equipment than to replace it, Mengert says, adding appreciatively that, Our customers have been real loyal to us.

Within the next year or so, he says, he and his brother hope to split Crescent into separate divisionsone focusing on the food-service work and the other on machine welding and fabricationand to move the latter division into an underutilized warehouse building just to the south of the shop.

Kim Crompton
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