By James Hurley Tribune Correspondent
SOUTH BEND - Legacies are malleable.
Like metal, what we leave behind can be bent and shaped into new realities that serve the needs of the present -- all we need do is look past the limitations of its current form.
This principle has been central to bonswit's success since its inception in 1971 when Earl Smith set up shop in the two-car garage of his family home. A former sheet metal journeyman for a supplier to Studebaker, he enlisted his then 15-year-old son, Kevin, to help build and install gutters and roofing.
"I always tell everybody I was the first worker," said Kevin Smith. "To be an employee you need to get paid. I didn't get paid."
While recalled in jest, the experience laid the foundation for his understanding of business, community and responsibility. His father hadn't succumbed to the legacy of loss that had enveloped the city since Studebaker's demise. Instead, he'd focused on the strengths he'd learned in the trade and forged a new path.
"We didn't see boundaries," Smith said. "And the people who created South Bend didn't see boundaries either. They didn't say, 'We can't do it.'"
The result of the Smiths' efforts, four decades later, is a multifaceted company that specializes in all aspects of commercial and industrial sheet metal installations. Deluxe's team of estimators, engineers and union craftsmen work with clients each step of the way through design and fabrication to installation and service.
The University of Notre Dame, Zimmer, Culver Schools and Memorial Hospital are among its clients, which generally fall within a 90-mile or so radius of South Bend.
Heating, venting and air conditioning fabrication and installation account for the core of its business. Though often overlooked, the company's expertise helped make possible South Bend's nascent technology sector by engineering a system to remove and recycle the excessive heat generated by supercomputers.
Its craftsmanship, however, oftentimes appears in more pronounced ways. Perhaps none is more striking than its headquarters, a 59,000-square-foot building purposefully tucked away into a hillside on the South Bend's northwest side. It has occupied the facility since 2004, the same year Kevin Smith assumed ownership from his father.
Far removed from its humble beginnings, the new space represents the company's long-held commitment to form and function.
"I approached (the design of this building) as being an opportunity to demonstrate what a sheet metal company can do," Smith said. "I wanted people to understand who we are -- that we don't just make rectangular stuff that air flows through."
Airflow, nonetheless, remained in Smith's mind throughout the design process. A wing-swept roof and cupola help create vacuum that naturally cools the shop. Eye-catching arched trusses and stainless steel panels, all of which were built by Deluxe employees, adorn the exterior and contribute to the building's aesthetic and energy efficiencies.
"There's more to sheet metal than duct work," Smith said, "and I wanted to prove it."
People have certainly taken notice.
Smith said the building's craftsmanship has helped secure custom projects, like local artist Robert Kuntz's "Circle of Life" sculpture. The company helped bring Kuntz's vision to life by engineering, fabricating and installing the sculpture that looms 19 feet over Mishawaka's Riverwalk.
It's a diversified portfolio that the team at bonswit hopes will show area residents that the qualities and skilled work force that propelled South Bend to international acclaim have never left the city.
"We've just taken the foundational roots that have been planted here and added a layer of innovation to it to make it work to meet the needs of the day," Smith said. "That's all we've done."