Janesville's Northrop Awning survives test of time
JANESVILLE — Northrop Awning might not be one of Janesville's most well-known businesses.
It is, however, one of the city's oldest, and proof of that is evident over the doors and windows of hundreds of businesses and homes around the area.
Since its founding in 1890 in Beloit, Northrop has made residential and commercial awnings for generations of customers. Its retractable awnings and handcrafted awnings and canopies have long been a specialty.
The company moved to Janesville in the early 1900s and is now run by its fourth owner. Mike Freidel bought the company in 2000 from George Poppas, who owned it for 40 years.
A Northrop customer, Freidel was an advertising art director who participated in one too many footwear photo shoots.
Looking for something else to do, he heard Poppas might be interested in selling the business. He took a couple of vacation days and visited Poppas to see the company in action.
“This is a business that will never go away,” Freidel said, noting that as long as there are sun and weather, people will try to find ways to shade themselves.
“When I bought the business from George, he told me that whenever he and his wife went anywhere, he was always lagging, looking up at things.
“I've found that I do the same thing.”
Northrop's awnings, canopies and shades are used to advertise businesses, beautify buildings and homes, provide shelter from the weather or control energy costs. In addition to Freidel, the company has three other employees, plus seasonal workers as needed.
In 2006, the company moved from a leaky building on Water Street into what was formerly a warehouse for a Cargill feed plant on South Pearl Street.
Building owner Jim Grafft renovated 7,700 square feet into a modern showroom, office and production facility to meet Northrop's specifications.
While much of what Northrop does is still an old-school craft, technologies have evolved to produce stunning awnings and canopies in different ways.
Custom metalwork has replaced much of the old pipe bending that went into the support systems for awnings and canopies. Different colors of fabrics now are routinely welded together instead of stitched, which saves time and produces a better seam.
“It's basically the same concept that we tweak and apply to different buildings,” Freidel said.
Poppas' production table still has a place at Northrop. While it's 20 feet by 4 feet, Freidel's is a whopping 42 feet by 22 feet, and it's expandable.
Northrop's business has traditionally split down the middle between commercial and residential work.
“Residential took a beating starting in 2008, and 2010 was the absolute worst,” Freidel said. “But things are getting progressively better.”
That's in part due to last year's hot, dry summer. Freidel already has heard from customers who want to add shade to provide comfort and reduce cooling costs.
“We're doing more retractable awnings for decks,” he said, recalling last summer's scorching weather. “People spent a lot of money on decks, and then they couldn't even walk on them, much less sit on them.”
Northrop primarily works in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Local customers, however, have dispatched the company well south or far north for jobs on businesses or vacation homes.
“The reputation we have is one that we constantly have to work to uphold,” Freidel said, noting that quality work and over-the-top service are the basis for that reputation. “We have to constantly keep on top of things or we'll get run over.”