The three Murphy companies, based in North Sioux City, South Dakota, have emerged as the go-to insulation experts nationwide, no matter whether the facility is commercial, multi-family residential, hospitality, mechanical, industrial or utility.
Family-owned Murphy Insulation Inc. focused mainly on residential insulation in the Sioux City, Iowa and North Sioux City, South Dakota area when it was formed in 1994 by Mike Murphy and his business partner Tim Merchant. “They had other companies, and this was something they started on the side,” recalls company President Ben Murphy, who is Mike Murphy’s son and Merchant’s son-in-law. “They had a few guys working for them at night and on the weekends, and it was pretty much a side deal. I worked for them in high school, and then I took over in 2005 and made it into a full-time thing. They had other companies they were devoted to, and they didn’t have the time to develop it, but I did.”
Almost a quarter of a century later, the local company that “started on the side” and employed “just a few guys” has expanded into three companies that offer comprehensive insulation services, including mechanical and industrial, and have ninety employees sometimes bumped up to one hundred or more. Although it is concentrated in the American Midwest—with headquarters in North Sioux City and satellite offices in Des Moines, Iowa and Williston, North Dakota—it is working nationwide, with forty trucks and on-site job trailers, with over 200 active projects at any given time.
“With the warehouse centrally located, we’ve got the resources to be anywhere within twenty-four hours,” Murphy says. “And we’re really diversified in terms of our companies and the different size projects we can handle—anything from the oil fields of North Dakota to new hotels in Texas. We’ve worked in Georgia and the state of Utah. Right now, we’re working on a packing house in Pennsylvania, and we’re also gearing up for a project in New York. In fact, there’s nowhere we won’t go. If we have a customer who needs us, we’ll go,” he says.
“People ask us, ‘How do you compete across the country?’ The answer is simple: great people. Without them it wouldn’t be possible. We have a large office staff of estimators, project managers and purchasers who are good at what they do, and our crews are efficient. And then people ask, ‘How come you don’t get into other fields of business because you’re already doing the insulation?’ But we say we’re good at insulation; that is what we do, and we’ve perfected it. We’ve got some of the best guys in the industry who work for us, so we’ve pretty much stayed in the insulation realm, and we’re competitive there. Most of our business is repeat business, and it’s a result of the relationships we built and the work we’ve done over the years,” shares Murphy.
“One of the bigger mechanical jobs we did (early on) was in Sioux Center, IA, in a big hospital where the insulation contractor filed for bankruptcy a quarter way through the job. Other insulators looked at taking it over, but it was too messy for them, so we took it over and succeeded and built a good name for ourselves. A lot of jobs that others don’t want to do—the dirty or messy jobs—we go in and take them on, and it’s helped our relationships with a lot of other contractors.”
When Murphy took over the original company, it was still working with home construction companies as well as directly with homeowners to seal and insulate existing homes, while remaining in compliance with the most up to date international energy codes. It also recommended the best products for attic, wall and basement insulation as well as insulating heating pipes and air conditioning ducts and providing insulation removal services.
Under his leadership, the company grew in scope to include insulating multi-family complexes, hospitality and commercial facilities with stabilized cellulose wall spray, foam, blown cellulose and fiberglass insulation. It also installed fire-stopping rated wall assemblies and air and vapor barrier systems for general contractors.
Between 2005 and 2008, “we were doing mostly local work, then we started getting bigger and bigger,” Murphy says. “But our town is only so big, and we realized if we wanted to grow our company and our name, we needed to get outside.”
The Bakken Formation lies mostly under North Dakota and extends into Montana, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In 2008, extraction of shale oil and gas from the four-hundred-mile-wide, two-mile-deep formation was just beginning. Murphy recognized an opportunity for growth and actively pursued work there.
As a result, the second company, Murphy Mechanical Insulation Inc., a full-service mechanical- industrial insulation contracting company was formed. “People told me not to do this. They said, ‘You’re going to go broke. It’s a harsh environment, and it’s a fourteen-hour trip from your base office.’”
But he persevered, building a warehouse in Williston, North Dakota and taking on work that ranged from insulating pipes in the oil fields to insulating hotels and apartment complexes as the area went from a population of thirty thousand to over one million.
Every big national builder was there at the time, he recalls, and “because the supply and demand was so crazy—so out of whack—they couldn’t find reputable contractors to do all the work. But we completed jobs that a lot of the other guys didn’t want to do or try to complete, just because of the harsh conditions and the manpower shortages, and so we started building relationships,” Murphy says.
“We learned a lot in the oil fields, and when things in the oil business started to cool down, and prices dropped, builders dispersed out to other markets, but they took us with them, because they knew we were reputable, and that we stood behind what we said we’d do. And because we’d learned to do the travel game, we knew we could take jobs that were fourteen- to eighteen-hour drives away in any direction from our office in South Dakota and be competitive.”
Diversification, the right equipment and manpower and the ability to travel are what makes the Murphy Companies unique. While most companies do building insulation only or do mechanical insulation only, the Murphy Companies’ ability to do both makes it very attractive to the big contractors. Instead of having to deal with two, three or even four sub-contractors, contractors only had to deal with one.
“We can take care of everything from the outer barrier to the firestopping to the duct and pipe insulation all in one job and streamline the project all through our office,” he says. “A lot of general contractors are going more and more towards that, and it helps us win contracts because we’re competitive in not just one field but in several different fields.”
The third and most recently formed company, M. A. Murphy, was a natural progression of the other two companies because as it continued to grow, it needed more facilities from which to operate warehouses. This, in turn, led to the realization that there were other companies in need of similar facilities, so M. A. Murphy could build and lease.
M. A. Murphy now owns and leases a number of buildings in industrial parks in which it has a controlling interest. The buildings, for which the company acts as general contractor, vary in size from two thousand to forty thousand square feet. They are suitable for storage facilities, manufacturing, commercial, industrial and professional spaces as they are equipped with heavy three-phase electric, loading docks, roll-up doors, office space, heated shops and insulated and finished office spaces.
Among the tenants are API Companies, a multi-billion-dollar construction firm based in Minnesota; Kelvion Inc., worldwide producers of heat exchanger plates for power plants; and heavy industries such as oil and gas and Verizon Wireless.
The biggest challenge for the company involves travelling, Murphy says. “It’s hard on our guys and equipment, so manpower is always a changing dynamic for a company like ours, but we have some really good people and project managers who’ve been with us for a long time. When you’re on the road, working sixteen hours from home, you’ve got to have good equipment, and we pride ourselves on having the latest equipment. And our fleet is one of the largest in the country, but it’s always a challenge when guys are working out of a suitcase.”
Also, working so far from home means there is no room for error. The job has to be done right the first time, as a call back to fix one small mistake is way too costly.
And rewards? “To see the growth of our companies and to see the staff who work for us grow from guys who started with us in the field work their way up to project managers and estimators and they are excellent at what they do. We pride ourselves that we’ve never laid anyone off because of lack of work. We’ve always got a project on the go, and we’re always actively seeking more. We’ve built our name off our reputation. Our quality speaks for itself, and it’s what we hang our hat on.”