John Gag steers GSM into its 2nd century
A company rich in family history continues to leave its mark on southern Minnesota. Its current president and owner, John Gag, said he’s nowhere near finished.
John Gag has been at the helm of Gag Sheet Metal since 1999, though his tenure with the company began in the 1970s.
GSM is the oldest roofing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning business in southern Minnesota. Over the years the company has branched into appliances, plumbing and drain cleaning. GSM was founded by John Gag’s great-grandfather George Gag in 1904. He and his partner named the company, which was originally located on Minnesota Street in New Ulm, the Gag/Ranweiler Tin Shop. During its early years, it focused on roofing and dabbled in fixing bicycles, selling lawnmowers and sharpening lawnmower blades.
The business, which has changed names a few times since its inception, was eventually turned over to George Gag’s sons, Melvin Gag and Elmer Gag. Continuing the tradition of being led by a Gag, Melvin Gag’s son, Mike Gag, worked for the company for 61 years. Mike Gag’s brother, Loren Gag, joined the company in the late 1950s and continued to work at GSM until 1985. It was in the 1980s that Mike Gag and Loren Gag opted to forgo bicycle repairs and focus on growing the contract side of the business.
“It didn’t take the business long to flourish from there,” John Gag said.
Since 1904, the Gag family business has found success doing roofing and sheet metal work. As the years progressed, creating heating system ducts led to putting metal roofs on buildings and barns, which led to working with heating systems, furnaces and, eventually, HVAC systems.
Now in its the fourth generation of ownership under a Gag, John Gag has been leading the business since he became sole owner in 2012.
“When my dad, Mike, retired in 1999 with some health issues, I was already part owner with my brother Steve,” John Gag said. “In 2012, Steve came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you buy me out? This (ownership) is more your thing.’”
Steve Gag didn’t go far, though. He is the HVAC manager for GSM.
“I’m the first sheet metal guy in the family who said, ‘I’m going to work in the office,’” John Gag said with a laugh. “It’s interesting … my father, grandfather and great-grandfather would all take on jobs with other guys and physically do the jobs themselves, but I prefer the business side of things.”
John Gag’s career began in the family business during his middle school years when he would fix bicycles that came into the shop.
“I started in the ’70s,” John Gag said. “I guess you could say that fixing bikes was my first real job after corn detasseling.”
After graduating from New Ulm Public School in 1982, John Gag attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, where he received his bachelor’s degree in business management with a minor in English.
“I feel fortunate because I was never one of those people who changed their major a bunch of times,” he said. “I knew from the beginning that business was what I wanted to learn.
However, I was an English minor because I wasn’t good at the subject. I knew that if I wanted to be in business that I needed to learn to communicate, especially in writing.”
Though John Gag is the fourth generation in a line of successful business owners, he said he didn’t always see himself joining the family business. It wasn’t until he was a senior in college that he began to consider the possibility.
“When I graduated from high school, it was my dad’s intention that I (become) a plumber,” John Gag said. “But I went to St. John’s instead. When I was a senior in college and ready to graduate, my dad approached me about a job at GSM. And I tell everyone this: his offer was the lowest, but I took it.”
Mike Gag’s dream of branching into plumbing has come to fruition, even though John Gag didn’t become the plumber his dad once dreamed of. GSM expanded its services in 2013 and acquired Schanus Plumbing & Heating in New Ulm and Isaacson Plumbing in Gibbon. GSM also added an appliance showroom in New Ulm in 2019.
“We got into plumbing because plumbing and HVAC typically go together,” John Gag said. “So, we partnered up with a plumber who had contracts and already sustained relationships with their clients.”
Branching into another area of expertise turned out to be a smart decision for the Gags. Acquiring established plumbing businesses has given GSM the opportunity to bid on larger projects in its service area, which is anywhere employees can drive to within the day.
“If it’s within driving distance, we’ll go,” John Gag said. “We work in Tennessee, Michigan … if we can drive there today in 12 hours, we’ll hop in our trucks and we’ll go.”
The ability to offer sheet metal fabrication and HVAC has opened the door for more opportunity, John Gag said. GSM recently worked on the New Ulm Recreation Center, New Ulm school buildings, Marshall Middle School and New Ulm’s Bank Midwest. When a large manufacturing company in Minnesota opened a plant in Tennessee and needed a contractor, the company suggested GSM do the work because it had firsthand experience with GSM’s quality craftsmanship.
“Our growth has always been about going back to existing clientele,” John Gag said. “If you want to grow your business you have to have customers come back. You know, your roof lasts for 20 years or so. There are all kinds of people that we put roofs on their businesses during my first two to five years at the company, and now we’re going back and putting new roofs on for them again.”
John Gag keeps a filing cabinet in his office that is filled with customer information. When the company gets calls from existing clients, he pulls their file from the cabinet so he can look at what type of work was done 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
“When I got here in 1986, my dad had just two drawers of files for the first 82 years of business,” John Gag said. “In one of our other facilities in town, I have a room of just filing cabinets filled with customers I’ve worked with in the past 36 years.”
After more than 100 years in business and four generations of owners, different business strategies have taken shape.
“We started out very small,” John Gag said. “My grandfather didn’t go past Courtland with his work. Literally. Back then everything was so territorial, and you just didn’t go into someone else’s area. Now if you’re a good-sized contractor and offer commercial work, eventually you have to branch out into other communities because there’s not enough work in your town.
The approach John Gag has taken has turned out to be a smart business move. When he joined the company in 1986, it brought in $300,000 worth of work per year. Now that is roughly what GSM does in a week.
“When I started at the company, the business was old, but it was still raw and young,” John Gag said. “Now it’s just a difference in operation. It doesn’t mean one way is better than the other. It’s certainly been an adventure.”
Though it has locations in Gibbon, Hutchinson, Mankato and St. Peter, New Ulm remains GSM’s main office and showroom. Last year GSM moved to 1500 North Front St., just down the road from its old office.
“More than 100 years later and we’re still migrating locations,” John Gag said with a laugh. “We never thought we would outgrow our previous location on Front Street, which was about a half city block wide. But this opportunity came along, and my goal was to get everything for the business all in one place.”
John Gag said he’s proud that the company remains in New Ulm and said his staff of about 75 is a great group of people to work with.
“We have a very good workforce in our community,” he said. “We are in a pretty happy place.”
Though John Gag said the company is in a good place right now, it hasn’t come without tribulations during the pandemic. Like many other companies, GSM has run into supply chain issues.
“Our business is you basically have the mechanical side of heating, cooling and plumbing, and then you’ve got a roofing side,” he said. “The problem is that now the roofing side is getting hit harder than some of the other industries. The lead time on supplies is longer and it’s tough because you just don’t know what job you’re going to sell right now. You have to wait until the job comes to order materials, but we can’t get the materials right away. We’re just thankful for people’s patience.”
GSM is fortunate to have a skilled labor force; some GSM staff have worked for the company for 20 to 30 years and are showing their flexibility by working on the roofing side of the operation, as well as the HVAC side.
“We’ve never had any trouble getting business, which we’re thankful for,” he said. “We’ve had a little bump in the road, but so has everyone. This challenge is big. The biggest hurdle right now is people. Frankly, getting craftsmen and people to work is our biggest priority. And keeping them happy. We’re doing all we can.”
With the supply shortages, John Gag said now more than ever he’s fortunate the mechanical side of the business has grown over the past 10 years.
“We just don’t know what it will look like in a few months,” he said. “All throughout the COVID-19 pandemic it was fine, but now suppliers are telling us that if we place orders now, we may not get products until 2023. Hopefully they’ll solve the problems in the next six months. We have hundreds of thousands of screws that come from overseas. It’s really the perfect storm. We can’t even get raw materials. But everyone in this industry is in the same position.”
No matter what challenges the industry is facing, and no matter what season it is, the work never slows down. John Gag said that is how he prefers it. With more than 100 years of service under the company’s belt, he is eager for the future and is ready to face whatever comes.
“When I started working for my dad in 1986, I promised him one year,” he said. “And, well, here I am. I wasn’t done and I’m still not. I don’t care what business you run. You’re never done — there’s always a place for improvement. If you’re passionate about your work, there’s always something to do.”
Opportunity To Give Back
Over the years, John Gag has made it a priority to give back to the community he has called home his entire life. He is a reserve police officer and sits on boards for the District 88 CTE Center, a New Ulm organization that provides high school students with exposure and access to technical careers available in the region, and NUMAS Haus, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter and support services to homeless women and their children in Brown County.
“I didn’t volunteer a lot in my first 20 years at GSM because I was really busy,” he said. “I was just beginning to work as an owner, and I also had three young kids. But then we had a little financial success and I thought, ‘You really need to give back if you can.’”
He credits his team at GSM for the flexibility to volunteer around the New Ulm area.
“You end up getting a good team around you that allows you some freedom to volunteer and that’s where I’m at right now,” he said. “It’s hard for these civic groups to get new members and I think if there’s some way for everyone to volunteer, they should. You have to give back more than you get.”
It’s All About Family
John Gag is the proud father of five children and said he enjoys spending as much time together as a family as possible. While they were growing up, his older children played sports in the spring and fall, which opened the winter months for the family to take ski trips. To this day, the entire family takes a ski trip to northern Minnesota and Montana each year.
“It’s such good family time,” he said of the annual ski trips. “Now the three older kids all have significant others so there’s 10 of us! We rent one big house out there, and it’s just a lot of fun that we have together.”
Though John Gag is the fourth generation of the Gag family to own GSM, he has never put pressure on his children to get involved with the family business.
“It just has to be how you’re built,” he said. “It has to be their passion. Of course, I ask them if they’re interested, but it’s because I want them to know it’s an opportunity if they want it. It’s hard as a parent. You just want to have happy and successful kids on their own terms.”
The Importance of Being Physically Active
John Gag, a multisport athlete while attending New Ulm Public High School, continued his athletic career at St. John’s University on the football team. There he started as a defensive end for three years under the coaching leadership of Hall of Fame head football coach John Gagliardi, who has the most wins of any coach in college football history.
“Boy, was it a lot of fun to play for John,” John Gag said.
Once he began to work at GSM, he became interested in the martial arts. He holds a sixth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a few years ago. He has also completed duathlons, and still enjoys running and biking.
“I really enjoy physical activity — I always have,” he said. “I really hope to remain active. My twin sons keep me active, and I never wanted to be one of those dads or grandpas that just sat and watched. I want to be there playing with them.”
1500 N. Front St.
New Ulm, MN 56073
Phone: (507) 354-3813
Photo by Jon Smith