When he set up shop in what is now Harbor East, sailmaker Joseph Loane could not have dreamed where his business was headed.
Nearly two centuries later, demand for sails has waned, but direct descendants of the British immigrant still cater to customers in Baltimore.
Loane Bros. Inc., now run by sixth-generation owners and brothers Bryan and Scott Loane, has evolved with the times since its founding in 1815 in Portsmouth, England, and its move soon after to Baltimore's harbor. The business has shifted, from sails and wagon covers to house-cooling awnings to party tents. The company still makes awnings for homes and businesses and has expanded into party rentals of everything from chairs to china.
At 200 years old, Loane finds itself in the company of only a couple of hundred remaining family businesses of that age, experts say.
"It's really, really rare, particularly for a small business, because products change and fashions change and issues in the family change," said Dennis Jaffee, a research associate with family business consultant Wise Counsel Research Associates who has studied how 100-year-old family companies succeed. "It really has to do with the commitment of the family to do it. The common theme is they really make a commitment to connect with each other and work with each other. It's hard to do."
Beyond that, Jaffee said, it takes "good products and a clear marketing strategy, for something that doesn't change, like tents for parties."
The longevity of Loane Bros. boils down to something simple, said President Bryan Loane, who always wanted to join the family business and pitched in with tent installations as early as age 8.
"People don't call us because we're an old company," Loane said. "They call us because we do a good job. We had good vision, some talented people and quite a bit of luck, a lot of luck. ... We are survivors."
The company long ago outgrew its base in a Eutaw Street rowhouse and in 2004 bought its 80,000-square-foot building on East Joppa Road in Towson. With about $5 million in annual sales, it employs 65 people in administrative offices, a showroom and a manufacturing floor where tent and awning products are cut, sewn, repaired, cleaned and stored. The showroom features a display of tents and choices of dance floors, lighting, tables, chairs and table settings.
On a recent day, a shop manager at a cutting table worked on a custom tent, while workers nearby welded together vinyl tent pieces.
The company has been called upon to erect corporate sponsor tents for the Legacy Chase at Shawan Downs, a popular annual steeplechase in Baltimore County. Charles C. Fenwick Jr., the event's general manger, turned to Loane Bros when launching the event in 2001.
"We had no road map because no one had ever done this before, and it was coming together at the last minute," Fenwick recalled. "But Bryan and his team were on top of everything."
The Maryland Institute College of Art has used Loane Bros. to stage outside events at its city campus, including orientation gatherings for students and the retirement party for former President Fred Lazarus, said Anne South, who recently retired as director of events.
During one event about 10 years ago, a fierce windstorm came out of nowhere and blew down a tent serving as an entrance to the Brown Center. Before South could phone the company, a Loane worker appeared on the scene after spotting the bizarre weather on radar.
"When I used Loane Bros., I didn't have to worry," South said. "I was never disappointed. They were always right on the ball for everything that needed to be done."
Bryan Loane joined the business in 1987 after teaching English in Madrid.
"I always wanted to go into the business," he said. "There's a lot of creativity involved in design. ... It's always different" regarding sites, people and situations.
As president, he handles some of the tent sales and rentals. A lot of the business comes from weddings, including a reception last summer at a home in North Baltimore where the bride's mother and grandmother also held their wedding receptions, all under Loane Bros. tents.
The company's roots in Baltimore stretch to 1818 in the vicinity of the current Harbor East waterfront neighborhood, with a later address of Smith's Wharf at the base of South Street by the Inner Harbor near Pier 1.
To research the company's history, Bryan Loane has traveled to Portsmouth to search for records and pored through letters kept by Joseph Loane and handed down through the family.
The founder's son, Jabez Whitford Loane, who apprenticed with his father and worked at Joseph Loane and Son for 60 years, was said to have fabricated the first window awning in the United States during the Civil War. As J.W. Loane, the company made tents and flags for the Union army, including a 35-star American flag from 1863 or 1864 that the company obtained from a flag collector and now displays in its Towson shop.
During the late 19th century, the company made "pavement canopies," used to protect brides as they passed from churches or synagogues to the street, and, as Loane Bros. during World War II, work shifted to parachute sling assemblies for B-26 bombers and the bunting that launched Liberty ships at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard.
Bryan Loane's father, E. Morgan "Puttie" Loane Jr., who took over as president in the early 1960s, steered the company he ran with his brother in a new direction as awning sales declined with the advent of air conditioning. He had stepped in to help his father after an uncle in the business died suddenly at a young age. Morgan Loane retired about 15 years ago but still comes in to help.
"My father transitioned the company from mostly an awning and basic tent renting company to specialize in fine tenting for parties," Loane said. "Before, in the old days, we had one tent of each size. My father realized people would like to have a choice," with options such as stripes, linings, lighting and heating.
Bryan Loane, 53, said his two children, ages 20 and 16, have so far shown no interest in making a career at the family business, "but that's fine" and might change in time.
Judy Moskowitz, private events coordinator at the Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen Museum & Library, said the company custom-made the tent attached to the Carriage House that houses many of Evergreen's 70 events a year. The company also is the exclusive provider of tents for the venue's upper-garden weddings.
The company, she said, has become the exclusive supplier in part because of its careful work at the historic property.
"People in Baltimore... like to use local vendors," she said. "When you see a family name, that implies a higher level of service. This is a family, and that means a lot to people in the Baltimore community."