Since that long-ago summer day when Joseph Kavanagh, an Irish immigrant and skilled coppersmith, set up shop in Baltimore, the company has survived 23 recessions, five financial panics, a destructive flood and a devastating fire, the Great Depression and the Great Recession. Joe Kavanagh’s descendants hope Donald J. Trump’s trade war does not end the family business at five generations.
Things have been tough for the Kavanaghs in recent years. The company long ago morphed into a bender and roller of pipe made of steel, aluminum and other alloys. It’s a small shop in Dundalk now, vulnerable to the slightest convulsions in the global economy and the trade in metals. So, in March, when Trump proposed a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum from the European Union, Canada and Mexico, the current Joe Kavanagh, a great-great grand nephew of “Original Joe,” began to worry.
Business had just started to pick up again after a period of decline.
“In December, we had our best month in five years,” he says. “We had our best January in four years. And February was pretty good. Then March came, and, you know, all it takes is the word, ‘tariffs.’ The phone stopped ringing in May. June was bad. I started sweating it again. … We’re a small family business. Small companies need steady work, lulls are bad. When prices go up, projects get delayed and that affects us. You can’t do this at 25 percent all of a sudden. That’s an arbitrary increase.”
Of course, arbitrariness is a hallmark of the Trump presidency, something in direct conflict with the way most successful businesses operate. It’s certainly not the way the Kavanaghs have operated for the last 152 years.
“Original Joe” opened his first shop in the Jones Falls valley in 1866. He started by shaping copper into common household products — pots, pans, pitchers. A deadly summer flood, known as the Black Friday Flood of 1868, knocked him down, but not out. Kavanagh moved his coppersmith operation out of the flooded valley to 708 E. Lombard St., and there he thrived, trading as Joseph Kavanagh Co.
In February 1904, a massive fire left most of downtown Baltimore in ruins. When they saw the blaze coming their way, “Original Joe” and his workers gathered up some tools, crossed the bridge over the Jones Falls and stood along its eastern banks. From there they watched the Lombard Street shop go up in flames.
But “Original Joe” was resolute about rebuilding. He and his five nephews opened a new place on the southeast side of the city, and it was there that they became known, well beyond Baltimore, as excellent manufacturers and repairers of copper tanks for distillers and brewers. The company transitioned into bending and rolling metals, particularly pipe, and settled for 90 years in a brick building at Central Avenue and E. Pratt Street. The Kavanaghs bent everything from handlebars for bikes and motorcycles to frames for helicopter seats to an array of parts for industrial use. They bent metals for artists, too.
In 2004, the Kavanaghs moved to a shop off North Point Road in Dundalk.
The current Joe Kavanagh is 53, and, after his father’s retirement in the mid-1980s, he ran the family business with his sister, Ann, and, until his death in 2012, their brother, Jack. Jack’s sons, Patrick and Paul, work in the shop bending pipe. But everyone, including Ann, has had their hands on the Kavanagh machines at some point — not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
During the last decade, business dropped while employee health insurance costs continued to rise. At one point, Joe Kavanagh had to ask two of his best workers to take a pay cut. They said they couldn’t, and left the shop in 2014. By 2016, Kavanagh says, the company’s billing was down by half from its level a decade earlier. He says he and his sister have kept the business going by taking pay cuts and taking on debt.
He knows that other small family businesses have had to make such sacrifices to survive. “I’m not any more noble than anyone else,” he says, emphasizing his ambition to keep the Kavanaghs in business for another generation and to make it viable enough for his nephews to continue with it. He takes great pride in his industrious lineage, the long line of Kavanagh Joes who worked in the shop over the years. In fact, he’s writing a history of the company while he and his sister manage it through the ups and downs.
He’s not certain what Trump’s tariffs might do to the business in the long term — who is? — but for now the current Joe Kavanagh finds them arbitrary and unsettling, just one more thing to worry about at a time when, he says, “I got enough to worry about.”