If you were to lay out the whole story of Service Radiator Inc. like a book, the first chapter begins with James Justice.
In 1955, James Justice was working at Modern Welding in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Modern Welding trained him to work on radiators, and eventually he transferred to Madisonville. He told his wife Margaret that he only had intentions of staying 30 days.
“At the time, there was a lot of mining industry. Daddy saw a need for radiator repair and service in the community, so he and Mama opened a small shop in Madisonville,” said Linda Long. James and Margaret’s oldest son Jimmy was there from the ground up, and Linda joined in the later years. The business was doing so well that they kept outgrowing their buildings. So in 1964, James Justice built and settled into the building where they are still housed now.
“I think if he were alive today, he would be absolutely amazed, because the business is at a whole new level with technology and our customers,” said Linda. “With our equipment, the turnaround is quicker.”
James Justice passed in 1987 after an illness. But Margaret Justice was determined to keep the business in the family, so she kept it going with the help of her children and her grandson Sean.
“My grandmother was never too good to do anything, whether it was sweeping or cleaning the bathrooms,” said Sean Long, who serves as Service Radiator’s manager. “She would even rod out radiators or put bolts in, if she had to. She taught me that just because you’re an owner, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to do anything.”
Linda Long says her mother Margaret taught her about the value of relationships. “She always treated the employees and the customers right. Anytime a customer came in, she would say, ‘Don’t argue. Just try to make it right with them, because you don’t want to get a reputation of not treating your customers well.’”
Sean believes the second chapter of Service Radiator’s history is defined by his grandmother’s leadership and perseverance. “She had her challenges as a woman business owner, of course. She used to get so mad when a customer would call and say, ‘I need to talk to someone.’ And she’d say, ‘Well, I’m someone!’ And then she would answer their questions.”
“Mama really loved the business and worked until the day she got sick,” said Linda. Nora Margaret Justice passed in 2019 at 93 years old. Now, the business belongs to Linda Long who works alongside her son Sean and his wife Brandi.
Service Radiator specializes in repairing and building new steel and aluminum fuel tanks, oil coolers, radiators, A/C condensers, and heat exchange tube bundles as well as DPF cleaning.
For many years, Service Radiator had a steady source of work because of Madisonville’s local coal mines, but that industry has greatly declined over the past decade. “It’s hurt our area a lot, because this has always been the heart of the coalfield,” said Linda. In order to stay afloat, the Longs developed a strategy which included investing in equipment, spending a lot of time training their technicians, and diversifying the business.
“We’ve gone straight into aluminum where other shops haven’t. That’s been our ticket to staying afloat,” said Sean. But branching into aluminum created a new set of other challenges. “We’ve welded it for years, but there’s so much to it. There’s a lot more prep work. And you can make mistakes. For example, ordering the cores too short or too long. We’ve had to order several cores over the years wrong to get it right.”
As far as the next chapter in Service Radiator’s story, the Longs say they hope to expand the business. “We need more room,” said Sean. “And at some point, we’re going to go into manufacturing.”
Three generations have anchored Service Radiator, and the Longs are determined to keep it in the family for as long as they can. They say one of the keys to their success is communication.
“My wife, my mom, and I all communicate really well. We live right beside each other. We’re really close-knit,” said Sean.
“Not saying that there weren’t disagreements or whatever, but we’ve just worked together and pushed forward,” said Linda. “We’re all in it for the same reason. We gotta make money. And to make money, you have to all agree and work together. It’s not a one-man show.”
Linda confesses she has spent a lot of nights worrying about the future, but she says, “I feel like this was what I was supposed to do. I love doing the books. I love numbers. And I love meeting people and making sure they’re satisfied. It’s very rewarding.”
Sean was 13 years old when he first started working at the shop sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and mowing the grass. And then after high school, he worked at the shop full-time. He says he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I love taking a radiator that is absolute junk and making it look brand new,” said Sean. “This is hard work, no doubt. Had this not been a family business, I feel like I could have learned this trade and gone to work in any radiator shop I wanted to. There’s not that many that can do what we do.”
This story was originally published in the November/December 2020 issue of The Cooling Journal.