Moving beyond coal
Stalwart Paul’s Fan Co. diversifies its business, creates jobs
In 1923, the number of people earning a living mining coal in the United States peaked at 862,536. Now, that number is around 52,000, and many people and companies who relied on coal for income have fallen on hard times. That’s one reason the 2019 expansions of Paul’s Fan Co., which has been tied to coal mining for more than 60 years, seem particularly important, particularly to Virginia’s coalfields.
In November, Paul’s Fans announced plans to move from Big Rock in Buchanan County into a shell building at the Southern Gap Industrial Park in Grundy, nearly doubling its number of employees to 40 during the next decade. With a loan of up to $5.6 million from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority and $1.3 million of its own funding, the company plans to expand the shell building, buy equipment and move machinery from its old location.
A few days later, the company announced another expansion, the establishment of a new division in another shell building, this one in the Constitutional Oaks Industrial Park in Lee County. Paul’s Automation and Control will eventually bring 15 new jobs. VCEDA offered a loan of up to $1.025 million for the project. The company plans to invest at least $2.41 million.
Paul Elswick founded Paul’s Fan Co. in 1958 and, according to the company, he “repaired underground mine equipment, trucks and anything else he could get his hands on.” In the ’60s, he developed a roof bolting machine. Later, Elswick concentrated on mine ventilation systems, working on more than 5,000 custom systems in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Elswick died in 2016.
“That was the year the coal mining crunch started catching up with us,” says Paul’s son, Todd Elswick, the company’s president. “Basically, I said, ‘We’re going to have to do something different.’ That’s when our major efforts of diversification started.”
The company took a big step toward change last year, when it acquired Illinois-based Champion Fan Corp., a 100-plus-year-old industrial fan company.
When Elswick saw an internet notice that the company and its equipment were to be auctioned, Paul’s Fans bought it all and hauled it home from Elgin, Illinois.
“We took six trucks and 14 people,” Elswick says. “After we got there, we rented two U-Hauls.”
Though coal mining companies are still the company’s largest customer, Paul’s Fans also works with the textile, chemical and automotive industries, as well as welding, heating and air.
“As we are breaking into the industrial ventilation market, it has really helped fill in the gaps for the downturn in the coal market,” says sales and marketing manager Jackie Estep.
Now the company is diversifying again, creating a control division to work with electric motors connected to pumps, compressors, “any type of rotating equipment,” Elswick says. The new control division was going to Tennessee until some folks from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and VCEDA came to visit. Elswick shared his plans with them, and they convinced him Lee County was a better spot.
One attraction is Lee County’s nearly new airport in Jonesville, and an airport being built in Buchanan County about a mile from the company’s building. Paul’s Fans often flies parts and technicians to its far-flung customers, and Elswick takes planes to consult with customers and potential customers.
It also didn’t hurt that Elswick’s wife had spent time with her grandparents in Lee County while she was growing up. Some of the Lee County officials at the announcement were among his wife’s distant kin.
“They basically stood up and said, ‘Hello, cousin,’” Elswick recalls.
Paul’s Fans is a family business — Elswick has three sons working there — and says he’s determined to maintain the company his father founded 62 years ago. “I would like to think,” he says, “we’re just now getting started.”