Exploring the history of Fratco through the generations
As seen in the Tried & True Winter 2023 issue
A century of service is defined by the people who provide it. For a multi-generational family business like Fratco, those people are a tight-knit yet ever-growing group. They’re bound together not by blood or creed but by a dedication to their customers. This article looks back on the roots of that dedication: where it started, why it grew, and how honest service, trust and old-fashioned human connection formed the bedrock of a company that has thrived for 100 years.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS IN FRANCESVILLE
Fratco’s earliest beginnings date back to the small town of Francesville, Indiana, sometime during the 1880s. Here, a pair of business partners named Henry K. Lee and William Casey owned a brick and terracotta factory named Francesville Clay Products. Francesville was a small town then and—with a population of less than a thousand by the 2020 census—remains so today. Regardless, many members of the Francesville community and people from surrounding rural counties found work at the factory. One of those people was Henry K. Lee’s son-in-law, Earl “E.C.” Overmyer.
As the turn of the century drew near, a brilliant innovation in farming technology rose in popularity around the Midwest: clay drainage tile. Back in 1838, an immigrant from Scotland named John Johnston brought the concept with him to America, proved its use and even freely shared his methods with his neighbors in the Finger Lakes region of New York. As the 1800s passed, word of the technology arrived in the swamp-laden state of Indiana where Henry K. Lee, William Casey and E.C. Overmyer saw an opportunity to improve agriculture in the region.
Lee and Casey soon adapted their brick and terracotta kilns to instead produce the cylindrical clay pipes known as “tile.” Then, in 1923, E.C. Overmyer bought out his father-in-law and William Casey to assume ownership of the business, which was now wholly devoted to clay drainage products. And so, Francesville Drain Tile was born.
Interestingly, the hand-off from Lee and Casey to Overmyer is why you’ll sometimes hear Fratco described as a fifth-generation family business and sometimes as fourth-generation. The Overmyers have never considered “family” to be limited by blood relation or last names.
As current CEO Chris Overmyer likes to say, “Family has never been about whose blood or name you share. Family’s the people who have your back. It’s whose dinner table you’re welcome at. It’s who’s going to help you get back up when you fall down.” In this regard, Henry K. Lee was most certainly considered a tried-and-true member of the Overmyer family.
THE LATER FRANCESVILLE ERA AND SWITCH TO PLASTIC
As the decades passed, ownership of the company passed down the Overmyer line from E.C. to his son Richard. It was under Richard’s leadership that Francesville Drain Tile would help other industry leaders break the mold—no pun intended—on the materials used to make drainage tile.
Over in Europe, breakthroughs in engineering had led to the creation of plastic drainage pipe and the machines that mass-produced it. Meanwhile, across the sea in 1960s America, the owners of various clay tile businesses were realizing that the future of the industry lay in plastic. Although there were still some kinks to be worked out with the new technology, experts saw that plastic piping was lighter, less brittle, easier to transport, simpler to install and would offer customers better thresholds of durability at less cost over time.
Various family-owned clay tile companies realized the need to invest in plastic drainage pipe equipment. Unfortunately, the cutting-edge machinery they needed from Europe was prohibitively expensive. From a rare blend of necessity and goodwill, three Midwestern family-owned tile businesses (Diller, Overmyer, and Meyer) pooled their resources together to purchase a single plastic piping fabrication machine they could all share for their mutual benefit. The partnership was named “DOMCO” after the initials of each of the families combined with their newfound “co-op” concept.
The DOMCO endeavor proved to be a success and—just a few years later—all of the families were able to purchase their own plastic pipe manufacturing equipment. In 1971, Richard installed his own machine in the historic clay tile factory of his father and grandfather.
While other clay tile companies failed to make the leap to plastic pipe as quickly, Francesville Drain Tile established it was here to stay.
Company leadership soon transferred to Richard’s son, Steve, who cemented Francesville Drain Tile’s position in the plastic pipe market by continuing to build the company’s reputation for quality products and excellent customer service across the state of Indiana and beyond.
Read Part Two of this story, “Meet Steve Overmyer,” here: fratco.com/meet-steve-overmyer
As leadership changed hands from Steve to Chris Overmyer in 2006, a new frontier of opportunities presented itself for the taking. Soon, Chris and his team expanded the business—now renamed Fratco—to
several new locations around the Midwest. One of those locations—the plant in St. Anne, Illinois—had even served as the hub for the DOMCO co-op in years past.
Now Fratco was able to serve people on a much larger geographic scale. The positive impact Francesville Drain Tile had made on its community could now be felt in other areas around the country.
Countless people across the Midwest were put to work by Fratco as it grew. With new skilled workers and salespeople came new customers, and with those new customers came new requests. Here, Chris’s background in engineering proved invaluable as he designed a new line of recycled resin products to meet the market’s demand for a more environmentally friendly alternative to virgin resin pipe. This new line of products contributed to a newfound importance of sustainability within Fratco.
With Chris’s expertise in product development, Fratco also launched several lines of pipe at this time, each with different strengths for different situations. FlexCorr, TruFlo and ProCorr were among the products launched during this period of diversified utility.
Read Part Three of this story, “Meet Chris Overmyer” here: fratco.com/meet-chris-overmyer
FRATCO MOVING FORWARD
Chris once asked his father, Steve, what he thought E.C. Overmyer would say if he saw Fratco today. Steve replied, “I can just hear him chuckling and see him smiling. He wouldn’t recognize the plastic part of things, of course—he didn’t even know what plastic pipe was when he bought the business in 1923. But to see that business on the sunrise of being a hundred years old, I think he would be grabbing his fishing pole to go out and celebrate with his favorite pastime. I think he’d be very pleased.”
E.C. would probably also be pleased to learn that some descendants of the people he worked with at Francesville can be found working at Fratco today. “We have some employees that are multi-generational with us,” Chris says. “We have customers that are multi-generational, too. I know their kids, I know them and I knew their parents. And that’s just so much fun.”
Of course, the Overmyers continue to be no exception to the generational longevity of Fratco. Chris’s middle son, Derek, now works at the Francesville location with aspirations to perhaps one day follow in his father’s, grandfather’s, great-grandfather’s and great-great-grandfather’s footsteps as leader of the company.
When asked about his family’s history with Fratco, Derek gives an unexpected reply: “Family is everything to me, but family isn’t connected by blood. I feel like family is anywhere my heart feels whole and anywhere I can just be calm and content with the people I’m around. That’s how I feel around the people I work with everyday in Francesville. So, in a way, I feel a closer bond to them than to those early generations of my family that I never had the chance to work alongside.”
Derek’s admiration for his coworkers makes for a fitting tribute to the legacy his ancestors worked so hard to build. Although the story of Fratco is most easily cataloged through the generational lens of the Overmyer family, their family is only one piece of the bigger picture. That picture is partially built on smart business decisions, innovation and a fair share of luck. But more than anything else, it’s built on the hard work of every person who contributed to the cause. The early Overmyers strived to build a company that felt like home for everyone who worked there, just as Francesville was home for them. In the years since, new generations of contributors have embraced those same values and helped Fratco grow into the industry leader it is today.
Read Part Four of this story, Meet Derek Overmyer, here: fratco.com/meet-derek-overmyer