135-Year-Old Business Is In Good Hands

August 13, 2003
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Dick Sieb
MONROE, Mich. — It is a town made famous as the home of La-Z-Boy recliners and the home of General George Armstrong Custer. Dissected by the peaceful River Raisin, Monroe is situated in the extreme southeast corner of Michigan, about a dozen miles from the Ohio border. It is also home to a legendary plumbing and heating business.

Richard Sieb — folks know him as Dick — has been a fixture in Monroe for almost 71 years. He is the owner of Sieb Plumbing & Heating Inc., which can trace its roots to 1868.

That’s the year that Matthias Sieb, Dick’s great-grandfather, founded what is one of the longest continuously family-owned plumbing and heating business in the United States. Matthias accumulated many awards in the early days of the business.

“I still keep them with all of my other antiques,” said Dick.

The business passed to Dick’s uncle, Adam Goebel, in the 1920s. Dick’s father, Oscar, eventually took over the business in 1931. Oscar Sieb was well known in the Monroe community, earning a reputation as a solid businessman who helped many residents during hard times.

Oscar Sieb was also known for something else — his marksmanship. Dick explained that his father made his spending money killing rats at the trash dump, getting two cents for each dead rat he turned over. Oscar became such a good marksman that he drew the ire of a local merchant, “Mr. Tricky,” who ran a shooting gallery along the River Raisin in downtown Monroe.

“Tricky said he tried to close up the gallery whenever he saw my dad coming,” Dick said, laughing. “He set up three wooden matchsticks close to each other and about 24 feet from the front of the booth. He challenged anyone to light all three matches while not breaking the sticks — in a span of six seconds while using a pump-action .22 caliber rifle. The reward was a big container of red candy, which cost several times what he charged for shooting the matches. Dad shot out each match in six seconds without breaking the sticks. Tricky never forgot that.”

The Next Generation

Dick Sieb took over the business in 1952. His mother and father asked him to come back to Monroe from Korea, where he had been in the Air Force during the Korean War. At the time, Dick was hoping to be assigned to Dwight Eisenhower’s European honor guard (his brother Doug was part of that honor guard). He was enjoying traveling around the world and wasn’t ready to settle down and run a business.

But family came first, and Dick went home, where he met and married his wife, Marjorie. The Siebs have two children, Sheryl and Robert. Robert has joined the family business and will eventually take over the business when his father calls it quits. “Probably when I die,” Dick said.

While running the business, Dick Sieb has served as the mayor of Monroe, and he was instrumental in starting up the emergency 911 service, the first of its kind in any Michigan city. He has also rubbed elbows (and enjoyed a few cocktails) with the likes of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. He even bumped into Henry Ford while down in a sewer.

The business has been at its present location along the River Raisin since 1961, where his plumbing and heating retail operations are housed. He also owns a sheet metal shop in another part of town.

One of the reasons he bought property along the river was to give his dad a place to relax and fish whenever he needed to take a break.

Avid sportsmanship runs in the Sieb family. Dick is very proud of an old print that hangs on one of the wood-paneled office walls. It depicts a flock of ducks in a marsh bank, along the River Raisin. He has a saying that goes along with the picture: “When the business gets over your head and you are smothered, say the hell with it. Look at the picture and head to the marsh.”

The small building contains a collection of animal trophy heads, an antique wooden washing machine, and a noticeable lack of modern technology. Dick doesn’t own a cell phone, although his son Robert does. “I don’t need a cell phone because I know where I’m going and people know they can call me at the customer’s home,” Dick said.

And e-mail? “I don’t need it and probably will never get it,” he said, smiling.

A Helping Hand

The main reason for The News’ visit to Sieb’s business was to discuss the company’s charitable work, which was part of a broadcast on the local Detroit television news. Fox 2 News airs a regular segment titled “Problem Solvers,” which tells the stories of the victims of dishonest businesses. This story involved a Detroit-area preacher who moonlighted as a remodeler, took money from congregation members, and walked away from remodeling jobs without finishing them.

Bob Madaski, owner of Castle Builders Inc. in Monroe, saw the broadcast and wanted to help out the victims, so he recruited other businesses to lend a hand. Dick agreed to help out. As it turned out, he and another employee spent six days plumbing two additions in homes in Ypsilanti, a two-hour round trip for both men. They extended the ductwork for the additions and added new registers.

The experience left Dick shaking his head.

“The television station said they would give us credit for doing the work, but they never did,” he said. “Except for a quick sweep of the camera showing the back of my head. I don’t even think the people we did the work for appreciated it. They wanted us to do more than we were supposed to do. I was never asked for a bill of sale, in case the preacher came up with the money to repay for all the work he was supposed to do.”

But one experience has not soured Dick’s charitable attitude. He continues to do installation and service work for area churches, following a tradition handed down by his father. And he enjoys every morning that he can wake up and see the sun rise. “If you have your health, you don’t need wealth,” he said. “When my dad was contemplating slowing down, I remember telling him ‘Dad you are only tired, not retired.’”

Judging from Dick’s background, one would think that he would be tired, too. “We all grew up on a farm in nearby LaSalle. We worked in the shop, went to school, and did farm chores.”

Now, Dick has a number of experienced people “doing the chores” in the business. Dick is in charge of residential plumbing, Larry Haines does large commercial/industrial plumbing projects, son Robert handles residential HVAC, and Frank Nation handles the commercial/industrial HVAC work.

He said that Robert wasn’t forced into the business. “I didn’t want him to stay with us if he didn’t want to,” Dick said. “But he went to Ferris State and got his degree and brought a good knowledge of HVAC to the business.”

The company employs approximately 50 people year-round. Dick feels that his workers are one big family. “I enjoy seeing things built, but I also enjoy working with the people here,” he said. “You only grow because of the people you work with. If your people aren’t good and well trained, you just won’t grow.

“Our people aren’t just here to put in eight hours. They like what they do.”

Publication date: 08/18/2003

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