They’ve got the market on supermarkets
– Spotlight on A.H. Burns Company and John Marani III
“Look at any Whole Foods, Star Market, Stop & Shop, or any supermarket in the area. Chances are we did the plumbing,” says John Marani III, owner of GBPCA contractor A.H. Burns Company in Rockland. “It’s our specialty. Everyone knows we do supermarkets.”
The business started back in 1958 when Al Burns began operating out of his basement in Quincy. Joining him at the two-person shop was Marani’s father, also named John. The two had worked together at another plumbing company. When Burns suffered a heart attack, the elder Marani took over the business. “Al was like a father to him,” Marani says, explaining why his dad kept the A.H. Burns name. To this day, people refer to Marani as “Burnsy.”
As a child, Marani wasn’t particularly interested in plumbing. Unlike his father, he says he wasn’t mechanically inclined and had to work hard to hone his skills. Instead, he excelled in school and consistently made the honor roll. Nonetheless, as the only son of a plumber who started to work in the trade when he was 13 years old, plumbing was his destiny. “I never really felt like I had any choice,” Marani notes. “I’ve often said I was born with a pipe wrench in my hand.”
His career began while in middle school
Like his dad, Marani also began working in the trade at age 13. During summer breaks, he put in full days fetching tools, sorting fittings, and helping out at his father’s shop with other tasks. After high school, Marani got his associates degree in civil engineering (the closest major to plumbing engineering that was available, he says) at Wentworth Institute. Graduating in 1980, he then went to work full time at A.H. Burns.
As a first-year apprentice, Marani says that he made $4.35 an hour. Joe Valante, now president of GBPCA contractor Valante Mechanical, was in the same Local 12 training program class as Marani.
In the early 1980s, A.H. Burns was small and only employed a few plumbers. The shop ran new construction work on buildings such as banks, restaurants, and small office buildings. It also handled remodeling jobs as well as service work, both of which was nearly all for commercial customers.
Its biggest client was Stop & Shop, which also operated Bradlee’s department stores, Medi Mart drug stores, and Perkins Tobacco Shops. Marani says that A.H. Burns handled all of the service work for all of the chain’s locations throughout Greater Boston. That kept him plenty busy. Marani remembers doing quick remodeling turnarounds for the grocery stores on weekends. They would close at 6 p.m. on Saturday and reopen 1 p.m. on Sunday. In the intervening 18 hours, including the wee hours of the morning, the A.H. Burns crew would replace all of the produce and deli cases, and do all of the other plumbing work.
The shop has had its ups and downs
When his father retired in 1992, Marani took over ownership of the business. “If I knew then what I didn’t know, I probably would have run screaming from the building,” he says with a laugh. Marani adds that his personality is well suited to running a company. He says that he is not a worrier by nature. Which is good, because the shop has experienced some challenging periods.
A.H. Burns was humming along the first couple of years under Marani’s leadership. But everything crashed in 1994. With its fortunes closely aligned with Stop & Shop, the contractor took a huge hit after Bradlees filed for bankruptcy, effectively taking 50% of the chain’s work away. Then the company began converting its grocery stores to Super Stop & Shops and bidding out the work to general contractors. A.H. Burns still handled the maintenance for the stores, but the work dwindled to the point that Marani was down to one employee.
He says that he scratched and clawed and was able to keep the company afloat during the difficult period. In 2000, Marani renegotiated with Stop & Shop and began doing new construction for the chain’s Super Stop & Shops, averaging three or four of them a year. By the mid-2000s, A.H. Burns had a crew of about 20 plumbers.
When The Great Recession reared its ugly head in the late 2000s, the company faced an especially challenging period. But Marani persevered, weathered the bad times, and eventually built the business back to achieve its greatest success.
2018 marked the biggest year ever for the contractor. In 2019, Marani says his revenue increased by a factor of more than two compared to 2018. 2020 was poised to be another banner year until the pandemic brought nearly everything to a halt. Business resumed fairly quickly, and Marani is confident that A.H. Burns will return to its pre-pandemic pace.
Recently, the shop handled the plumbing for wholesale baker Fireking’s new 200,000-square-foot production facility in Braintree. At $1.5 million, it is the largest job A.H. Burns has ever done. Other recent projects include the Herb Chambers BMW dealership in Medford, the sports book at Encore Hotel & Casino in Everett, the Star Market at The Hub on Causeway in Boston, an Amazon delivery center in Norwood, Stop & Shop’s headquarters in Quincy, and, of course, multiple Super Stop & Shop locations.
Like his father, Marani is an avid boater and has a cabin cruiser. The trips he takes include excursions to Martha’s Vineyard, Provincetown, and Salem, often timed to attend blues festivals or concerts featuring blues music, another one of his passions.
Marani plans to continue specializing in grocery stores. The reason he likes doing those kinds of projects? “There is lots of plumbing in supermarkets.”