Teach others what you know and you will be surprised at the information that is passed back to you, says the Founder, Embree Elevator, James F Comley.
James F. Comley is an entrepreneur and owner of Embree Elevator. He has worked in the elevator installation, service, and repair industry for over 65 years. He has dedicated himself to public safety in the elevator industry for his entire career. Comley was appointed by the Governor and served on the Massachusetts Board of Elevator Regulations in the state’s Department of Public Safety for over 20 years and was elected and served as the Chairman for three years.
In 1968 James and his wife, Virginia Comley, founded an elevator company and after several mergers and acquisitions, he owns what is now known as Embree Elevator. Virginia passed away in 2019 but James continues to work at Embree Elevator and, additionally, as a consultant to his elevator and escalator industry colleagues on new technology, safety devices, and procedures.
James F. Comley is the 2011 recipient of The Ellis Island Medal of Honor Award for his service to public safety, education, and mentorship in the elevator and vertical moving industry. The Ellis Island Medals of Honor are awarded annually to a group of distinguished American citizens who exemplify a life dedicated to community service Both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate has officially recognized the Ellis Island Medals of Honor. Each year’s recipients are read into the Congressional Record.
Comley is a Founding Member and a Board Member of the National Elevator Historical Society, and the co-curator for the permanent exhibit in The Elevator Museum in Haverhill, MA. The museum’s motto is “Preserving Our Past, Elevating Our Future.”
Edited excerpts from the interview
Business Upside [BU]: How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
James Comley [JC]: After serving in the US Navy, and getting certified as an electrician, I secured a job at an elevator company. After several years of working on the elevators, I had the opportunity to move into management. I learned the business and decided to start my own company with my wife. It wasn’t a new idea for a company but we saw an opportunity to go after jobs that were overlooked by the bigger companies; repairing the older elevators. It wasn’t an original idea for a company but a new focus on a niche of the industry.
Business Upside [BU]: How did you come up with the name for your company?
James Comley [JC]: The name of the company I founded in 1968 was City Elevator but after several acquisitions of other companies, I sold City Elevator and retained what is now known as Embree Elevator. My original name for the company was inspired by my desire to work on the tallest buildings in the city.
Business Upside [BU]: Have you ever turned down a client?
James Comley [JC]: I like to start with ‘the customer is always right’ but sometimes property owners or managers have strong opinions about repairing old elevators that should be replaced. My company specializes in the repair, we can and have repaired many elevators but machines have a limit and sometimes they need to be retired and replaced. Trying to force inexpensive fixes isn’t a good policy. My first concern is always safety.
Business Upside [BU]: What is unique about your business?
James Comley [JC]: Many elevator companies pursue installations of elevators in new buildings but there are lots of older buildings, factories, and warehouses that need elevator maintenance and service. I saw the opportunity to build a business out of the need for repair and maintenance, an area of the business that other companies were not focused on. We opened a machine and lathing department to refurbish or build parts that were hard to find. This was a key part of my elevator repair business. We were able to scale faster with a special focus, build off of our reputation for dependability and expand.
Business Upside [BU]: How do you generate new ideas?
James Comley [JC]: Listen to the people that are the closest to your product because they will provide the best insights. In the elevator business, I feel, the best ideas always come from our mechanics. The mechanics are the experts and they are trained to diagnose, repair, and sometimes uncover if the elevator isn’t being used properly. Elevators are amazing machines that helped to build cities and civilization as we know it but they can be dangerous if not used and maintained properly. Routine maintenance, inspections, and educating and updating building managers on their equipment is part of the business. The elevator business is about the elevators so I rely on the people who work on them every day – the mechanics.
Business Upside [BU]: If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting, what would it be?
James Comley [JC]: I am a firm believer in shared knowledge. Find a mentor. Mentoring has always been a part of my business. Teach others what you know and you will be surprised at the information that is passed back to you. I have trained people to do my job, understand my job and be able to replace me. This philosophy has allowed me to move up, knowing that someone is fully trained to do what I was doing. It frees up my time to move forward in other areas of business development and frees my mind knowing that jobs are being done the way I want. I encourage mentorship in any business. Find a mentor and then be a mentor.
Business Upside [BU]: How do you define success?
James Comley [JC]: Success is finding joy in what you do. If you enjoy your job you look forward to going to work. If you look forward to going to work you get more accomplished, have a positive attitude which I have found to be contagious, and the whole company benefits. Employees are more open to sharing ideas, issues, and solutions in a positive work environment and that translates to success.
Business Upside [BU]: Do you believe there is some sort of formula or pattern to become a successful businessperson?
James Comley [JC]: If you are satisfied with doing only the required tasks of your job, then working 9 am to 5 pm is fine. But if you want to move up and succeed you need to get to work before 9 am and leave after 5 pm. I don’t mean working extra hours in the office, I mean putting in the extra effort. You can be thinking about challenges at your business while you are walking the dog, listening to podcasts in the car, asking a colleague to join you for lunch to ask for advice, volunteering at a charity organization, and having your company sponsor an event. Committing yourself to become a lifelong learner. I enjoy inspirational quotes and I am not sure whom to attribute this one too but I believe it answers your question. “Work while they sleep. Learn while they party. Save while they spend. Then live as they dream.”
Business Upside [BU]: How do you market your business, and which method has been most successful?
James Comley [JC]: Nothing beats word of mouth. Of course, it helps to have a track record of success with your clients but many clients own multiple properties. If you prove yourself with one building, it’s easier to secure the next building. Another great marketing tool for my company is the signage on the side of the repair vehicles. If you see an Embree Elevator repair truck in front of a building, you know who maintains their elevator. It’s amazing how many calls and emails we receive from signage on our vehicles. Building maintenance is still an area that doesn’t have an app yet – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t looking into it!
Business Upside [BU]: What motivated you to become an Entrepreneur?
James Comley [JC]: Some people are satisfied renting a home. If something breaks, you call and the superintendent or landlord and someone comes to fix it. I always wanted to own my own house but if something needs repair, I am responsible. Entrepreneurship and owning a business is similar, if you are willing to accept more responsibility and more risk, then start your own business. You may have more headaches, more sleepless nights over financial burdens but it can be rewarding in so many ways. My wife and I became entrepreneurs in our early thirties when we had four young children. I worked at the office sometimes 60 hours a week, repaired the elevators when no one answered the phone or beeper (in those days), my wife did the bookkeeping on our kitchen table and we almost went bankrupt at one point but it all worked out. We built a company that we are proud of and I still love going to work. I could have remained in a secure job working for someone else but I decided to take a calculated risk. My wife was my life partner and my business partner, and we wanted to own our business. We made the decision to take the path toward a higher reward and if we failed that would be okay, we would have a great adventure together. I’m ninety years old. No regrets.