A Year Later, Progress And Hope At Bevin Bell

Bevin Bell, an East Hampton landmark for 181 years, has rebuilt since the factory burned down after a lightning strike on Memorial Day 2012.

Ask Matt Bevin how the year has gone since a fire destroyed his 180-year-old family business and he'll do something he has mostly avoided — look back instead of ahead.

"On the one hand it seems like it flew by, like it was yesterday, and on the other hand it seems like a decade," Bevin said. "It feels like progress, is what it feels like."

It is progress that seemed impossible exactly a year ago. Bevin Bros., the last company in the United States exclusively making bells, is much of the way back, operating at a formerly vacant factory building near the old site in East Hampton. Matt Bevin would like to rebuild on the original location, using some of the same bricks, but that's a ways off, he said.

"There's always things you'd love to have seen go more quickly, but the fact that I'm employing 21 people that were burned 100 percent out, and the fact that we're shipping goods to people all over the world…it's remarkable how much we've accomplished," he said.

Remarkable indeed. Late on the night of Saturday, May 26, an apparent lighting strike sparked the blaze that destroyed the historic Bevin plant. By daybreak on the 27th in the middle of the holiday weekend, the devastation was nearly total.

"One hundred-eighty years of history was gone overnight," Bevin told a luncheon gathering of the Salvation Army at the Marriott in downtown hartford this past Thursday. "Delivery wagons, photographs, patents…one of a kind patterns...gone. It was just a burned out wreck of twisted metal and charred ruins. And during those days, the only thing I had was prayer."

The Salvation Army, itself a religious group, was then and is now one of Bevin's largest customers for the red-handled bells that ringers toll in front of stores at Christmas-time. Its annual event, appropriately enough, it titled "Beyond the Bells."

Bevin told the story of how he gained hope and resolve through prayer those first three days.

"This is a room full of people that appreciate what hope does," Bevin told the Salvation Army staffers and volunteers. Bevin Bros., he said, "this little shell of a company that most people had little reason to think about, was symbolic of many things to a lot of people."

Symbolic, that is, of the promise of American manufacturing — not an easy thing to rebuild in Connecticut. It's basically a metal-stamping and assembly operation, not exactly in the competitive wheelhouse of a state known for high-end, precision manufacturing. But he sees the effort from the perspective of a person struggling with his or her life, who sees or reads an account of Bevin Bros. rebuilding.

"If that can happen, whatever I'm wreslting with in my life can happen," said Bevin, a Louisville, Ky. resident who is a former U.S. Army captain and serial entrepreneur, with several other companies.

But it's not just inspiration and symbolism. It's a business that employs people — some of them immigrants — who would have little hope of finding equivalent work.

He tells the story of Hadzika and Hasa Muminovic, Bosnian immigrants who speak little English, whose daughter is a recently minted 5th grade teacher, and whose sons are a recent college graduate and a student. Bevin asks for a show of hands of bell-ringers.

"Every single handle that you used was put on that bell by a man named Hadzika Muminovic," he said. "When they came here," he said of the couple, "They were a perfect example of thie kind of people that the Salvation Army reaches out to."

Unlike the Salvation Army, however, Bevin Bell, as the company is known, is a for-profit business and Matt Bevin has made it clear he's not running it as a charity. It may only seem that way based on the last year, when he has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into it. Buying and installing used presses cost $200,000 alone, he said, and each of the dies — the tools at the heart of the business — had to be rebuilt by hand.

Regular production resumed in the fall. So far, he said, the business volume is maybe halfway back, maybe a little bit more. The staff is almost back to its original size, including seven who work for PSI, a company co-owned by Bevin that makes pressurized gas cylinders under the same roof.

"We have people that we never let go, and others that we've been hiring back," Bevin said.

The state delivered a matching grant of $100,000 under the Small Business Express program, to help defray some costs, after Bevin announced he would rebuild.

In his personal life, Bevin and his wife have nine children ages 3 to 14, including four adopted from Ethiopia last year.

"The first one came home two weeks after the fire," he said. "It's been so seamless and wonderful."

Rebuilding the business, less seamless, includes a long-term plan to rise back up at the original site. "This is property that my ancestors decided to build on," he said. "It would be meaningful on many levels."

For now, Bevin Bros. is selling "Phoenix Bells," commemorative bells that are marked, "since 1832....with a short interruption on May 27, 2012."

The cost of the bell is $10 plus $2 for shipping. To order, email the company at sales@bevinbells.com or call (860) 267-4431.

Featured Stories

CTnow is using Facebook comments on stories. To comment on ctnow.com articles, sign into Facebook and enter your comment in the field below. Comments will appear in your Facebook News Feed unless you choose otherwise. To report spam or abuse, click the X next to the comment. For guidelines on commenting, click here.



Business Midday Get daily business news sent directly to your inbox for free weekdays at 1 p.m.

After signing in, click on your username at the top left of this screen and then on "My Newsletter Subscriptions."