By Eric Pope
Special To Crain’s Detroit Business
All it takes to be the oldest business in Michigan is a profession that remains essential while changing with the times and having the intellect for that profession running through six generations of the same family.
That’s the formula for George Jerome & Co., a Roseville surveying and civil-engineering firm. The company is three years older than its closest rival, the Detroit Free Press, because in Detroit’s pioneer days, setting property lines took precedence over setting type.
Edwin Jerome founded the business the year after his father and brothers moved from Batavia, N.Y., to go into the lumber business. The founding father laid out lot lines with a handmade chain. On one surveying expedition in the early 1830s, two members of Edwin’s crew were killed by a raiding party from the Blue Mound Menominee tribe.
Edwin Jerome survived an Indian attack, and three more generations survived the slings and arrows of life in Detroit. A surveying and civil-engineering firm made its mark in the history books as it has on our soil.
Edwin escaped serious injury in the field, but doing business in downtown was also dangerous — he was run over by a horse and carriage while crossing Woodward Avenue and, as a result, spent the end of his life in a wheelchair. Edwin passed on the business to his son Franklin (1846-1906), who passed it to his son George (1870-1942), who passed it to his son Gilbert (1900-1971). Gilbert incorporated the business in his father’s name, then assured continuity by naming his only son George.
George G. Jerome Sr., 62, took over the business in 1970 and plans to pass it on to his son, George G. Jerome Jr., 33. To enter the profession of his forefathers, the younger George earned a degree in civil engineering at Wayne State University, earned an additional degree in land surveying, passed the first part of the state board examination in civil engineering and surveying, then apprenticed with the family business for four years. He has passed the final part of the state board examination in surveying and is waiting to take the second exam in civil engineering.
To put his family’s accomplishment in perspective, George Sr. notes that half a dozen surveying companies that also had been in the same family for more than 50 years have disappeared. But because George Jr. is single, it’s too early to start planning for the next generation.
So, you were expecting maybe coonskin caps and muskets? Being Detroit’s oldest company has brought a good deal of attention to George Jerome & Co. in the past year. But they still gotta come in and do the work, just like the rest of us. Ultimate responsibility for that work one day will be passed from George Jerome Sr. to his son George Jr., the sixth generation of Jeromes.
“The technology has changed, but the practice of land surveying is fundamentally the same,” said George Jerome Sr. “We take the legal descriptions of property and lay them out on the ground. The concerns are basically the same, only there is a lot more paperwork and a lot of rules and regulations to follow.”
Georges Sr. and Jr. do most of their work in front of a computer. They get their calibrations from “total stations” that measure distances with laser beams and automatically produce most of the surveyor’s calculations. Surveyors even call on satellite-generated information from a global positioning system, although those measurements generally aren’t precise enough for the projects the Jeromes work on.
Surveying is now complemented by civil engineering, which accounts for around 40 percent of Jerome & Co.’s business. The company designs roads, sewers, drainage systems and water mains while providing easements for power and gas lines.
Jerome & Co. is not one of the biggest surveying and civil-engineering firms in the area, but it has worked on many big projects, including the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, the Renaissance Center, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, Ford Auditorium and the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. Building.
The company had its offices in downtown Detroit until 1978, when it moved to its current location on Hayes Road in Roseville to be closer to its client base in the suburbs. In the past few years, the company has returned to its roots by doing several major projects in Detroit, most notably the Harbortown development.
The stability of family has helped Jerome & Co. through the ebb and flow of business cycles. The company had about 40 employees in the early 1950s when it was designing the Livonia sewer system but dropped to a dozen in the late 1970s. Now it is back to 35 employees in response to the construction boom.
The father-and-son team isn’t looking to make the company much bigger because at some point they would have to turn over management to someone else. “There’s a certain size you’re limited to if you are going to be running the place yourself,” George Jr. explains. “There is a larger influence of your pride of work when it’s a family business. It motivates you to do the best that you can do.”
Another reason for the longevity, said George Sr., has been the diversity of the services it offers. Over the years, the company has been the city engineer for many municipalities, including Detroit, and still provides that service for Redford Township and Grosse Pointe.
He acknowledges that the company’s long track record is a big asset. Many clients turn to Jerome & Co. because the property they are redeveloping originally was surveyed by Jerome. “Old surveys are our best advertising,” George Sr. said. And being the oldest company in the state has been another source of publicity. Newspapers have profiled Jerome & Co. many times, and the spotlight is shining on it once again during Detroit’s 300th birthday celebration.