WATERFORD, CT -- Deane Terry was 21 years old with his mind made up to become an English teacher when his father died suddenly in 1971, leaving him and his younger brother the family business to run.
Only it wasn't much of a business, because his father, Harold Park Terry, had tallied up large debts. Terry said an accountant recommended shutting down what by then had become known as Park Roway Inc., a company that had a retail home improvement showroom and a commercial division that sold doors, hardware, frames, toilet partitions and related accessories.
The accountant, Bob Williams, told Terry the business was bankrupt.
"You can spend 10 years digging it out or close the doors," Terry recalls being told.
But something in Terry could not let go of his father's business so easily.
"When he died, it was like an obligation," Terry said. "This was his legacy. We just couldn't let it go."
Over the next decade, Terry frantically juggled money to keep creditors at bay. The difficult years were capped off when Terry's brother William, two years his junior, decided to leave the business in 1980 to start his own competitive company in Old Saybrook, Terry recalled.
"It wasn't a friendly situation," he said.
At about the same time, Terry decided to make a clean break from his father's business direction by closing the retail side of Park Roway, which had featured household supplies ranging from kitchen cabinets to railings to aluminum siding. Terry said he saw the handwriting on the wall as the region's first large-scale home center chain, Grossman's, settled into Groton, soon to be followed by even larger big-box retailers.
"If I had stayed in the home-center business, I would have been out of business," he said.
Instead, Park Roway over the next few years became strictly a commercial venture, distributing doors and related products to schools, hospitals, wastewater treatment plants and the defense industry, among others. His big break, according to Terry, was in 1998 when Pfizer Inc. decided to use local contractors to outfit its worldwide pharmaceutical research-and-development center being constructed in New London, handing the company a $1.2 million contract -- still its largest ever.
"That opened the door to us being accepted by the large contractors," Terry said.
Park Roway just completed another major project, worth $750,000, at Western Connecticut State University, Terry said, and has many local school projects under its belt in the $200,000 to $400,000 range.
Schools and universities have become a particular focus of the business since the December 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown spurred the installation of new security doors. The company orders doors and components, but rarely does the installation work.
Business was better before the Great Recession took its toll, Terry said, and while the company once had three to five jobs a week, it is now down to about one a month at this point as some of the major school projects in the area have been completed and few new ones are on the horizon. Employees, which once numbered about a dozen, have been whittled down to seven.
"It's a limited business you don't think much about," Terry said. "There's only about six or seven of us in the whole state of Connecticut."
But Terry said the products he deals with have a mind-boggling number of uses, ranging from air-tight doors for the Plum Island research facility, to mausoleum doors on Long Island, to blast doors at Northeast Utilities meant to withstand explosions, to soundproof doors for television stations Channel 18 in Hartford and Channel 26 in New London.
He also has provided doors for the American embassy in Great Britain, the federal courthouse in Puerto Rico, Middlesex Hospital's Shoreline Medical Center and the brig at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton.
"We do a lot of unique doors," bidding contracts mostly in the Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts areas, Terry said.
Park Roway has a metal-fabrication area in the back of its 19,000-square-foot building, part of which it leases out. It is there where employees make the metal frames for doors as well as pre-installing hardware to save installers time on the job -- a new service that Terry said is paying dividends.
It's a long way from the company's origins in 1930 when Wilfred "Bill" Park, a former mayor of New London, started a business installing overhead garage doors made by Illinois-based Rowe Manufacuring. The company was then known as Ro-Way, a shortened configuration of the longer version: roll-away doors.
Park's cousin, Terry's father Harold, joined the business after World War II and in the 1960s bought out his partner, whose commercial division -- called W.A. Park Co. -- by then was concentrating on the installation of steel-roof decking, lockers, slate, tack boards and other items.
Harold had all but abandoned the commercial division by the time of his death at age 52, rolling both sides of the company under the name Park Roway and concentrating much of his efforts on a home center off Route 32 in Quaker Hill, where the company headquarters is still located.
"He liked the retail end of the business," Terry said. "He was a real people person."
Terry said he still tries to bring some of his father's philosophies to bear on the business today, especially the idea that workers are part of the family and that family comes first.
Terry practices what he preaches, having both his son, Wesley Terry, and daughter, Morgan Prendimano, working as vice presidents with the company. At 64 and with more than four decades under his belt as president and chief executive, Terry said he is ready, within the next year or two, to hand off the keys to his business to the third generation of his family to run Park Roway, now in its 84th year.
"They got it down," he said. "It will be a smooth transition."
Copyright 2014 - The Day, New London, Conn.