The History of McKee Door (by Chet McKee)

McKee Door Company was founded in 1928 by James McKee. For several years, he had been an engineer with the Austin Company in Chicago and had seen first-hand the construction boom associated with automobiles—and he also had some unique ideas on how to make garage doors for such buildings. So when his son John graduated from the University of Illinois, they started up their company in the family’s garage in Harvey, making these garage doors from wooden members. Business was good enough that they shortly moved to a commercial building nearby in Harvey, and two years later they were joined by James’ second son, Ted, when he also graduated from Illinois.

Early on, the company concentrated on making doors for contractors and customers in the greater Chicago area, but soon found interest in their products from adjoining states as well. So, with business rapidly expanding, the entire company—and its work force—moved into a new facility in Aurora, which had previously housed a spool manufacturing company. One of the large attractions to this new factory was its inclusion of equipment to exhaust the saw dust created from the manufacture of these wooden doors. Again the company enjoyed continuous growth and began to secure patents for a number of its products and applications. And distribution now expanded into further communities as far as five hundred miles from the Aurora home base.

Then, along came the Second World War and—as for many other manufacturing plants in the country—the McKee Door plant was re-directed to producing materials in support of our defense requirements. With a fine array of woodworking machinery, the plant began to turn out wing struts and fuselage bracing for a wide variety of airplanes—especially the new breed of fighter planes. Even today in the twenty-first century, it is fascinating when an enthusiast begins to completely re-build one of these old “war-birds” such as the Navy Corsair. Imagine the surprise of such a technician to tear off the old wing coverings only to find the underlying sub-structure built out of wood components all stamped with “made by McKee Door Co., Aurora, Illinois”!

At the end of the war, the plant was released to assume its garage door manufacturing activities again, but there had already been some early work in designing special aircraft hangar doors during the defense-oriented period. With the advent of new jet-powered fighter planes, there came a need to devise a truly unique hangar with doors on each end that could open in 30 seconds time. Working with Butler Manufacturing in Galesburg (an early producer of pre-fab steel buildings), McKee Door became the supplier for the “Alert Hangar” program scattered throughout the country as our first line of domestic air defense. Upon an alarm, the hangar doors on both ends would be activated while the pilot put on his gear and raced to the cockpit. Within one-half minute the engine of the F-86 “Saber Jet” would be started and the pilot would literally take off directly from this position inside the hangar onto a continuing runway. While McKee Door and Butler worked on other variations of this first design, the techniques were later modified and these specialized hangar buildings ultimately were demolished.

Also, in the post-war era, the dominance of wood materials for garage doors began to get challenged by other material options, such as steel, fiberglass, aluminum, and wood laminates. So, the McKee Door plant undertook several additions to its Aurora-based operations that allowed the company to continue offering a complete product line. Moreover, there was a new surge of constructing both commercial and industrial buildings to accommodate new technologies in the manufacturing sector. And with these new buildings came the demand for bigger and faster-operating doors to serve their needs. So, McKee also added new industrial door applications and began producing early versions of the electric door operator for such uses (of course the electric door opener for the home is today considered a “necessity” rather than a convenience).

A specialized area of garage door manufacturing was for service (gas) station doors. McKee Door Company focused on this market by building doors to unique specifications for many of the major oil companies—including Standard Oil of Indiana (Amoco/BP), Shell, Texaco, Marathon and others. Originally, wooden-framed doors, these applications later became all aluminum-framed with glass. This specialty-market sector was especially beneficial for McKee Door over the many years during which our country built its interstate highway system.

While the company started out with two generations of McKee members (James and his two sons John and Ted), the cadre of family participation expanded in the later 50’s and early 60’ss. Ted’s three sons—John, Chet and Paul—all joined with the firm upon their college graduations and the completion of military duty. At this point, the company’s markets were generally in the eight Midwestern states surrounding Illinois, although an occasional industrial application would be shipped further distances away. The newer generation of McKee’s had aspirations to grow the business into a national enterprise, and James had already passed away a few years earlier.

So, in the early 1970’s, operating control of the company was generally turned over to the “younger” generation, and Chet McKee became president of the firm while John McKee took over control of the company’s retail operations in the greater Chicagoland area. Ted retired from active involvement with the company while John Sr. stayed on as an adviser and acted as Chairman of the Board until his death. The company went through a major corporate re-structuring at this time, re-naming the parent corporation as “McKee Industries, Inc.” and then functioning with eight operating divisions under this holding company (one of which continued to be McKee Door Co.).

In addition to this re-structuring, the company brought in several industry experts to assist in its growth ambitions. And from the early 1970’s until the mid-1980’s, the parent company grew in sales volume from a business of less than $2 million per year to one in excess of $25 million per year. Moreover, the company added manufacturing plants (both by acquisition and by start-up) in Watertown, Wisconsin; Lombard, Illinois; Marietta, Georgia; Euless, Texas; Anaheim, California; and a number of foreign and domestic licensees were also established. In 1978, the company celebrated its 50 th anniversary with a number of open-houses and a dealer cruise in the Bahamas. At this point in time, the future certainly continued to look promising to all those associated with the McKee Industries’ operations.

But it also became apparent that a long tradition of McKee family control was going to taper off. None of the children of either Chet or John McKee had any interest in joining the company or even in considering a career within the manufacturing sector. So, any plan for the company’s management succession would require turning over the reigns to someone outside the family if business were to continue into the 21 st century. Also, during this period, there were a number of consolidations and buy-outs among numerous small, regional garage-door firms. While at one time, the market was characterized by as many as fifty smaller door manufacturers, the evolution now showed about eight very large firms and a few remaining local companies scattered about. McKee Industries was situated in the first category, but was one of the smaller firms of such national scale—and we were one of only two such firms that were totally private in ownership.

The industry itself was also beginning to undergo an evolution in the technology used to produce our products. In earlier years, the fabrication of a garage door was rather labor-intensive. But, with the overall growth in the industry, there was a need for automation so as to speed up the production cycle and to help in lowering unit manufacturing costs. While some of these improvements in technology had already been implemented at McKee, we also knew that we could be looking at future capital investment needs in the multi-million-dollar range, which was somewhat daunting to a privately-funded company.

So, when the ownership of McKee Industries was approached by an Australian conglomerate in 1985 about the prospect of selling out, it certainly came as a surprise—and our first reaction was that “we are not for sale!” The interested party was Clyde Industries headquartered in Sydney, Australia and a very large public company in that country. As they already had an investment in a specialty door manufacturing company in the Los Angeles area, they were looking to find a partner for that entity who could provide the balance of the product line and reputation. McKee Industries was their obvious choice, and Clyde had bankrolled money in an Iowa financial institution to have available for growing their stake in the U.S. marketplace.

So, the McKee Board of Directors decided to at least explore such an opportunity with the principals from Clyde and their existing U.S. affiliate known as Porvene Roll-A-Door. It soon became apparent that the Porvene operations were having a hard time getting accepted in this country, whereas the McKee product name was a “crown jewel” among both architects and major construction firms. The synergies of divers product lines, geographical locations, distribution networks and experienced personnel blended together in a manner under which this affiliation would make eminently good business sense. Further, given the knowledge that no McKee family members would join the company; and given the expectation that the company would need to invest several million dollars in new technology in the coming years, and given the nature of the other consolidations already taking place in the industry, and finally with the unique set of tax/accounting rules and the favorable price being obtained for the sale of the company—all of these factors led the Board and shareholders to approve such a transaction which ultimately closed in October of 1986.

At that time, senior operating management for the new company (called Porvene McKee) came from the existing Porvene plant in California. Chet McKee retired from the company at the time of closing, while John McKee remained active with the retail operations for a continuing period. For about three years, the company maintained its headquarters in the old McKee facilities in Aurora, but they struggled in gaining national recognition or acceptance for its mixed product line. And then, in the early 90’s, the domestic economy in Australia took a nose dive. Clyde determined to focus its assets and its efforts on the homeland only, so they undertook an aggressive campaign to sell off all their holdings in the United States (including several other companies in unrelated businesses). As they could not quickly find a single buyer for the Porvene-McKee combination, they ended up splitting the company into several pieces. The original McKee Door plant was sold to a group of Aurora-based managers and they resumed operations at this location using the name “McKee Door Co.” Other plants in the country were similarly sold to either local management groups or to outside investors. The name of “Porvene-McKee” died with the culmination of the split ups, and each local plant took on a new product name of its own.

With regard to the original McKee Door plant in Aurora, operations continued at a pretty healthy clip for the first few years. The new management, however, apparently did not pay enough attention to the credit quality of its accounts—and focused instead on increasing volume. Sadly, a couple of the largest of these accounts went bankrupt about the same time, leaving the company with huge operating losses and no ability to finance this disaster. So, under duress from their bank, the ownership sold off its machinery and equipment to a company in Arkansas and sold most of its inventory to other competing firms. And then when the bank was finally repaid, the company closed its doors for good under the old name of McKee Door.

The plant facilities still represent about 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and some portions of this complex have been sold off to small firms for a variety of uses. The real estate is owned by an investment group in Chicago who today are still trying to find uses for the remaining space. And within the garage door industry today, if an architect specifies a “McKee Door” it will sadly result in no response—as this brand identity is now defunct.