50 Years of Marriage and in Business for 50 Years

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio — Paulette and Ernie Yocum have been married 50 years. And for 50 years, Paulette and Ernie Yocum have operated Austintown Fence Co.

Their business has had its share of struggles over that half-century, they say, but they could always rely on each other for support.

“You work the business just like your marriage. It’s not something you give up on,” Ernie says. “If anyone tells you they don’t have battles here and there, they’re lying. Battles make you stronger in marriage and it’s the same way in business.”

He has his ways of doing things, Ernie says, and Paulette has hers. More often than not, his wife says, they agree and that’s been a key in sustaining the success of both aspects of their lives over the past five decades. But there’s a constant striving to improve that plays a role as well.

“It’s a work-in-progress, always. We listen to what customers are asking for to know if we need to make changes, Paulette says. “You just have to mind it all those years.”

Before founding Austintown Fence, Ernie had installed fences for a local contractor. Eventually, he started doing it on his own to make extra money. After their wedding, though, the two talked it over and decided to start their own business.

“We started out just out of the house and it took several years before we started renting [storefronts]. We built this place 34 years ago,” Paulette says of their store, 6533 Mahoning Ave.

While the idea of a fence hasn’t changed in 50 years, the field has – drastically – the two agree. In 1967, wooden fences came in three basic types: split rail, stockade and picket. What helped Austintown Fence stand out in those early years was its custom woodworking, allowing the company to add flourishes to the design.

“We had 5½ days a week where there were two guys in the woodshop just doing special fences,” Ernie says.

Over the years, though, vinyl and aluminum fences have become the dominant forces in the market. Part of their popularity is how customizable they are. They can have a wood-grain pattern or be flat, available in almost any color you want. Caps for fence posts can have LEDs, solar-powered lights or be hardwired into a house’s electrical system and put on a switch.

The store today stocks a dozen brands of products.

“It’s just like buying a car. It’s about the options you want,” Ernie says.

Adds Paulette, “People want a different look to their fence and less maintenance. Wood fences require staining or painting. There was the demand [for vinyl]. It took a while, but vinyl’s become our biggest seller.”

The only thing that limits a customer’s imagination is his budget. And as the economy’s recovered from the Great Recession, that’s been less and less of a problem as customers are willing to spend more on home construction and additions.

“When people put in their swimming pools, they dump $45,000 into that and they’re not going to debate over $2,000 [whether to get] a vinyl fence,” he says.

A big boost to business, Paulette says, was the creation of their website, AFenceCompany.com, which allowed them to get in touch with more manufacturers and expand their offerings. In addition to residential and commercial fences, Austintown Fence has added just about everything that can be found on or a near a fence, from lampposts to mailboxes to shade cloth for kennels to tarps for baseball fields.

Maintenance for powered gates has also become a niche for the company. Austintown Fence has technicians on call 24/7 for FirstEnergy and Dominion Energy Ohio to remedy any problems with their gates.

“We got into the operating field with gate operators and it’s grown tremendously because we’re able to give quick service,” Ernie says. “A customer calls and says a gate’s not working. We can get a guy out there that day or the day after.”

But maybe the most common place to see the company’s name is on the campuses of schools nearby, including Austintown, Boardman – a partnership almost 35 years old – and Youngstown State University. Recent projects at Boardman include the fences at the district’s new football stadium and at its new bus depot.

“We do pretty close to every one of the local schools. We do a lot of work with the state,” Ernie says. “Timewise, it’s probably 60% residential and the other 40% is commercial. Dollarwise, it’s flipped.”

With installers in the field working every day with customers of every sort, plus those who stay in the showroom to work with walk-in customers, the Yocums put a great deal of stock in their employees.

Says Paulette, “We work with good people. We’ve got good manufacturers that back their products. At conventions, a lot of the startups ask us what our secret is.”

It’s no secret. “You’ve got to have the right help. You can count on them,” Ernie says. “[Having the right people] helps the business because it opens us up to do something else.”

Pictured at top: Paulette and Ernie Yocum married in 1967, the same year they founded Austintown Fence.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.