The Pluck of the Irish
By Gena Mangiaratti, Staff Writer
Originally Published in the Hampshire Gazette on Tuesday, March 17, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — Twenty-seven years ago, Dublin native Gerard “Ger” Ronan was petrified when a Gazette reporter walked into the Dairy Mart on Conz Street — where he worked one of his three jobs — and told him the newspaper would like to interview him for a story about Irish immigrants.
At that time, Ronan was working around the clock and thinking nothing of it. As well as working at Dairy Mart, now the Northampton Market, he also worked at Pop’s Package Store in downtown Northampton, and at night, Howard Johnson in Hadley, where he remembers sometimes falling asleep on the job. “You’re never going to be able to use my name,” he recalled telling the reporter. “I don’t have papers.” So in the story published in the Gazette on St. Patrick’s Day 1988, he was referred to simply as “G,” and only his silhouette was used for an image. Ronan, then a few days shy of 25 and five months from getting married — when he would finally obtain a Green Card — told the Gazette, “I want to go into business for myself. This is still the land of opportunity.”
Twenty-seven years later, Ronan, the owner of Yankee Home Improvement, speaks freely in his office on Industrial Drive, a modest-sized workspace decorated with company awards and pictures of his family.
The company makes $5.8 million in annual sales and has more than 70 employees. He got divorced two years ago, now lives in Westhampton and turns 52 this week. He speaks with a faint brogue, and refers to U2’s lead singer Bono by his real name, Paul. Ronan said he enjoys going back to Ireland to visit, but never wanted to return permanently. He became a U.S. citizen in 2005.
“Literally, since the day I came, not a day goes by I’m not grateful I immigrated,” he said.
At the time, Ronan was one of thousands of recent immigrants who had left Ireland for economic opportunity in the United States. He was the only subject in the Gazette story who asked not to be identified due to his immigration status. John Baick, a professor of history at Western New England University, said many immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1980s because President Ronald Reagan had loosened immigration laws and the business environment was in a period of opportunity. And by then, Irish immigrants were accepted in the U.S. culture. Until the late 19th century and, for some, the mid-20th century, Irish immigrants were discriminated against in large part for being Catholic, Baick said. “They were lower than free blacks. They were not seen as white, they were seen as servants of the pope,” he noted. For many people, he said, the Irish did not become part of American culture until John F. Kennedy was elected president.
Grew up in Dublin
Ronan grew up in Dublin with his father, the late Peter Ronan; mother, Elizabeth “Elsie” Ronan; two sisters and a brother. One of his sisters lives in Dublin, and the other is in Perth, Australia. His brother immigrated to the United States after he did, and now lives in Chicago. Their father had been a mechanic, and their mother a housewife.
He arrived in the United States for the first time in the summer of 1982, when he worked at a store in Wildwood, New Jersey. At the time, he was studying accounting at the College of Commerce, now part of the Dublin Institute of Technology. He went back to school after the summer, but was “pining away to come back to America again.”
He returned with another visitor’s visa the following year. He worked at the same store in New Jersey for two more summers. In the other seasons, when the store was not open, he worked at a ski resort in Utah and a cannery in Alaska. He moved to the Valley in the mid-1980s after passing through Northampton on a visit to New Hampshire, and enjoying the alternative vibe of the city. As it turned out, the owner of the business where he worked in New Jersey had also owned a store in the Hadley Mall. Ronan recalls his boss telling him that he really would appreciate Northampton. “In those days I had a mohawk,” Ronan said with a laugh.
“I’d love to start a home-improvement company and do it right.”
His peers thought he was crazy for working around the clock, he said. But as an immigrant trying to start a life, he not only needed the money, but to distinguish himself as a valuable worker. He did not want to give his employers any excuse to fire him. “You want to be the most valuable employee that they have,” he said. Though his work ethic kept up after becoming legal, he remembers the relief that came with no longer being undocumented. “Technically, I was breaking the law,” he said. “When you’re living illegally, you keep a low profile. You don’t drive fast, you don’t run a stop sign.”
After obtaining a Green Card, he got a job in advertising at the newspaper in Springfield then known as the Union News. He also worked part-time for a contractor in West Springfield, and ran his own network marketing business on the side. It was through this venture that he met Don Wilson, a network marketer who he said taught him to find others who are successful, ask them how they did it, and replicate them. “The secret to success is, it’s not secret,” he recalled Wilson telling him while sitting in a private jet.
Ronan said he has similarly taught his daughters — Molly, 20; Maeve, 18; and Maura, 16 — to seek out successful people and ask them how they did it. Maeve and Maura are currently in high school, and Molly is studying business and entrepreneurship at Babson College with the goal of working in the music industry. Molly Ronan remembers St. Patrick’s Day as special event growing up. When she and her sisters were little, “leprechauns” would visit their home and leave miniature gifts for their dollhouses, she recalled. More recently, she was able to learn about entrepreneurship from watching her father start his own business. “He’s just been a role model for me,” she said.
Ger Ronan’s decision to start a contracting business came after a bad experience with a local contractor in 2002. The contractor had taken a deposit on the job, and never did it. “I always remembered the feeling of helplessness,” he said. He remembers thinking, “I’d love to start a home-improvement company and do it right.” He started Yankee Home Improvement out of his home in 2008, and in 2009 moved to Industrial Drive. Ronan said he also operates eight satellite locations in BJ’s stores.
He opens a humorous promotional video of the company featuring his two younger daughters. In it, they bring cookies and flowers to their clients, a practice in which they regularly engage. “We try and differentiate ourselves from other people, and we try not to take ourselves too seriously,” he said.
Leo Duplessis, general manager for Yankee Home Improvement, said Ronan had told him about the 1988 Gazette story last week as they realized St. Patrick’s Day was approaching. Duplessis said he believes Ronan’s story is an important one. “I don’t think a lot of people get to see the end of the success story,” Duplessis said. Tim Avery, the company’s director of public relations, said his boss’ gratitude for being in the United States is clear. “He’s very dedicated to the work and making a difference in the industry,” he said. “The guy loves the country … He is just more than happy with what the States have done for him.” Ronan calls America the “freest country in the world.” “If you work hard, you can succeed. In a lot of countries, you can’t. There’s not that much opportunity,” he said. “From an immigrant’s perspective, I think that the good parts way outshine the bad parts.”
Originally Published in the Hampshire Gazette on Tuesday, March 17, 2015