By Kecia Bal
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The is the amazing story of a Pennsylvania couple who next year, will celebrate 55 years of marriage and 40 years as entrepreneurs and chief operating officers. Their multi million dollar company has grown from a single septic pump truck (that the couple bought to clean mud from Johnstown basements after a flood back in 77′) to a 160,000-square foot facility to manufacture industrial vacuum equipment. For women in business who may work with their husbands or partners their story is an inspiration.
By July 1977, Gary and Rose Poborsky were in a fix.
They had five children all squeezed into a single-wide mobile home in Salix.
Over the previous decade, Gary had left his engineering studies to support a growing family, including a son with spina bifida. Then he’d left a laborer position at the Gautier Division of Bethlehem Steel Corp. to pursue a career in sales, peddling everything from soaps and cleaning supplies to a video advertising machine. But the summer of 1977 was trying, and Gary had lost his job as a farm equipment sales rep.
“However low you can go in life — whatever the bottom rung is for you — basically that’s where we were,” Rose said. “The only place we could go was up. You don’t aspire to be a millionaire when you have nothing. You just aspire to have a good day, to make a living, to have things a little better.”That’s where we started.”
Then, the flood hit Johnstown.
In the days of grimy disaster cleanup that followed, Rose was leaving her job in fast food for the day, headed to downtown Johnstown to help, when she thought she spotted her husband drive past in a septic pump truck from the farm equipment manufacturer.
She went home to worried children, who confirmed it: “We think Dad bought the truck.”
Gary had struck a deal with his former employer to pay off the $11,500 truck in 90 days.
From that first 1,500-gallon septic pump truck that Gary and Rose used to clean mud from Johnstown basements, the couple eventually established two Moxham-based businesses now with additional divisions and an office in Texas. Altogether, GAP Pollution and Environmental Control and GapVax employ more than 300 people.
In the weeks after the flood, Gary was sucking up flood mud at churches, restaurants and businesses, learning all he could about a service he hadn’t considered before.
“These companies came in from all over the place,” he said. “I was rubbing elbows with them. I didn’t even know that type of equipment existed. There were all these contractors in Johnstown, and then I got next to them and saw their equipment and asked where they were working.”
The answers: steel mills and coal-fired power plants.
Gary saw the long-term potential.
“It was being in the right spot at the right time,” he said.
Next, Gary bought a flush truck and then took another leap of faith with a large industrial truck. He used that to land his first contract with Penelec, a milestone.
“After that, we could grow in a planned manner and continue growing and get more equipment,” he said.
“We kept expanding, working for coal-fired power plants. Now we have three divisions plus corporate in Johnstown.
“We had to go out of the region to keep expanding.”
They parked the trucks outside their trailer and kept working. It would be years before the couple actually paid themselves.
But they had found a niche.
“The need was there,” Gary said.
“Basically, using these trucks with big blowers was a new technology to clean up at coal-fired power plants and steel mills. A lot of that was previously done by hand. Now, with a crew in a truck you could do in an eight-hour shift what would take 25 people to clean.”
The couple found capable, dedicated workers in Johnstown, but the equipment GAP Pollution and Environmental Control purchased wasn’t up to task.
“We were having a lot of problems and issues, breakages with the products we were using,” Gary said.
By the late ’80s, the two knew they could do better. After a three-year hiatus to race cars, Gary applied his mechanical mindset to engineering a line of trucks and equipment to start GapVax in 1989.
“What helped me the most was I was always a motorhead,” he said. “I was always fixing — anything with a motor on it or wheels. I was very interested in vehicles, whether they were cars or trucks. It was a natural fit for me.”
It took a team, though, to put together the beginning of what would be two extensive product lines — an array of truck models for industrial and municipal use — and now specialized support equipment.
“The mechanics, supervisors and I all put our heads together,” he said. “I said, ‘We’re going to start building our own trucks, only for the service company.’
“The service company just kept growing and growing.”
Now it’s the manufacturing side that’s seen a boom, particularly in municipal applications. The growth has prompted a 160,000-square-foot expansion at former U.S. Steel shop space in Moxham — once the site of a 49-acre campus that employed 2,000 people.
Watching the new bays transform into more room for the company, the Poborskys said they couldn’t have anticipated what unfolded.
“I did want to be in business,” Gary said. “When you’re in business, you’re captain of the ship and all your responsibility is focused on getting work and keeping work for your employees as you grow. Mine was always to provide above-average income for my family.
“One of the things always in the back of my mind is our eldest son, who is handicapped (and) in a wheelchair. My goal was to have a home that was accessible. I always hoped and worked toward making sure that if something ever happened to me, that my wife would be able to be sufficient financially.”
Rose, his business partner — next year, the two will celebrate 55 years of marriage and 40 years as entrepreneurs and chief operating officers — was the one who kept company finances in check.
That started with shoeboxes at first, and is now the best software they can buy.
On April 15, Gary and Rose are to be the first couple to be inducted together to the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Business Hall of Fame.
But the real success, she said, is providing stability for their family and employees and their families.
“Being a millionaire or getting rich — that wasn’t even in our scope of thinking,” she said. “Having a car that didn’t break down was in our scope. For the children to get something for Christmas besides a necessity, that was in our scope.
“All the rest was the icing on top of the cake.”