AN ANCIENT CHINESE proverb goes like this: “Wealth does not pass three generations.” The implication is that a family’s first generation struggles to get a business up and running; the second generation maintains that growth and maybe enjoys a few benefits; a third generation knows little of the preceding struggles and hardships, only the blessings, and squanders the success.
However, in Marin, that rule doesn’t always hold true — far from it, in fact. In the building trade alone, at least four longtime family-owned businesses are currently alive and thriving in the county: San Rafael’s McNear Brick and Block is now in its fifth generation of family operation; Ghilotti Bros. Inc., one of Northern California’s largest heavy construction firms, is in its third generation, with a fourth generation studying construction management; San Anselmo’s Ongaro and Sons Plumbing, Heating and Cooling includes four generations of men named Ernest and dates back 85 years; and San Rafael’s West End Nursery has stayed in the same family’s ownership and at the same location for more than 100 years, with a member of the fourth generation now essentially at the helm.
By age 24, John Augustus McNear was already an ambitious and enterprising young man. After his parents emigrated from Scotland, he arrived in San Francisco via Maine, determined to make his mark. By 1886, John Augustus had purchased 2,500 acres of bayfront property four miles east of growing San Rafael — if you drive east on Point San Pedro Road from downtown, after passing the community of Glenwood, look to the right and you’ll see some low brick buildings and three thin, towering brick chimneys, skinny structures that survived the major earthquakes of 1906 and 1989. His long-term goal was to create an industrial city there; encouraging such a move on the site were rich natural deposits of clay and a functioning brick kiln.
Within a decade that existing kiln failed, but in 1898 McNear reopened it. Today, nearly 120 years later, Jeff and Dan McNear, John Augustus’ great-great-grandsons, are still turning out bricks at the same location on San Pedro Point. Only now the company’s name is McNear Brick and Block, and its location is known as McNear Point.
The company has seen its share of hard times. In 1933, John Augustus’ son Erskine B. McNear gained control and, in the midst of the Great Depression, had to shut the brickyard down. It remained shuttered through World War II until 1946, when Lawrence P. McNear, John Augustus’ grandson, once again fired up the kiln and resumed brick production.
At the time, a bayfront location was critical to McNear’s success. In those early years, bricks were shipped first by scow schooner, then barged to Sacramento and Stockton and throughout the Bay Area. Nearby buildings constructed with McNear bricks (by intent, they never bore the McNear imprint) include San Francisco’s iconic Shriners Hospital on 19th Avenue; San Rafael’s city hall and library; UC Berkeley’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house; and the Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael.
By 1972, when Augustus’ great-grandson John E. McNear and his wife, sister, and brother acquired ownership, the business had seen significant changes. Most of the original 2,500 acres had been sold off; the brick kilns were no longer fired by wood, coal or diesel oil, but by natural gas; and the once valuable on-site clay deposits had been depleted.
“Now our raw material comes from construction sites throughout Marin County,” says Dan McNear. “In fact, we’re making bricks out of soil excavated from the new Marin General Hospital site — it’s dirt that would otherwise go to the landfill, so it’s fair to say our bricks are ‘recycled.’ ”
There are four Ernest Ongaros in the saga of Ongaro and Sons Plumbing, Heating and Cooling. In 1932 Ernest V. Ongaro started the firm in Fairfax, in the building that now houses the popular live-music venue 19 Broadway. The firm prospered and in 1938 it moved to its current location just off San Anselmo Avenue in San Anselmo.
Soon, Ernest V. and his wife, Anita, had three sons: Donald, Richard, and Ernest P. But tragedy struck: in 1989 Don was killed in an auto accident, and in 2005 Rich died in a plane crash. That left Ernest P., nicknamed Ernie, running Ongaro and Sons.
Before Don Ongaro’s passing, he and his wife, Beverly, had added two sons to the family, Dean, and Mitch. Meanwhile, Ernest P. and his wife, Joan, contributed a daughter, Laurie, and two sons, Ernest J. (if you’re keeping count, we’re now at three Ernests) and Paul; both are now working for Ongaro and Sons. And prior to his demise, Rich and his wife, Diane, brought forth Brian, who works for Ghilotti Construction (see next family profiled in this article), and Shannon. Meanwhile, Dean and wife Cindy produced another pair of fourth-generation Ongaros, Donald and Amy.
It was in 1996 that Ernie Ongaro and his wife, Debbie, delivered the fourth Ernest to the Ongaro clan — Ernest J. Ongaro (this second Ernest J. was nicknamed “Ejay”), followed by their second son, Paul. Adding to the dynasty, Mitch and wife Liz produced Laura, Elise, and Daniel (none are Ongaro employees; Daniel is still in high school).
But make no mistake, fourth-generation members Ejay and Donald both now work for Ongaro and Sons. You’ll find them in the trenches learning the business literally from the ground up. As for who owns and runs the company now? “That’s simple,” says Dean Ongaro, Donald’s dad. “The cousins do. Paul, Mitch, Ernie and myself; we’re all owners.”
And from the look of things, they’ve been running it quite well. In 2001, Ongaro and Sons purchased Crane & Son Plumbing & Heating, a firm that has served Sonoma County for more than 70 years. Over their 85 years in business, Ongaro and Sons have performed plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning contract work at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Lucas Valley, at San Domenico School in Sleepy Hollow and for the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo. And for decades, Ongaro and Sons have been the go-to service guys for San Quentin State Prison.
And yet despite all this kinship, back in 1932, founder Ernest Ongaro had set down an intriguing edict: If you wanted to be on the family payroll, you had to work someplace else first. “The reason for that was simple,” third generation co-owner Dean Ongaro explains. “My grandfather wanted us to first experience a crummy boss; then we’d all appreciate working for a family who somehow manages to get along. Heck, we’re Italians, so one way or another we’re gonna work it out.”
In 1889, at age 18, James Ghilotti left Italy to work in the diamond mines of South Africa. After four years of toiling and saving his money, he returned to Italy but soon grew restless. James had an uncle in America who invited him to come to live in a far-off village in California.
Over 100 years later, James Ghilotti’s legacy, Ghilotti Brothers Inc., is one of Northern California’s largest construction companies. Typical of the firm’s work are tasks like grading the Marin County Civic Center, reconfiguring (four times) the major intersection in San Anselmo known as the Hub and widening nearby Red Hill Avenue, often referred to as the Miracle Mile.
Ghilotti Bros. also graded and did infrastructure work for most of the homes in Novato’s San Marin and all site work for George Lucas’ original Skywalker Ranch. In 1986 the firm grubbed out Southern Pacific’s rail lines in the town of Tiburon and graded for the Point Tiburon townhouse development. And in 2008 Ghilotti Bros. were the lead contractors for the massive realignment of the Highway 101–Highway 580 interchange, adding carpool lanes to a traffic complex that currently handles over 135,000 cars a day in central San Rafael. Ironically, San Rafael is the “village” where the firm’s founder, James Ghilotti, first emigrated more than a century earlier.
James and his wife, Amalia, had five sons — Willie, Dino, Mario, Babe and Dante — and a daughter, Nancy. Starting his trade in 1914, James soon became a reputable contractor, building concrete and rock retaining walls throughout Marin and Sonoma counties. One job involved Marin’s Alpine Lake reservoir; another was Larkspur’s Blue Rock Inn, now the popular Left Bank Brasserie. In 1939, as his sons started working in the business, it became known as James Ghilotti and Sons.
All four Ghilotti brothers (Dante died at a young age) served in World War II and, on returning, plunged headfirst into the soon-to-be-booming construction business. Concrete tilt-ups, asphalt and concrete paving, and heavy earthmoving jobs became the company’s forte. In 1950, James retired; 10 years later son Babe formed his own separate construction company. Then in 1967, Willie died, leaving brothers Dino and Mario to run the business through 45 years of incredible growth.
At a Glance
The families mentioned in this article have been involved in some pretty big Bay Area projects. Here are some of the largest.
GHILOTTI BROS. INC. CONSTRUCTION
1 Crissy Field renovation: beaches, lawns and wetlands creation
2 101/580 Interchange and carpool lane installation through Central San Rafael
3 Marin County Civic Center grading
4 San Pedro Road widening
5 Pedestrian overcrossing on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard at Wolfe Grade
6 Lombard Street resurfacing
MCNEAR BRICK & BLOCK BRICKWORK
1 Shriner’s Hospital on 19th Avenue
2 San Rafael’s city hall and library
3 Cal Berkeley’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house
4 Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael
ONGARO AND SONS PLUMBING AND HEATING
1 George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch
2 San Domenico School in Sleepy Hollow
3 S.F. Theological Seminary in San Anselmo
4 San Quentin State Prison
5 Angel Island bathrooms
6 Coast guard housing at Point Reyes Lighthouse
WEST END NURSERY PLANTS AND SHRUBBERY
1 Parkway trees for San Rafael, Larkspur, Corte Madera and San Anselmo
2 Marin General Hospital
3 College of Marin
his article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: Building Marin