For almost half a century, Murphy Fence Co. has handled fence and railing needs in Cape May County.
While selling and installing fence and deck rails is the most obvious side of the Litton family’s business, the company also is a manufacturer of those products from vinyl and wood.
Amy Litton, the company president, said that about 25 percent of the fencing it makes gets sold over-the-counter to other fence installers, builders and do-it-yourselfers.
She and husband Ryan Litton figure they manufacture about 156,000 linear feet of fencing a year in two shops at its facilities on Shore Road in Lower Township.
The company takes wooden lumber and lengths of raw extruded vinyl and — using industrial routers, saws and such — fabricates a variety of designs of fences and rails.
The manufacturing side of the business has grown as customer preferences for types of fence have changed.
Amy Litton said that when the couple bought the business in 1990 from Ryan’s father after his eight years of ownership, half of Murphy Fence’s installations were wood fence and half were chain-link fence.
The poet may think good fences make good neighbors, but customers think good fences don’t need maintenance, are attractive and last indefinitely.
So these days, 75 percent of the company’s installations are vinyl, 20 percent are wood and 5 percent are fancy aluminum designs, Amy Litton said. The once ubiquitous chain link, now considered institutional looking, accounts for less than 1 percent.
She said the vinyl stock Murphy Fence uses — bought from one extruder who was found to make a superior product — is a higher grade than what is seen in home stores, impervious to salt air and temperature changes. “It will go to minus 50 degrees without cracking.”
Many people still like the look of wood, however, Litton among them.
“I can have any fence I want, and I prefer the look of wood. We have a lot of vinyl on our property, but I prefer the wood,” she said.
Property owners in some places, such as the historic district in Cape May, aren’t free to choose vinyl and so use wood, she said.
Wood also offers an initial cost advantage. For the same type of fence, vinyl and aluminum run about 30 percent more than wood, Litton said.
Aluminum is very durable, all of it powder coated to prevent corrosion, for “when they want a certain look, a very attractive look,” she said.
This is the busy season, from March through November, for the experienced crews at Murphy Fence.
“We probably have eight employees who have been here 20-plus years. We take care of our employees, always have. We don’t have a lot of callbacks for that reason,” Litton said.
She said the company does more commercial work in the winter, with machines that can prepare the footings unless the ground is frozen a foot or more deep.
“We try to do a big advertising blitz in January and February to make people aware of their outdoor needs,” she said.
When the U.S. economy collapsed in 2009, Murphy Fence entered a tough period that didn’t fully end until this year.
Litton said sales dropped 30 percent to 45 percent. The business had to lay off six people in the winter.
“That was the first time we’ve ever laid off anybody in the wintertime,” Litton said.
She said it took two years to get the income and expenses to match, which was a learning experience.
“We belong to a big association, and many of the companies in it just went under,” she said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of debt, so we were able to keep going.”
Other manufacturers in the county had a similar experience.
The number of manufacturing firms in Cape May County fell from 103 in 2002 to 85 in 2009, federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
Employment dropped from 941 to 733 seven years later and kept falling as other manufacturers tried to balance costs with revenue until 2011, when the factory jobs number hit 654.
In spring this year, sales at Murphy Fence rebounded strongly and finally exceeded pre-recession levels, Litton said.
She said that after all these years, the fence business is in the family’s blood — which now extends to the next generation, too.
The Littons’ son, Christopher, 30, of Lower Township, is the company’s vice president of sales. Daughter Holly Litton Cotter, 27, also of Lower Township, runs the front office and reception.
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