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It’s a Family Tradition: Three Generations Work Together at Al Fulford Heating & Cooling

It’s a Family Tradition: Three Generations Work Together at Al Fulford Heating & Cooling
Story By Denice Patterson
Photography By Genie Leigh Photography

When Hinton Fulford Sr. drove his Chevy work truck from Supply, N.C., to Florence, S.C., twice a week to pick up parts all those years ago, little did he know he was sowing the seeds for a family legacy. 

It was 1974 and the father of four had just bought a fledgling heating and air company from his cousin, after working for him for only two years. With one truck — and the help of his wife and teenage sons Hinton Jr., who goes by “Al,” and Marty — Fulford Heating and Cooling was on its way. Forty years later the company is into its third generation of Fulfords and has grown to 40 employees and a fleet of 18 vehicles.

Supply native Hinton was born in 1928 on the family farm, just a stone’s throw from where he would later build the office and workshop for his growing company. “We didn’t go to the hospital in those days,” he shares. “There was an old-timey woman who came around with a black bag and delivered the babies.” That midwife delivered all the Fulford siblings and cousins back then.

Hinton was raised on the same land that was granted to three Fulford brothers in the 1700s.

“Those men were granted this land by the King of England,” Hinton says. The land was handed down from father to sons for more than three centuries. “My great grandpa inherited the piece from the stop light to the island,” he says, pointing out the window from the office. The land was handed down to Hinton’s grandfather, then to his father and then to him. “My great grandpa owned a piece of the island before the Holdens did,” he says. He sold those 70
acres of island for $700. “He sort of gave it away, didn’t he?” he says.

At age 15, too young to enlist in World War II, Hinton joined the crew of a dredge boat. Duty called, however, and at age 18 the tall and lanky blue-eyed youth joined the army, serving his country until 1950. He returned to the dredge boat and spent the next 20-plus years clearing the channels of the Intracoastal Waterway from Maryland to Florida.

It was on a prolonged job in Maryland that Hinton met his future wife, Betty, and kindled the desire to return to his roots in Brunswick County to raise a family. The couple settled in a little house near the water. He remained a dredge boat captain, and Betty took a job as a nurse at Dosher Hospital.

“She was on duty the night of [Hurricane] Hazel,” Hinton says. “They made her stay there all night because of that storm — good thing, too, because the water was neck deep in the house the next day!”

The couple raised their four children in that house — sons Al and Marty and daughters Gail and Beth. Al remembers when the family installed their first air conditioner. “In 1972 we got a window unit,” he says, laughing at the irony.

Al also remembers when he was a small child and his father was dredging the river at Cape Canaveral for the launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center. The family stayed in Florida for that project, and his older sister started school there. “That was a really big deal for us,” Al recalls. Those pads were used to launch the Apollo manned mission to the moon and later all of the space shuttles. The family is clearly proud of Hinton Sr.’s role in that part of American history.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the Fulford boys loved to hunt and fish with their grandfather and walk in the woods along Highway 130. Al remembers when his grandfather was selling off lots on the road for a pittance. He would walk the land with him as the older man staked off lots. “He took a coon-hunting compass and as he walked through the woods, he’d put a stake down and walk off a 100 x 100 lot, draw it on a piece of paper and the man would give him $50 or $60 dollars for the land.” His grandfather sold hundreds of lots that way. Today those lots are home to the many restaurants, shops and businesses that line the road to Holden Beach.

In 1985 Al took over the helm at Fulford. His wife, Teresa, joined him, running the office. Sons Justin and Bradley joined the staff, too. The business has grown tremendously over 40 years.

“Today, we install about 300 units a year,” Justin says. “Forty percent of that is new construction.” In addition, the Fulford service department averages nearly 35 calls per day.

Working so closely with family members is not without difficulty. All three men agree that it is challenging to work together. Al and Teresa have been married and have worked together for 35 years and nearly raised their sons Justin and Bradley at work.

“I tell my customers that I have been in the business for 32 years and they look at me funny,” says Justin.

“It’s true,” Al says. “He’s been around since he was a baby and he’s thirty-two now.”

The offices and shop for Fulford Heating and Air are located on Highway 130 on one of the last few pieces of that original Fulford land, just before the bridge to Holden Beach. The little green house where Hinton and Betty raised the family still stands, and the former back yard has turned into a parking lot for the many company and employee vehicles.

Inside a back room of the office, a bank of windows has a view of the Holden Beach Bridge. Here, the three generations of Fulford men sit at three desks. In the middle, Hinton is eager to swing his chair around and visit with folks. He especially likes to share a video on his new phone of his two great-grandchildren — the fourth generation and future of the family company. The 86-year-old is content to watch to his left as son Al is buried behind mountains of files and is on the phone yet again. To his right, his grandson Justin is elbow-deep in blueprints and is managing a myriad of details on his two computers, iPad and iPhone.

“Even though Mr. Hinton Sr. is no longer active in the business, he still stops in from time to time to visit and check on us,” his grandson says.

“We were one of only three companies in this area when we got started,” Al says, who has seen the competition come and go as the county has grown. “I attribute our success to the fact that we are a family. We treat our employees and customers like they are family.”

The family company is dedicated to the community as well, sponsoring youth sports teams, golf tournaments and other local charities. Each Christmas the company donates a complete heating and air conditioning system to a family in need. Clearly, Hinton taught them well, sowing seeds that have created a lasting Fulford family legacy.

“If you work hard and do right by people, they’ll come back,” Hinton says.

Al Fulford Heating and Cooling is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The company serves New Hanover, Brunswick and Horry counties. You will find them online at fulfordhvac.com or you can reach them by phone at (910) 842-6589.

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