Don started in the wood truss industry in 1963, working nights cutting hip ends at Imperial Components in St. Charles, Illinois. Imperial, created by Dave and Henry Chambers, was one of the first truss plants in the United States. Don noticed that an automated gantry table wasn’t being used because most of the guys on the production line avoided the “new technology” in favor of traditional hand assembly. Don went to Dave and suggested he could double production with fewer workers. Don’s youngest son, Keith Hershey (SBCRI), recalls, “Dave told my father that if he could do that, he would offer him the chance to become a part owner of the company.”
Don set to work getting the automated gantry table up and running and training employees on how to use it. That change and additional modifications he made to the production process proved successful. From that point on, Don purchased as much stock in the company as he could every time he was given the opportunity, eventually buying the company outright in 1991.
In the intervening years, Don took on more and more management of the engineering and production side of the company. In an interview with SBC Magazine in 2003, Don showed his management style, “I have always believed that a person wants to do a good job. Fundamentally, a manager’s responsibility is to make it available for them to do a good job—provide them with the right equipment…the right atmosphere…the right information…the right training. If you do that, people want to do a good job.”
Don’s oldest son, Ben Hershey (The ReWall Company), pointed out that Don had on his desk for many years a quote by Charles Swindoll, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” Ben said, “Dad applied Swindoll’s perspective to his management style, which guided much of what he did and said.”
A good example of Don’s unique approach is his choice of a plate supplier. Around 1980, Manenti was a sales rep for Gang Nail based out of South Bend, IN. “At the time, he bought truss plates from Alpine, which had a stamping plant nearby,” recalled Manenti. “But Don went through a very elaborate process to evaluate whether he would switch.” This was at a time before Excel spreadsheets, and there were 24 members of the Truss Plate Institute (TPI). Yet, Don created a paper spreadsheet on accounting ledger paper that had each company on it and compared several criteria, including supply, quality, sales response, engineering, holding power of the plates, etc. “That document covered most of the desk,” said Manenti.
He invited a sales rep from each company, including Manenti, to come in and give a presentation on their product. Ultimately, Don chose to stay with Alpine, but he did something unusual. “He called me up to tell me he was sticking with Alpine, but he invited me back to talk about why we hadn’t been chosen,” said Manenti. “When we met a few weeks later, he pulled out that spreadsheet and showed me how we scored and, more importantly, where we could improve for our other customers. I was a rookie salesman, but that meeting gave me great confidence and inspired me to improve.”
It is telling that in the same 2003 SBC interview, Don said essentially the same thing about Manenti: “The salespeople from the different plate suppliers were the best teachers for me in the industry….I always looked at an interview with a salesman as an education….I felt I took more from the conversation than they took from me.”
Dave Chambers was heavily involved in the early years of the Wood Truss Council of America (WTCA eventually became the Structural Building Components Association [SBCA]). Still, Don was initially reluctant to get involved himself. A mutual friend, Rip Rogers, remembers having several conversations with Dave about how to get Don plugged into what they were trying to accomplish through WTCA. “Dave told me I had to convince Don because Don wouldn’t do it otherwise,” said Rogers.
Eventually, Rip succeeded in talking Don into traveling to Dallas to join him and a few others for a meeting to discuss issues WTCA was facing at the time. “I remember asking him just to come on down and see what we were doing, no pressure,” said Rogers. They talked when Rogers took him back to the airport after the meetings, and Don indicated he was on board. Rogers recalled, “he said, ‘I knew when we said grace before dinner you were men I needed to work with.’”
Don immediately impacted the association, and he was extremely vocal about what he thought the association needed to do to succeed. Arquilla remarked, “I believe Don had an innate ability to look at the industry from ‘above’ and provide his counsel about anything and everything that affected the structural components industry.”
He was just as vocal about individual companies as he was about the association. “Don was never shy about giving anyone who asked for his opinion his honest and best answer,” said Arquilla. “It didn’t matter who it was; he simply felt it was his obligation to let others learn from his mistakes and experiences.”
In 1992, Don was elected President of WTCA. Many of his contemporaries commented there could not have been a better person for the job then. One of Don’s peers, Bob Ward (Southern Components), commented, “The main thing I remember is that Don inherited the Presidency when the association was going through a severe financial crisis. He took control and moved WTCA through it with extreme diligence. He was the right person, right place, right time.”
WTCA was still searching for its identity after being separated from TPI, and finding adequate funds to pay for projects and outreach efforts on behalf of the industry was difficult. Fortunately, as Ward pointed out, “Don Hershey took home every project with commitment, dedication, energy, and the solid determination to do what was best for the industry.”
Regarding Don’s leadership approach, Rogers said, “Don set the pace for a lot of people to be involved in the association not for your own company but for the industry’s good. He raised the level of professionalism.” Under Don’s leadership, WTCA strove to build a stronger working relationship with TPI. Rogers added, “Don’s approach with TPI was not to have our way but to align the two organizations. Ultimately, he wanted both sides to succeed together.”
In his 2003 interview with SBC, Don gave insight into why he focused on the people involved in the two associations, “I don’t think you can underestimate the value of people. I feel that [an organization] reflects this from the top down, and the leader has to care about people. You won’t build loyalty and trust if you don’t care about people.” This kind of leadership approach convinced the WTCA Board of Directors to elect Don to a second term in 1993.
Manenti may have summed up the challenge best, “Don exhibited exceptional leadership. He was running his own business and took on this huge burden for two years of trying to bring WTCA back from near financial disaster and ultimately set it up for future success.”
Testing & Engineering
Don had an engineering background, a reputation for challenging engineers, and his design staff. “Dad always felt that we, as an industry, were constantly guilty of putting engineering and book knowledge ahead of practical knowledge,” said Ben Hershey. “He always said that we should test it first, apply common sense, then bring the engineering in to explain what we saw.” It was no surprise that Don was one of the leading advocates for developing and constructing the Structural Building Components Research Institute (SBCRI) to have testing that would benefit the entire industry.
His focus on engineering and practical testing enabled Don to eventually develop two patents, one for the purlin truss and another for a trimmable-end floor truss. In 1979, Imperial purchased TruTrus in Arizona and hit the Southwest market perfectly. The business could compete effectively against metal bar joists by developing and testing the purlin truss.
Beyond product development, Don had a keen sense of the capabilities of structural components. As another of his contemporaries, Black remembered, “He ate, slept and breathed roof trusses. He was a solution-finder. In the engineering realm, he helped develop things never seen before.”
Black recalled when he wanted to test a series of plates for a floor truss application. He had Don build the trusses in Arizona and ship them to him. “I had three professional engineers and a 100-ft test rack all set up when Don arrived with the trusses,” said Black. When they started loading up the first-floor truss, it was clear the joints weren’t making it. “Don understood why it didn’t work, and he shut down the test before they broke the trusses. He was able to, in his head, work through plate sizes to find the strength he needed.”
Don was also known for constantly using napkins and paper to draw out new ideas and discuss them no matter where he was. “I know that there are many new ideas and designs left on the table at a restaurant,” said Ben. “Dad would sketch something out and then re-think that idea several times before he would put it on paper.”
In 1995, Don was inducted into the WTCA Hall of Fame, and in 2009 he received the SBC Leadership award for his excellent service to WTCA and the entire industry. He remains the only person to serve as President of the association twice. Yet, it is obvious Don never did anything for recognition. His peers agree that Don approached each industry challenge with the mindset that a “rising tide raises all ships.” Ben agreed, stating, ”Whatever I was doing, whether running a company or serving the association, Dad would remind me that it is more important to share than to keep something to yourself.”
He wanted everyone to benefit from the advancements occurring in the structural components industry, and he knew more could be accomplished by working together rather than apart. Herring pointed out, “Don and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but his convictions could convince you that it was the right way to go because he had unselfish motivations.”
Ultimately, he led others by example and convinced them to follow through with deeds and softly spoken words. Manenti explained, “Don was soft-spoken, but you knew you’d better listen to him when he spoke. ”