Remembering Don Hershey

“I have always believed that a person wants to do a good job.”

The structural building components industry lost one of its greatest champions, Don Hershey, when he passed away at home last November. No matter who you talk to that knew Don throughout his almost 48 years in the industry, every one of his contemporaries holds a deep sense of unreserved respect for him.

He was intelligent. John Herring (A-1 Roof Trusses), who served as WTCA President just two years before him, said, “Don was a uniquely intelligent individual, who had the ability to guide and influence people in the necessary direction in a way that was completely unselfish. His fingerprints will be left on this industry forever.”

He was fair and caring. Tom Manenti (MiTek), who knew Don for more than 30 years, said, “On a professional basis, Don was a deep thinker and very fair minded. On the personal side, he was a very sensitive person. He was very straightforward, but underneath he was very sensitive and caring.”

He was a man of faith and loyalty. Longtime friend and peer, Rip Rogers (Trussway, retired), said, “Don was a man of strong faith and conviction. His loyalties started with his family, his company, and then the association. His word was his bond.”

He was a competitor. One of his peers in the Chicago market, Scott Arquilla (Best Homes, Inc., retired), said, “I always thought Don was a great competitor because he always wanted to make money on every job. He didn’t believe we should ‘practice’ building trusses.”

He was a quiet contributor. “He was a monument of a man, and yet a quiet hero,” said Bill Black (Automatic Stamping Co.), who worked with Don over several decades. “I don’t know of anyone who gave as much as Don did to the industry.”

Don started in the wood truss industry in 1963, working nights cutting hip ends at Imperial Components in St. Charles, Illinois. Imperial, started 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 less 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 how to use it. That change, along with 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 provided a glimpse into 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 in how he chose 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. In the end, Don chose to stay with Alpine, but he did something very 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 a great deal of confidence. It inspired me to be better.”

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.”

Joining WTCA

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]), but 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 to just come on down and see what we were doing, no pressure,” said Rogers. When Rogers took him back to the airport after the meetings, the two of them talked, 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 made an impact in the association almost immediately. 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.”

Leading WTCA

In 1992, Don was elected President of WTCA. Many of his contemporaries commented there could not have been a better person for the job at the time. One of Don’s peers, Bob Ward (Southern Components), commented, “The main thing I remember is that Don inherited the Presiden[cy] when the association was going through a tough 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 it was separated out from under 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 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 good of the industry. 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 have the two organizations aligned. Ultimately, he wanted both sides to succeed together.”

In his 2003 interview with SBC, Don gave insight into why he was so 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. If you don’t care about people, you just won’t build loyalty and trust.” It was this kind of leadership approach that 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. Not only was he running his own business, but he 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 and 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 came down on the side 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 the development and construction of the Structural Building Components Research Institute (SBCRI), in order to have testing that would benefit the entire industry.

His focus on engineering coupled with 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 at the perfect time. Through the development and testing of the purlin truss, the business was able to compete effectively against metal bar joists.

Beyond product development, Don had a keen sense for 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 one time 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 his constant use of napkins and paper to draw out a new idea and discuss them no matter where he was. “I know that there are many new ideas and designs that were 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.”

Conclusion

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 very clear, Don never did anything for recognition. All of 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 it was running a company or serving the association, Dad would remind me that it is more important to share than it is 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.”

In the end, he led others by example, and he convinced them to follow not only through deeds, but through softly spoken words. Manenti explained, “Don was soft spoken, but when he spoke, you knew you’d better listen to him. ”

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