Business Profile – Generations of Steel
Story by Megan Whitehead | Apr 26, 2018
Photography by Keith Borgmeyer
DeLong’s Inc. has been in the DeLong and Jefferson City families for generations.
Founded in 1944, DeLong’s, Inc., a Jefferson City steel fabricator providing structural steel, primarily for bridges throughout the middle third of the United States, has become one of the oldest and largest family owned and operated businesses in Jefferson City.
From its inception to today the business has also supplied fabricated steel for commercial and residential projects throughout central Missouri, including for handrails, house beams, churches, and businesses of all types.
Joe DeLong II’s interest in metalwork began in 1932 when he was a twelve-year-old working with his father in the blacksmith shop on Jefferson Street (a building they still own today). In 1944, after working as a plant superintendent in a Hutchison, Kansas aircraft maintenance company, DeLong and his wife Betty Jo (B.J.) moved back to Jefferson City and opened DeLong’s, Incorporated. Only ten years later, they relocated to their current location on Dix Road.
“Timing was everything,” says BJ. “It was 1944, when the war was closing down, and the soldiers and people were coming back to Jefferson City. There was a need for schools, hospitals, and homes.”
“We have a strong tie to the history and people of the Jefferson City community, and we have always maintained our roots and structure here,” says Co-owner and Vice President of Legal and Business Operations Morgan DeLong Costello.
A True Family Business
Ownership and management of DeLong’s, Inc. today consists of Joe DeLong III, President, along with Morgan DeLong Costello and Kelsey DeLong both Co-owners and Vice presidents of Legal and Business Operations along with a strong, long, serving team of professional managers.
As the second generation in his family business, Joe III tells the story of attending a 1983 Dr. Leon Danco seminar for “Next Gens.” Dr. Danco said, “You’re in a no win situation: If the business succeeds some may say you were born with a silver spoon – anyone could make it in that situation: If the business fails on the other hand, some may say you’re the boob who blew the family business.” Joe III states he’s thought about what Dr. Danco said often through the years and discussed it with Morgan and Kelsey. All three have used this dynamic to be a source of motivation.
“When I was growing up, I admired my dad and mom,” says Joe III. “They were a big influence on me, and my dad was my main mentor. He died in 1996. I graduated from Notre Dame then went to law school, graduating 1975, and I wanted to be my own business person. I practiced law for ten years, and then it happened that there was an opening in the family business, and I was able to go in that way, and I have been happy ever since.”
That ten years outside the business gave Joe a set of experiences that he believes gave him an edge once he joined the family business. That knowledge led him to encourage his daughters to follow a similar path. Before joining the business, the girls both spent a few years with different companies. It has become a rule that family members must work outside the company for at least two years before joining the business. This rule is intended to help mitigate failure and ensure success.
Morgan worked for Boeing aircraft (following in her grandfather’s footsteps). “I thought it would be a good way to get a feel for if I liked this kind of industry – heavy manufacturing,” she says. “I really loved working at Boeing – I worked on the defense side in St. Louis for five years. Then I completed my masters at Harvard and my law degree at Washington University in St. Louis. I found that I loved the intersection of business and law. Going into the family business has always been in the back of my mind as a potential…As an adult, I became more and more aware of how precious and rare this opportunity was.”
Kelsey also worked outside the business for four years at Regions Private Wealth Management, helping other business owners and individuals in areas including business succession planning, financial planning, trust and estates, legal review, and strategy. “I loved my experience working at Regions, but I had also always been passionate about our family business and deeply cared about the success of the business, the people at DeLong’s, and our family’s legacy,” says Kelsey. We had participated in meetings related to the company for over 15 years, so joining the business full-time had always been in the back of my mind, but I wanted to make sure that I could add value to the company and that it would be a good fit. For my education, I decided to study finance and then go to law school, as well. Also, I got my masters in tax law from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis with a focus in family businesses, family wealth management, business succession planning, and advanced estate planning – a lot of the subjects we discussed in meetings growing up. I knew this knowledge would be valuable as a business owner.”
“You look at the statistics of family businesses succeeding from generation to generation, and the odds of success go down with each generation,” Kelsey continues. “The primary factors that have contributed to our success are the wonderful people here at DeLong’s, our company culture, and proactive planning for all areas of the company. We pride ourselves on having a dedicated workforce with lengthy tenure and extensive experience. We encourage this by investing in benefits and facility upgrades that allow our employees to consider DeLong’s their home and build a career here. DeLong’s is one of the few companies that presently has a fully funded, defined benefit pension plan and profit sharing plan. In addition, our dad, Joe DeLong, III, has been very proactive in planning for all areas of the business in general and especially in areas including business succession planning, tax planning, and financial planning.”
“We have had a philosophy from the very beginning,” adds BJ. “Everyone in the company works for the entity of DeLong’s, Inc. – it is the boss of everybody. If we make it a success, it will take care of all of us. We tried to make every employee feel from the very beginning that they were an important part of the company.”
The Business Today
The business expanded to a second location for the first time in 1968 with the purchase of an abandoned Missouri Pacific Railroad car manufacturing facility in Sedalia, Missouri. This facility was used to manufacture steel joists for the first 30 years and today manufactures steel bridges, like the Jefferson City plant.
“At one time, we were one of the leading joist manufacturers in the United States,” says Morgan. “Today, our business has evolved…We still do a lot of Missouri work. However, 20 years ago, 80 percent of our work was Missouri work, and 20 percent was outside, but now those have flipped.”
Part of DeLong’s longevity has to do with their ability to evolve and grow with the times. The other? Their incredible team.
“We were very fortunate when we started,” says BJ, “to be able to hire young men who, primarily growing up on farms, knew equipment and had good work ethics. We were also able to utilize John Hendren, an outstanding attorney, who was also getting started and did so much to help us get incorporated and to guide us through the legalese in those early years. Through personnel, we have been very fortunate.”
This mindset has led the DeLong family to put together a very generous pension plan for each of their 180 employees. They firmly believe that if they take care of their people, their people will take care of the company. They also believe that a good company culture is crucial to any business’ (family or not) success. “Culture is the most important thing,” says Joe III, “and my parents established a good culture from their work ethic growing up, being honest and hardworking, and showing appreciation.”
The family bonds between the DeLongs truly stretch to include everyone in the company. Morgan and Kelsey are both deeply involved in day-to-day operations and getting to know each person, their families and lives. “Any success the company has had is a result of the hard work and dedication of the many fine people who work here.” The DeLong family has recognized this throughout the company’s history. Much credit goes to Bob Bachta, who retired April 13, 2018, after serving as General Manager for over 20 years. Other key managers instrumental to the company’s success include Gary Wisch, Bill Wisch’s son, who has served as Vice-President of Engineering for 30 years, Darrin Kelly, who recently became the new General Manager after 24 years in engineering and management at DeLong’s, Mike Smith, Chief Financial Officer for the past 25 years, Morris Wilde, Vice-President of Sales, and many others.
The DeLong’s share their favorite family business memories.
“Let’s recognize that the business had to get off the ground before the youngsters came along. Diversification was a key to our beginnings. My husband developed a pole trailer for handling the long poles that Missouri Power & Light placed for the growth that was happening in Jefferson City. Then Bill Wisch, who was with the highway department, came to our company to get a repair job, and he realized that my husband was trying to read the plans of developing a bridge in California, MO. That was a big step because it was bold for a blacksmith’s shop that had just gotten off the ground with a pole trailer to start building bridges. Bill Wisch and Alan Becker were hired by DeLong’s to develop our bridge business and that became a major part of the development of Delong’s, Inc. It was fun to watch the development of the business in those various ways and to realize how much my husband was innovative in the idea of making the most of an opportunity.”
“When I was in law school, I took a course in business planning that talked about spin-offs and split-offs, which is a sophisticated tax method of tax free reorganization of one business into three. I was telling my dad about this and he already knew about it. He would read the Commerce Clearing House tax reports even though he had not completed the amount of school others had. He always kept up on business and tax publications.”
“Some of my best memories have been since joining the business. Everybody referred to my grandpa as ‘Papa Joe.’ I remember him as my grandpa, but he was everyone’s Papa Joe at the company. We still have people who are working at the company who grew up with him, and it is fun to hear their memories of him as a young man. Whenever people talk about our grandpa everyone ends up laughing and having a good time. You can see the warmth in people’s eyes.”
“Growing up, some of my favorite memories were getting to know our employees and hearing their stories. Everyone is treated like family here, and it is a wonderful culture. Also, some of my best memories have been since joining the business as well. DeLong’s is a place where we are productive and get work accomplished but also laugh often and have a good time.”