ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
How far can ingenuity, hard work and determination take you in this world?
It’s taken Jim and Joan Donahue, founders and owners of Donahue Corp., less than a mile from their small hometown of Durham in northern Marion County.
But measure the distance by accomplishment instead of geography, and you won’t find many people in this part of the prairie who have traveled farther.
Donahue Corp., which will celebrate its 40th anniversary with an open house from noon to 4 p.m., this Sunday, July 13, is recognized as a successful producer of high-quality farm-related trailers and implement carriers with a market that covers much of the country.
In every way except geography, the Donahues have come a long, long way from their modest beginnings.
“You’ll have to go far to find two people who started with less,” Jim said.
He grew up on his grandparents’ 80-acre farm west of Durham and describes Joan’s parents as “marginal, small farmers.” The two met in Durham schools and were members of the same high school graduating class of 12 students in 1951.
“Everybody else left and went other places,” Jim said. “We were so hard up, we couldn’t get out of town. That’s why we stayed and made the best of it.
“And that’s not just a joke,” he added. “That’s the truth.”
Jim began his career commuting to
Wichita to work in the aircraft industry while operating a small welding and repair shop in Durham on the side.
“I’d drive to Wichita every day, get home at four in the morning, sleep four hours, then work for farmers,” he said. “That’s how we started.”
That early chapter in his life was beneficial in many ways, Jim says now. He learned the basics of manufacturing and business management as a blue-collar craftsman at Beech and Boeing-and, during the long commute, dreamed of products he might someday build himself.
“Those things really prepared me a lot for going into business with no formal education,” Jim said. “I just hung the shingle out there and went to work.”
With Joan as the part-time bookkeeper, the Donahues formally hung that shingle in summer 1962. The exact “opening day” is hard to pinpoint because it was pretty much like any other day in the repair shop.
“The thing that did make it ‘opening day’ was the fact that a decision had been made-a decision to build a farm-implement carrier that would provide the farmer a better method of moving from one location to another,” according to a brochure the company published for its 10th anniversary.
That implement carrier had a long, flat bed, a couple of sturdy wheels, plus a unique patented feature that permitted the bed to be pulled forward of the wheels and the axles-flat on the ground-so machinery could be towed onto it. Once loaded, the bed could be backed up over the wheels and locked into position for transporting.
The first carrier rolled out of the tiny “manufacturing plant” in north Durham in two weeks.
“It wasn’t exactly a glamourous piece of equipment, but it did prove itself in short order capable of doing the job it was designed for,” Jim said.
In its first year, the fledgling company produced 10 carriers; gross sales totaled around $1,250.
With time, though, dealers were established in surrounding states, and then distributors were added. By the fifth year, sales had grown to $380,000.
Jim said it took about 10 years to get the company financially stable.
“When you’re limited on resources, you’ve got to invest money like it’s the last dollar you have,” he said. “You’ve got to consider that very carefully. One mistake and you’re out of business.”
After the company added a swather carrier in 1965, a combine carrier in 1968 and a stock and grain trailer in 1970, it became apparent that their small building was not big enough to house the growing business.
In 1972, the company built and moved into a 40,000-square-foot plant located a short drive outside of town.
“We had many, many opportunities to move to other towns where people would finance us 100 percent,” Jim said.
So why stay in Durham?
“Let’s be honest about it,” Jim said with a smile. “We were so hard up, we couldn’t leave.
“We’re not ashamed of that,” he added. “I wouldn’t do it any other way. I’m not complaining about it at all. But facts are facts.”
Today, the company continues to produce a variety of trailers and implement carriers from that location with around 35 employees-a number that has remained fairly steady since the early 1970s.
“The uniqueness of this company is that you start on a shoestring, then you have the idea for the product, you’ve got to develop the sales, the manufacturing and all of that,” Jim said. “Very seldom does that ever happen. Usually, somebody has an idea, somebody builds it and somebody else markets it.”
Key to the company’s success has been manufacturing quality products-all of which have been pre-tested on the farm and ranch the Donahue family owns and operates in the county.
“All the products we build, we use on our own operation,” Jim said. “We don’t have an engineering department, but this gives us an insight on what’s needed out there. (The company and ranch) really complement one another.
“Running a company like this, and building products primarily for agriculture, you’ve got to understand agriculture,” he added. “That’s where being directly involved in it gives you an advantage, in my opinion.”
A second key to the company’s success has been its marketing strategy. Donahue Corp. is a small company that operates like a large corporation in that it “warehouses” its products at dealerships across the country, and then shifts products from one dealership to another as needed.
“Say we have a dealer in Oregon that needs a trailer, and I have one down in northern California, I can transfer that,” he said. “Then we set that up for restocking.
“That’s worked like gangbusters. It takes a good banker-that’s all you need.”
Most observers would say it takes a little bit more than that. In 1982, Donahue was named Kansas Small Businessman of the Year, edging out entrepreneurs in Wichita, Kansas City and various other communities across the state.
“We assume an awful lot of responsibility for a small company when you consider we don’t subcontract out,” Jim said. “We do all our own fabrication, we do our own transportation, and we finance the dealers just like the big boys.
“We’re really patterned off of major companies. For a small company to be able to do that is pretty significant.”
Aside from the financial success and professional accolades, what Jim and Joan are most proud of is the financial benefit Donahue Corp. has been for Marion County as a whole.
“The revenue that this company has brought in here from all over the United States-and we sell some in Canada and Old Mexico-that’s money that hits Marion County that they’d never see,” he said.
The economic impact increases exponentially when you add the fact that two Donahue Corp. alumni, Bob Klein and Wendell Dirks, now head the two other trailer manufacturers in the county, Hillsboro Industries and Circle D Corp., respectively.
“When you combine this start and those two (companies) added, and take the total revenue that comes into this county, it produces quite a bit of new money in the county-which turns five or eight times, they say,” Jim said.
The Donahues prefer to talk about the company’s economic impact on the county rather than on their personal lives.
“Sure, we had the enjoyment of spending it, too, but somebody else got the opportunity to spend it again and again,” Jim said. “That’s probably the most satisfying thing.”
One thing the couple spent money on was Clover Cliff Ranch, a historic bed-and-breakfast and functioning ranch near the Marion-Chase county line. These days, that enterprise consumes most of Joan’s attention. But Jim says her contributions to Donahue Corp. through the years have been considerable.
“She does a lot of things,” he said. “She’s not ‘too good’ to do anything, that’s one big factor. And she has a good business head.
“She may be a little bit more on the cautious side than I am,” he added. “I try to neutralize that a little bit and go far out, but she kind of keeps me held down-which is what it takes.”
Joan, meanwhile, said inner fortitude has been her husband’s best secret for success in business.
“He’s got the will power to just keep going,” she said. “He has ideas and thinks it through. He likes challenges.”
The two agree that 40 years have passed quickly. Like all businesses, Donahue Corp. has experienced highs and lows. But the end result has been tremendously satisfying.
“There is some uniqueness about it,” Jim said of their situation. “Today, you couldn’t start like we did because you’d have too many hoops to jump through. That’s kind of a shame.”
Jim said the future of Donahue Corp. is bright, even though the day grows closer when he and Joan will end their personal involvement in it.
“We have name recognition,” he said of the company. “We’re very well known in the farm-equipment field. That’s important. Somebody else will have to expand it. We’re as big as we want to get. But there’s a day coming where somebody’s going to have to take over.
“We’ve got some key people in here that are quite capable of carrying it on when it comes to that.”