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Paul Darley EMP-53

Paul Darley EMP-53

Leading W.S. Darley & Co. with a 'sense of family'

By Kari Richardson

Paul Darley was intrigued by fire engines as a boy.

But unlike most youngsters, Darley wasn’t dreaming about driving the noisy red trucks through the streets. He dreamed instead about building them.

That’s probably because Darley was, in fact, watching fire engines being made at the company his grandfather, William S. Darley, founded in 1908. The firm recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and today Paul Darley ispresident and CEO of W.S. Darley & Co., supplying equipment to firefighters and emergency workers around the globe.

The Kellogg alum is part of the third generation of Darleys to run the firm. His brother Peter and cousins Jeff and James serve as co-COOs; together, the four comprise the firm’s executive committee.

The role of the firefighter has evolved over the years, and W.S. Darley & Co. has grown at the same pace. The company still manufactures fire engines, pumps and equipment for first responders, but has expanded its product line to include water purification systems and tactical equipment for the military. The firm recently won a large contract to provide supplies for the U.S. Department of Defense.  

“A healthy family equates to a healthy business,” says Darley. For this, Darley credits his parents’ — and aunts and uncles’ — strong values and hearty work ethic. As a boy of 7, he earned $1 to sort through envelopes at the company’s offices on weekend mornings, making sure no letter or check had been missed.

“There were no silver spoons and everyone worked hard,” Darley says of his upbringing. “It wasn’t just about profits; it was our family’s passion.”

These values have helped the company differentiate itself. “Family businesses can be the best of business — or they can be the worst. In our case, we believe it’s the best.”)A few years ago, Darley challenged Kellogg School students to find a marketing niche for his firm. At the students’ final presentation, all were asked separately to identify the company’s most powerful point of difference.

Each wrote the same single word: family.

“We compete in an industry that has very few family businesses,” says Darley. “We believe we care more and are more passionate than other companies. The sense of family permeates our company.” That is evident even beyond the Darley family line; the company employs many siblings and children of Darley workers.

Darley had prepared his entire life to lead the family business. Yet several years ago he decided he needed more tools to fulfill his mission and enrolled at the Kellogg School.

“I was a young president running a fairly large company,” he says. “I was thirsting like a sponge for the knowledge to give me even more confidence to run the business. My biggest takeaway from my time at the Kellogg School was how little I actually knew.”

Continuing education through Kellogg conferences and seminars has been a vital part of building and protecting the enterprise he holds dear. Darley’s greatest hope: that members of his family continue to dream of fire engines for generations to come.

Posted February 2010
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