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By Devin Rose
The Darley brothers say they remember running errands in the company vehicles, sweeping floors at the Itasca-based headquarters and raiding office drawers full of gum.
Now the company that has manufactured and sold fire-fighting equipment since 1908 is into its fourth generation, and it has been named one of the 50 fastest-growing companies in the Chicago area for the last two years.
"We take pride in providing life-saving equipment," said Paul Darley, the company's president and chief executive officer.
His grandfather, William S. Darley, started the company in 1908. W.S. Darley took the products he invented, and others he found through manufacturers, and sold them through a catalogue, said Peter Darley, who still lives in the house William built on Jackson Avenue in River Forest. Peter is now the company's chief operating officer
Products included water, sewer, police and fire equipment, Peter said, and by the late 1920s they even offered fire trucks through the catalogue for under $1,000, built based on Model T Fords. In the 1930s, the elder Darley started to manufacture fire pumps and hired a man from Chippewa Falls, Wis., to help. Most of the fire pump manufacturing still takes place there today, Peter said. The 200-employee company also has a location in Janesville, Iowa.
It was natural for the eight children to be surrounded by fire trucks while they were growing up in their River Forest home, Paul recalled. It was only when their friends would visit the plant that they'd realize how unique the family business was. Today, all but one of the Darley children — and a few of their children — work for the company.
Peter, Paul and their brother, Jim, all said their father, William, now 83, never pressured them to work there. They spent time assisting mechanics and learning about products on weekends during their teenage years or summers home from college, but none were expected to work there after graduation unless they wanted to.
Jim, who now lives in Oak Park, said he followed his mother Jeanne's footsteps and got a social work degree. He worked in that field for about 15 years, then got a call from his brother when Paul became the company president.
Paul told him there was an open job selling pumps around the country, so Jim got a CDL and toured coast to coast in a fire truck. Selling pumps has also taken the brothers to China, India and Australia, just to name a few destinations.
According to the family's participation philosophy, Paul said, they recommend that members do work outside the business before they eventually choose to join. While fire equipment has historically been their strongpoint, Paul said they are becoming more of an emergency and disaster response company.
Better building standards, flame-resistant furniture and fewer smokers means the number of fires is "greatly diminishing," Paul said. But wildfires, like the recent ones in Colorado that forced evacuations, are getting worse. The Darley Company is now the main supplier of pumps to the U.S. Forest Service, and they supply the Bureau of Land Management as well. Peter added they also sell protective gear like helmets, boots, coats and breathing apparatuses.
Darley's new initiative is in the defense industry, Paul said. They currently distribute water purification devices to the Department of Defense and equip soldiers with gear.
Jim said it's been great working with his brothers and other family members even when they don't see eye to eye. He remembers some board meetings getting emotional, but they try to work out issues before the meetings are done. He compared the strategy to "never going to bed angry."
"We're very good at resolving things, listening to each other and understanding each other," he said.