PAOLA — Dennis Doherty was only 2 years old when his father, Jim, took a chance on a business venture that would change the family forever.
Jim, a former U.S. Marine and Panhandle Eastern welder, decided to further explore his interest in ornamental iron by starting a business based out of his garage.
That was back in 1959, and now, 60 years later, Doherty Steel has grown into one of Miami County’s largest employers and successful business operations.
Located off 311th Street just east of Paola, Doherty Steel employs about 140 people and tackles jobs throughout the Midwest and across the country.
Locally, Doherty has worked on projects such as the construction of Paola High School and the ornate iron railing at the Miami County Courthouse.
On a more regional scale, they’ve worked on projects such as the recent renovations of Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums, as well as bridges across 39th Street at the University of Kansas Medical Center campus.
Dennis, who is now president of the company, said he remembers their first million-dollar job was Olathe East High School, which opened in 1992. Now, Doherty Steel does $40 million jobs for large companies like Facebook, which has built a massive data center in Altoona, Iowa.
The Miami County Commission honored Doherty Steel for its longevity by presenting a plaque during the May 8 commission meeting, and commissioners Rob Roberts and Phil Dixon recently visited the Doherty operation to see it firsthand.
Leading the tour was Dennis, who grew up being a part of the family business, along with his brother and sister. Jim and his wife Helen have since passed away, but Dennis and his youngest son, Chance, are continuing the family legacy. That includes teaching kids early about the value of hard work.
Chance said he was about 12 when, like his father before him, he started working at the shop. He continued working there after graduating from Paola High School in 2006, the same year the business’ name changed from Doherty Ornamental Iron to Doherty Steel, and he recently was named the vice president.
“I’ve never had another job,” Chance said. “I’m glad he [Dennis] made me come out here with a five-gallon bucket and pick up rocks when I was 12.”
The Dohertys are now looking for more employees to join their work family. As the business has grown, so has the need for qualified workers.
“Employees are so important,” Dennis said. “The machines are the machines, and everybody has them, but what you do once you have the piece of steel, that’s what matters.”
Chance said there are a variety of jobs available in the shop, including CNC machine operators, fabricators, welders and painters, but there also are positions available in other areas, such as shipping, estimating, purchasing, detailing and management.
He added that employees are a priority at Doherty, and the jobs are secure and often offer room for advancement.
“We haven’t laid anyone off since 2009 after the recession, and we hired them all back,” Chance said. “Before that it was 1982 following another recession.”
The Dohertys have turned to Southeast KANSASWORKS, which has an office in Paola, to aid them in their search for the right employees. Carla Black, business service representative, and Irene Brenon, assistant executive director, were present for the recent tour of Doherty Steel.
Brenon talked about the registered apprenticeship program, which can span one to five years and gives participants the opportunity to earn Journeyman status. Doherty Steel gets federal funds, a one-time reimbursement of up to $3,000 per person, to help offset training costs of the person participating in the apprenticeship program.
“They earn while they learn,” Brenon said. “The training can be in a classroom or at the work site.”
The business is also finding other ways to recruit local talent, including the new welding program at Fort Scott Community College.
Paola High School senior Robert Marmon recently completed two semesters of welding at FSCC and is now working at Doherty Steel while finishing his certification and high school diploma.
Regardless of where they come from, Dennis said discovering new talent has to be a priority moving forward. Especially since the company is looking at adding night and weekend shifts.
“Without the right people, you’re dead in the water,” he said.