‘They stuck with it’: Fortitude, agility make Orscheln a Moberly mainstay

It’s hard to miss Orscheln Industries’ headquarters on the approach into town from U.S. Highway 63. The Southern Colonial house is held up by towering white pillars. In the yard, an Orscheln flag ripples in the wind behind a wall emblazoned with the company’s logo. The property sits prominently on a hill not far from a sign greeting visitors:

Welcome to Moberly

A dance pavilion hides behind the administrative building. It stands on high, wooden beams and has a sprawling dance floor with enough room to host a band and all of the company’s 850-plus Moberly employees for the company’s annual fall party.

It’s a place for gathering, but it also commemorates Orscheln Industries’ origins.

After five Orscheln brothers — Ed, Bill, Ted, Al and Louie — ran into financial difficulties as farmers, Ed and Bill Orscheln introduced a dance hall known as Orscheln Heights. The hall operated from 1921 to 1936. At the time, it was just a solution to a problem, but later it would be recognized as the idea that started it all.

A new pavilion was built in 2004. It’s an homage to the old dance hall, honoring the brothers and how Orscheln Industries began. A plaque outside the building pays tribute:

Their entrepreneurial spirit provides a legacy of inspiration to successive generations of family members and dedicated employees of Orscheln Industries.

From the start, Orscheln Industries has never been just one business. The family has viewed hard times as a chance for reinvention, rather than a path to their downfall. It’s an ethos they still embrace as the business navigates new challenges.

Today, the privately held family company is the largest employer in the town of about 14,000. A multifaceted global business with more than 3,500 employees worldwide, Orscheln is known mainly for its chain of farm supply stores, Orscheln Farm and Home, and manufacturing division, Orscheln Products.

The parent company also includes a property management and development company and a unit that handles corporate services.

Bob Orscheln, Bill’s grandson and president of Orscheln Industries’ manufacturing division, attributes the founding brothers’ success to their willingness to fail and ability to recover.

“I believe it’s fair to say that they had more failures than successes, but they just kept going when a lot of people wouldn’t have,” Bob said. “That whole business development effort on their part is just to be admired. They were good people, they were fair, but they failed.”

Moberly Mayor Jerry Jeffrey said that while other strong businesses have come and gone, Orscheln has outlasted the competition.

“I think you could make the case that, from their inception, they have been the most dominant and consistent corporate player in our town in their time,” Jeffrey said. “There might have been periods where someone else was stronger, but again, they’re not here now.”

From dance hall to truck line and beyond

It all began with $540 in debt.

After World War I, the five brothers moved to Sturgeon to start their own farm. But some dry years and poor cattle prices left them unable to pay their mortgage.

It was time to think of a way to pay off their debts.

“That same summer, Orscheln Heights was born,” the late Bill Orscheln recalled in a 1955 company dinner speech, “and by fall — the interest on the farm was paid.”

The dance hall was only the beginning.

At its peak, Orscheln Heights was a regular stop for bands traveling the Chicago-St. Louis-Kansas City circuit. As the business grew, the brothers bought an old pickup truck and installed benches in the back to haul people from surrounding towns to the dance hall.

A grocer gave them 25 cents one day to transport a box of bread on their next run out of town. That was enough to inspire the brothers to start Orscheln Brothers Truck Line, which operated a fleet of trucks that made deliveries across the state

Born out of a dance hall founded by failed farmers, Orscheln Industries today encompasses multiple divisions and employs more than 850 people in Moberly. | Lily O’Neill/Missouri Business Alert

The rise of the jukebox in the mid-1930s signaled the end of live entertainment dance halls, and Orscheln Heights closed in 1936. But the family had a backup plan, and the trucking business carried on.

Each business venture led to the next, and the brothers found it easier to create solutions on their own rather than to look to another company for help.

Parking brake malfunctions were common in the early days of the trucking business, and that spurred the development of a new product: Al Orscheln created the first “overcenter” parking brake, a type of brake lever for trucks and other large vehicles. The brothers patented the design in 1939 and installed the brake systems in all of their delivery trucks. In 1946, Orscheln Brake Lever Manufacturing Company, which would later become Orscheln Products, was formed to build and sell the brake system. It was such a success, American Motors added the brake lever as standard equipment on Dodge trucks.

Jeff Tayon, director of engineering for Orscheln Products and an employee of the company for close to four decades, said he admires how a whole business started from a family invention. “I don’t know the count of patents that Orscheln Industries has had, but it’s many,” Tayon said. “That goes along with not being afraid to try something.”

Splitting up the business

As years went on, the family business added an equipment dealership, a real estate venture and a few farm and home stores.

“It was getting too crowded,” Bob said. “So, my grandfather, Bill, decided to split the companies. But when you cut the candy, the other person gets to choose.”

Brothers Ed, Ted, Al and Louie took over the trucking line, the largest portion of the family business. Bill was left to take care of the rest with his sons, Don and Jerry.

After more than 30 years, the family trucking business met its end in the 1970s, when deregulation of the trucking industry gave rise to bigger competition that Orscheln couldn’t outlast.

The first generation of brothers had done their work, and it was time for Bill’s sons, Don and Jerry, to take the reins.

“If I could express being proud of something, it is those five and their next generation sons that made all of this happen over time,” Bob said. “They stuck with it.”

The third generation

Most family ventures die before reaching the third generation.

About 30% of family-owned businesses survive into the second generation, and only 12% are still viable into the third generation, according to a report from the Family Business Institute. The report revealed a disconnect between the widespread optimism of family business owners and “the reality of the massive failure of family companies to survive through the generations.”

Don Orscheln had followed his father by working at Orscheln Industries. His sons, Barry and Bob, were next-in-line to join the company after college. But Don wanted to avoid the third-generation curse.

So, he created a “nepotism rule” that encouraged his sons to look for work outside of the family business. He wanted to bring new ways of thinking into the company, and he didn’t want his sons to just be handed the family business.

“I joke about the third-generation thing. My brother and I say we’re the ones who are gonna screw this up,” Bob said. “But, fortunately, we learned other approaches to business.”

Bob Orscheln, part of the third generation to run his family’s business, views old family photos. Only about one in 10 family-run businesses survive into the third generation. | Lily O’Neill/Missouri Business Alert

After college, Bob and Barry followed their predecessors’ entrepreneurial spirit and started their own businesses. In 1983, Bob co-founded Orbseal Inc., a manufacturer of parts and sealants used in car body production. Barry started his own leasing company.

Both companies prospered, and the brothers eventually sold them and joined the family business. Bob was able to use the manufacturing skills he learned from Orbseal as president of Orscheln Products, and Barry put his financial skills to use as president of Orscheln Industries.

The nepotism rule still applies to succeeding generations, but Bob fears that it may have scared his children off.

“I would like one of my children to come back to the business one of these days, but they’re all in Kansas City and are all developing their own careers,” Bob said. “There may be something that happens down the road, but I would find that challenging to do.”

The odds of a family-run ventures surviving past three generations are even smaller, with only about 3% operating into the fourth generation or beyond, according to the Family Business Institute.

Family extends to the community

For the Orschelns, family extends beyond the bloodline.

Tayon has worked with the Orscheln family since 1981 and said he feels they treat employees as their most valuable asset.

“Orscheln is a family environment,” Tayon said. “It’s a close environment. You pretty much know everybody, you know their spouses, you know their kids. I grew up in a family business, so this just felt natural to be here.”

The company values giving back to the communities where it operates, Jeffrey said.

“They give in so many ways — having some of their people make contributions on boards and other services and volunteer opportunities in our community,” Jeffrey said.

The Orscheln business empire includes more than 165 farm stores across 11 states. | Lily O’Neill/Missouri Business Alert

Every year, each Orscheln company feeds money into the Orscheln Industries Foundation, an organization that makes private donations to communities where the family’s retail stores, manufacturing facilities or offices are located.

Moberly has always been home for Orscheln Industries, and Bob said the company takes pride in the town and the people it has employed. The town has seen the company evolve from a bustling dance hall to a global, multi-faceted business.

And, every fall, the Orscheln pavilion comes to life for the company party.

Bob makes a point to shake everyone’s hand and extend a hello, but he said the growth of the company has slowed him down. Live music and chatter fill the air, reminiscent of the glory days of the old dance hall.

Underneath the roof of the Orscheln pavilion, past and present intertwine as the Orscheln family companies celebrate another year.

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