Guest Commentary by Kent Carlson
Des Moines’ quiet giant
What do the Astrodome, Minute Man missile bases, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cape Canaveral Moon Rocket Assembly Building, Busch Stadium, The Luxor Hotel, Wimbledon Stadium, Wells Fargo Arena and even Veterans Auditorium all have in common? I’ll give you a hint: It’s a Des Moines company in business for more than 75 years. Still no clue?
It’s Economy Forms Corp., also known as EFCO. Don’t feel bad. When EFCO hosted a roundtable discussion on business issues with John McCain at their headquarters in 2008, The Des Moines Register didn’t know what EFCO did either. While company CEO Al Jennings got a laugh out of it, EFCO’s low-key image can be attributed in large part to the Jennings family.
Al Jennings’ father, W.A. Jennings, graduated from Iowa State with a civil engineering degree. His father died when he was two years old. His mother was a housekeeper at the Brown Hotel. By 1932, at age 34, W.A was working for MetaForms selling concrete paving forms on commission. From the basement of his home on 9th Street in Des Moines, he developed 30” x 30” steel forms for pouring concrete that could be easily connected with pins he designed. Wall forms could be assembled quickly, and the forms were reusable. He showed his ideas to MetaForms, but they didn’t bite. That may have been his luckiest break. Even though it was the height of the Great Depression, W.A. wasn’t depressed. He knew he had a great idea and convinced others into investing in his fledgling company, and in 1934 Economy Forms was born. While his inventive form system was creative, his business plan of leasing the forms proved to be real genius. By 1937 the business had grown enough to build a facility at 4301 N.E. 14th St. When World War II hit, EFCO was poised for growth. With experience in the construction of buildings, sewage plants and water reservoirs, EFCO was involved with building war plants, army bases, hospitals, bridges… you name it.
W.A. Jennings had three sons and a daughter. Ralph Jennings opened up a Seattle branch in the 1950s and in 1961 scored big with a contract that eventually led to the construction of more than 1,200 Minute Man missile sites. Ralph went on to be President and Chairman of the Board. Ralph died of cancer in 1988. Don, the youngest brother, was involved with EFCO’s sales division. Al Jennings has been Chairman and CEO since 1981.
More than anyone, Al Jennings has been the driving force behind EFCO for several decades. Jennings is demanding, but a workhorse himself. He’s a company man, and nobody knows more about EFCO than Al Jennings. The Jennings family has close ties with Iowa State University and has been generous benefactors. Al’s father, wife and children attended Iowa State. Their son John, a talented sculptor, built a large sculpture that has been fixture outside Iowa State’s Design Center for 30 years. Younger son Bob received his engineering degree at Iowa State before earning his MBA elsewhere. Bob served as President of EFCO.
At EFCO’s impressive headquarters on Broadway in Des Moines, a very long skywalk leads to the 45,000-square-foot Concrete Construction and Forming Institute. The center has state-of-the-art classrooms, a beautiful 100-seat auditorium, a huge demonstration bay where customers and employees can learn about EFCO products. In “Formation Hall” EFCO’s history is documented. EFCO was also called upon when the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007. A year to the day after announcing the new $234 million bridge project, the bridge was open to the public. EFCO has been involved in thousands of bridge projects from the 30-mile-long Bang Na Expressway Bridge in Bangkok, to the Northumberland Strait Bridge from Prince Edward Island to Canada. EFCO has been a part of 125 stadium projects in the U.S. including the Georgia Dome, the Kingdome, Cardinal Stadium and L.A. Coliseum as well as stadiums from Brunei to Peru. EFCO has offices, warehouses or manufacturing plants in the UK, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan.
For 76 years EFCO has been a quiet giant in Des Moines and has employed thousands of people all over the world. EFCO has 18.9 acres of manufacturing, warehouse and offices under roof in Des Moines. The fourth generation of the Jennings family is now working at EFCO. Yet Al and Ann Jennings still live quietly in their modest split-level they bought nearly 50 years ago.
Quiet is just the way they like it. CV
Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in the preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. And he writes a few columns for Cityview, too.