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In the C-Suite: Peggy Del Fabbro

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Peggy Del Fabbro, CEO of M. Davis & Sons | PHOTO COURTESY OF M. DAVIS & SONS

WILMINGTON – Peggy Del Fabbro grew up with M. Davis & Sons being an ever-present part of her life.

Her father, Charles Davis, took over the now-150-year-old family business in 1974 when she was a teenager and visiting the specialty construction firm’s varied job sites was a part of her life.

“I had my steel-toed boots on, and I’d go out with Dad to the sites. I thought it was so cool to see how things were made. I still love that,” she said.

Whether it was visiting a pulp mill and watching paper being made or going to a fast food container manufacturer and watching boxes, cups and straws fly around the facility by the thousands, Del Fabbro recognized the wonder and importance of keeping America’s plants operating.

“I feel very fortunate to have that experience and appreciation for what it takes to manufacture something,” she said.

Like most teenagers, however, she didn’t grow up wanting to run the family business.

“I wanted to be a veterinarian,” Del Fabbro recalled, noting that aside from traditional pets her grandfather also raised chickens and other animals. “But then I realized that chemistry was not my strong suit and there weren’t opportunities then like today to take that education and do other things, like be a vet tech.”

While her love of animals never subsided – today she serves on the advisory board of the Delaware Valley SPCA – Del Fabbro recognized that her Plan B was in business administration. Her summers helping at M. Davis’ offices helped her reach that realization, and her studies at the University of Delaware focused on operations management and accounting.

After graduation, however, Del Fabbro wanted to carve her own path rather than return to M. Davis, and for several years she worked for National Vulcanized Fiber, later known as NVF Company in Yorklyn.

“That was a really valuable experience for me,” she said of the company that was an M. Davis supplier. “It was a more corporate environment, so I think it gave me insight into what our customers are faced with.”

After a few years, however, Del Fabbro’s father asked if she would consider coming back to the then-growing M. Davis to handle its accounting. After some negotiating, she agreed, and the decision has led to a 33-year career. It didn’t come without difficulties though.

“That first year was really tough, because I had been away for like four years and there were new people there who didn’t know me and I didn’t know them,” she recalled. “And right out of the gate I was a supervisor who is expected to have difficult conversations. I had to really learn, and it was not easy.”

After earning her stripes though, Del Fabbro set about modernizing the company and digitizing its records for the first time.

“I was all about computerization, especially on the accounting side. I really pushed that, and once we got that going, I think everybody saw that was a positive,” she said.

With the firm’s bookkeeping, engineering and project management now done on computers, Del Fabbro said that it has allowed associates more time to design their hallmark custom solutions for their customers, which run the industry gamut from oil and gas to pharmaceutical, food and beverage to power generation.

In 1998, Del Fabbro bought part of the company and worked her way higher into its executive ranks. By 2008, with the company planning for the future and contending with the downturn of the Great Recession, the firm’s executive committee proposed turning over the CEO seat to Del Fabbro.

“I thought [becoming CEO] would be no big deal, after all I was already a part owner. I was very wrong,” she said. “When you have that title and you are the majority owner, the expectations are different.”

Fatefully, one of the men on the executive committee suggested the company reach out to the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), the largest certifier of women-owned businesses in the U.S. and a leading advocate for women business owners and entrepreneurs.

Del Fabbro said that connection changed her life, because she’s learned through her involvement with the organization – she currently serves as second vice chair of its Women’s Business Enterprise Forum – that being a woman-owned business is more than just opening doors to new bids and contracts.

“It helps us engage with our existing customers in a different manner and helps us connect with potential new customers,” she explained.

While she is a rare woman CEO in the construction industry, Del Fabbro said that she’s been able to learn from women in other industries through WBENC.

“I can learn from somebody that has a marketing firm or who manufactures safety products. I can learn from somebody that has a legal staffing company. I learned from all of them how they handle themselves,” she said.

With all construction firms trying to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic this year, Del Fabbro credits M. Davis’ longtime focus on worksite safety for its ability to continue operating normally. With eyes on returning to some sense of normalcy in 2021, Del Fabbro said that M. Davis is well positioned to grow in industries like renewable and alternative energy, water treatment, life sciences, pharmaceutical, and food and beverage.

“We have existing customers in those industries like Air Liquide, DuPont and Merck, and we also have opportunities to grow with new customers and new technology,” she said. 

By Jacob Owens

jowens@delawarebusinestimes.com

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