[caption id="attachment_230517" align="aligncenter" width="683"] Delle Donne & Associates Chairman Ernie Delle Donne | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELLE DONNE & ASSOCIATES[/caption]
WILMINGTON — By the time he was 5 years old, Ernie Delle Donne was already building. It started with erector sets and exclusively houses out of Lincoln logs, and by the time he was 7 he was embarking on a tree fort.So it may come as a shock to hear that his original plan, after graduating from Columbia University, was to become a doctor. Not out of love of medicine – but to build his own name on his own merits.“I didn’t want to pursue a career where it looked like I was just following my father’s footsteps,” Delle Donne told the Delaware Business Times. “But then my father and I had a heart-to-heart, and he told me, ‘We’re only on this earth for a short period of time. You better make sure you do what you really enjoy.’”And for Delle Donne — much like his father, Eugene Delle Donne — it was in real estate and development. Eugene Delle Donne started Fairfield Construction in the 1940s and built homes like the Fairfield Crest neighborhood and other projects like Fairfield Shopping Center apartments. He retired around 1970.Ernie Delle Donne returned home after graduating from Columbia to help his father take care of his ailing mother. Around that time, Delaware passed the Financial Center Development Act of 1981, which spurred a boom in financial services.After their talk, the Delle Donnes went into business together as Delle Donne & Associates in 1982. Ernie Delle Donne was 25 at the time, and the company’s first project was the Concord Pike Village on U.S. Route 202.“It really was an honor to work alongside him, after listening to him since I was 6 years old. I can remember being 12 and asking questions about cash flow and net operating expenses on car rides together,” he said. “While he may have not had the best balance sheet, he had the best reputation in the honorable way he did business, by far. And that opened a lot of doors.”Eugene Delle Donne passed in 1986, and shortly after he died, the last project he and Ernie worked on was complete: the E.A. Delle Donne Corporate Center off Route 141 near Chestnut Run.“There were some names thrown around, but it was our people in the office who had the pleasure of working with my father for years who said we should name these buildings after him,” Ernie Delle Donne said.
[caption id="attachment_207843" align="alignright" width="200"] The six-story Tower at STAR on the University of Delaware’s STAR campus was a major DDA project. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS.[/caption]
While the Delle Donne name was associated with handshake deals and honorable agreements through Eugene, Ernie may embody a dedication in delivering high-quality structures. In fact, University of Delaware Executive Vice President Alan Bragman said Delle Donne had a single-minded focus when it came to building the STAR Campus.“I have no intention of retiring. I haven’t found a single thing that excites me more than this,” Delle Donne said. “To think on any given day, you can impact so many people’s lives, whether it’s iron and steel workers or the civil engineers. It’s one of the most rewarding things.”He views his projects as “homes,” whether it's for retailers in shopping centers or office spaces or apartments. It’s also a balancing act between art, finance and environmental management. “Building touches upon possibly 10 different academic regiments, and many times, seven of those variables are fighting with the other three,” he said. “Even back when I was 25, it was building something that wasn’t only profitable but that has a value that lasts 50 years.“I want these projects to be valuable for my granddaughter someday, as well as speaking well for the state,” Delle Donne added. “Everything we build lasts so long, it’s a reflection on our economy, our state, our people, infrastructure and our politics.”Among his greatest achievements he names Delle Donne & Associates being selected to develop the west side of Concord Pike, working with John Rollins on the Brandywine Town Center, the STAR Campus as well as the AstraZeneca campus redevelopment now known as Avenue North.
[caption id="attachment_228628" align="alignleft" width="361"] The Tower at Avenue North will feature 100,000 square feet of new Class A office space in Wilmington's suburbs. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELLE DONNE & ASSOCIATES[/caption]
Outside the office, he also had pride in being the husband of Joan Delle Donne of 41 years and the father of Elizabeth, who was born deaf, blind and with cerebral palsy; Gene Delle Donne who was recently named head football coach of his alma mater Salesianum School; and Elena Delle Donne, the all-star Washington Mystics basketball player famed for her jump shot.Ernie Delle Donne may have had some reservations early in his career about a family business, but as his son works in the property management side of Delle Donne Associates, he finds that they complement each other’s skills well.“He’s more of the face of the company, and I’m sure everyone in the market would rather speak to him than me,” Delle Donne joked. “I tend to just stay in my inner circle, and business-wise I deal with my direct reports. There’s nobody better with people than my son. He can get a rock to speak.”Meanwhile, as Elena is the spotlight as one of the stars of the WNBA, Ernie Delle Donne is not shy about speaking out about her successes. While she often credits him for teaching her how to shoot, Delle Donne jokes that he can’t be that good at it if he’s only had one student.“My primary motive is seeing her pursue something that brings her joy. And when you’re a father, you’re only as satisfied as when all three children are doing well in their own right, regardless of what their passion may be,” he said.