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A Legacy of Leadership: The Enduring Impact of Denise Carol Dahms

“What did you learn?”

This was a common response from Denise Dahms, our president, when the team here at Delden Manufacturing and Renner Garage Door made a mistake or a decision didn’t go completely to plan.

Denise was a respected leader who expected a lot from her employees and valued honesty and hard work. She was known for her clear ideas and direction for the company when she took the reins and was respected by staff and competitors for her no-nonsense attitude and her ability to keep calm in difficult situations.

She had a talent for the garage door industry and was also known for her strong faith in people and her open-door policy—which was more than the lip service you may have seen at some companies—making herself accessible to anyone, regardless of their position.

We lost Denise in August and wanted to take a moment to share just a few reasons why she will be missed for her leadership, kindness, and most of all, her commitment to excellence for us as a company and as individuals.

Her Journey to the Big Chair and Challenges

In speaking with numerous family members, employees, and colleagues, we learned and are proud to share that her leadership was based on treating people right and expecting them to do their best, and yes, learn from their mistakes.

Her tenure as president began after many years of working for her father, our founder Gene Renner, who instilled in her the admonition to “Move forward with your plan. You just keep your eyes forward instead of always looking back.”

She took over after being groomed for six months by Renner when he retired. It was rocky at first, as the atmosphere for female business leaders forty years ago wasn’t quite the same as it is today.

“I remember when she first started making sales calls,” said her husband, Steve Dahms. “Lumber yards wouldn’t give her the time of day.” “They wouldn’t even let her in the door,” added Steven Dahms, Denise’s son. “Then they realized she knew what she was talking about. Some people quit. Those people didn’t have any faith in her.”

“Denise was a woman pioneer in a male-dominated industry. She was a great leader who knew the industry and her business well,” said Vickie Lents, vice president of marketing & innovation at Amarr Garage Doors.

“A lot of those factors were against her,” said longtime company controller and friend Joe Shipp.

Denise’s Impact on Company Culture

Regarded as a tough, no-nonsense leader, she made immediate changes to the internal processes and structure of the company, which meant there were hard decisions to make about personnel and budget decisions. Locations were sold off or closed, and staff that were not on board with the new direction quickly moved on.

“Gene was a businessman. Denise didn’t start out being a businesswoman,” said Shipp. “Denise was a garage door person when I met her. And I worked at the Garage Door Group (GDG), which produces our sections now, Amarr Company. And I worked there, and they had a change in management, and I wasn’t going to stay. Gene came out to me one day and said, ‘I understand you’re leaving’ and asked me to come on board.”

“So, I went over there. The first time I met Denise was when she was about 9 months pregnant, and she walked past me; she had a torsion spring under each arm, and that huge belly sticking out to here.” Joe chuckles at the memory. “And I go, ‘Who in the hell was that?’ And they said, ‘That’s Gene’s daughter.’”

“So, after I talked to Gene for a while, and we had a long conversation about everything, I went to Denise and I said, “What do you think?” And she said, ‘Well, he wants me to run this place, and I don’t know anything about finances.’ And I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about garage doors.” She said, ‘I’ll teach you if you teach me.’ Our relationship started that day.”

He added, “And she was either a better student or I was a better teacher because she took the financials and ran with them. I still don’t know anything about garage doors. (laughing) So I think I got the short end of this. (laughing) I mean, I know they go up and down and if they don’t, they’re broke.”

Building her team, Denise took her father’s advice and moved ahead, not looking back. She kept asking herself what she learned, even after making a few missteps after she took charge.

She would leave for work at five a.m., regularly not seeing home again until after nine p.m. That stoic work ethic was paired with a devotion to being conservative with capital and growth strategy.

Growth and Diversification

Gene Renner was an industry legend who earned a reputation for being a dealmaker, but also someone tolerant of risk. Denise learned some lessons watching her father but also focused on a more conservative business profile for the leading garage door company.

“Gene was more risk tolerant, Denise more conservative,” said William Dahms, co-owner and Denise’s son. “She wanted the company to grow in a fashion where she still felt it was safe and secure.”

Denise also enhanced the diversification of the business to keep up with the times in response to the competitive environment by growing the Renner installation side of the business. “I think Renner really blossomed after she took over,” said Kelly Meyer, regional office manager, who has worked with us for 31 years.

“One of the successes I think she did too, was when we got semi-trailers, and we started delivering doors to the lumber yards. I think that was a big deal for this company that she did, our milk run program,” said Robert Perez, plant manager.

The Mom Side

Denise could be intimidating, but still had her softer, “Mom” side. Her friends and family mentioned her delight in having her “girly girl” nails done, her taste in jewelry, and regular weekend recharges at her place in the Lake of the Ozarks, where she enjoyed reading and floating in the peace and quiet. She also found refuge from the stresses of work by gardening.

As a mother, her sons William, Steven, and “adopted son” Zach Sipple have plenty of tales to tell about Denise’s parenting style.

“She wasn’t afraid to set us straight,” William said.

“Yeah, she could verbally put you in your spot,” added Zach, production manager.

Brad Dodson, co-owner, is Denise’s nephew, but the relationship with his Aunt Denise was close.

“My mom passed away when I was thirteen. So, Denise took on that role for me. She was my mother figure—and was also my business mentor.”

When Brad expressed a desire to move up in the company, she challenged him to prove his reliability by being on time for thirty days straight, with no margin for tardiness. Despite a history of being late and the pressure of the challenge, he succeeded.

She had been observing his ability to generate business and interact with clients through a side business he had built, especially as the internet began to play a larger role in commerce around 2012. Recognizing the need for a dedicated marketing manager as the company’s marketing efforts expanded, she brought him into Gene’s office for a discussion about his future. He was expecting a sales job, but Denise had other plans.

“She said, ‘we’re kind of looking for someone for this (marketing) role. I think you might be a good fit for it,’ and I went for it.”

Others who knew Denise’s husband Steve or people who worked at Delden often went to Denise looking for a career change. It didn’t always work out the way they expected.

Todd Whitney came to Denise, who he had known for years, looking for a change.

“I was a little, not intimidated, but like, ‘I don’t know. See how this goes.’ So, I walked in there, she goes, ‘Well, this is uncomfortable,’ because I’ve known her my whole life. She asked, ‘But what do you offer?’ Remember, she knows me as well as she knows her son—backwards and forwards. And I told her, ‘This is awkward for me too.’ She was a friend, mentor, almost like an aunt figure to me. I said, “I give a (darn).” She goes, ‘That’s all you got to say?’ I said, ‘That’s all I got to say.”

After a moment, she said “I think you’d do a good job.”

Todd added, “She didn’t tell me I had the job. She just said there’s several people interviewing for this job. That’s how cut and dry Denise was.”

He got the job.

That didn’t mean any job was always safe in the wake of tough economic times. William knows this all too well, as when he first started out with the company, there was a slow period at work during the winter. Despite his family connections—his grandfather owning the company and his mother running it—this did not protect him from being laid off.

The decision was made based on seniority and the need to reduce labor costs, as emphasized by his mother, who always warned about keeping labor expenses in check. Ultimately, it was decided that he was the lowest in seniority and, therefore, the one to be laid off, despite being the son and grandson of the owners. He found work painting bathrooms and other odd jobs until things picked up.

High Expectations

Denise was clearly tougher on those from whom she expected more.

Joe Rethford, Delden vice president of sales, appreciated her directness and loyalty to her team. Throughout his years at the company, she imparted significant business knowledge. Towards the end of her tenure, she reminded him of her role in his hiring, which he interpreted as a call to not let her down, highlighting her high expectations and belief in his potential.

“She brought the best out of me. And then her saying ‘Don’t forget who hired you.’ I took that as ‘don’t let me down.’ You know, ‘don’t embarrass me. My son’s taking over.’ And I think she did a good job of surrounding him with good people.”

And he was one of many who had similar stories about Denise’s management approach, which included a rejection of micromanagement, and her logical approach to problems.

 “The one thing I always thought was unique about Mom that I think a lot of other people didn’t get is she was not afraid to let you fail,” William said. “I think she realized that failure was a part of life and just might as well get over it and get it done with.”

He added that his mother would encourage independent thinking by asking people what they thought they should do, rather than directly telling them what to do. She guided them to find their own solutions, even if she suspected those solutions might not work, allowing them to learn through failure. She was supportive and non-judgmental about failures, if there was genuine effort and good intentions behind the actions.

“A lot of times if you seemed unsure about something, she’d come walk you through it and basically make you answer your own question,” William said.

During a particularly tough time in his tenure, Clint Wilson recalled that she told him to either sink or swim.

“She didn’t mince words. She would kind of tell you, like Willy said, failure was part of our job. And she knew that you’re going to screw some stuff up sometimes. But as long as you owned up to it, like the time I ordered some wrong doors, and I’m thinking, ‘Good Lord, they’re going to fire me.’ And she didn’t even hardly bat an eye at it. But sometimes she’d come pick on you about a little thing, just to keep you honest. You knew where you stood with Denise. There was no gray area.”

That way of managing ensured she kept a quality team on their toes, making them better at their jobs.

Brandon Shepherd, Renner service salesperson, agreed, adding that “She was a firm believer in surrounding herself with good people and nothing else.”

Grace Under Pressure

Many staff and colleagues remarked upon her unflappable calm.

“Very rarely did she get frazzled,” William said. “I think she was a pretty logical person, and she would think, ‘okay this sucks, but it’s already here, so what are we going to do to fix it?’”

Despite her reputation for toughness and no-nonsense, Denise had plenty of fans in the industry.

“Denise and I grew up in the business together. I have always found her engaging and determined to do the right thing for her business,” said Lyle Symons, vice president of sales at Amarr Garage Doors. “Denise was a pleasant soul, driven by logic in business and kindness on personal matters. I will miss her.”

“I worked with Denise for 10-plus years and what I remember most is how sincere and a straight shooter she was,” said Blain St. Ama, senior director of sales at Amarr Garage Doors. “I saw her get riled up one time and I’ll never forget; she kept her cool and said that was ‘cow manure!’ Denise was special and I’ll always remember her fondly.”

“I met Denise not long after beginning my position with DASMA. Seeing her at DASMA meetings and IDA trade shows, she would ask me about technical activities and I in turn would ask her about business and industry trends,” said Joe Hetzel, retired technical director of the Door & Access Systems Manufacturers Association. “Over the years, she shared many valuable insights about the garage door business that strongly influenced my technical work. Along the way, we became friends where we also corresponded about family and life in general. I mourned her passing; it caused me to reflect on the huge influence she had on my career and on my life.”

“The industry has lost another iconic figure. I have had the pleasure of working with Denise for many years. She was always dedicated to keeping Gene Renner’s vision for Delden Garage Doors as a top-notch manufacturer and distributor of garage doors in the Midwest. My prayers go out to her family and friends,” said James Webb, vice president at National Door Industries, Inc.

Rick Vinson, national sales manager at Napoleon/Lynx said, “I was sad to learn that my friend Denise had passed away. Denise and I had known each other since the late 1980s. It was a pleasure working with her and seeing her take over for Gene when he retired and then having to make all the tough decisions after Gene passed,” he added.

“I don’t think she ever lost sight of Gene’s humble beginnings and carried forward his ethics. You could always be assured that any negotiations or agreements with her would be honored. She did a great job maintaining Delden’s integrity and the high quality of their products! She has passed the torch to the third generation, and I am certain her principles and ethics will be carried forward for many years to come.”

“Rest in Peace my friend, you will be remembered and missed.”

Not A Hugger

Denise was good at networking, but as many of her family and staff said more than once, she wasn’t touchy-feely, but she learned to endure it good-naturedly.

“It’s been probably 10 years ago, and her big deal was she hates hugs. All these people from other companies just loved her and—sought her out and wanted to give her a hug,” said Clint Wilson, Kansas City branch manager, chuckling. “Denise, don’t hug, you know? But it seemed like she dealt with it since it was at the industry’s biggest event, the IDA (International Door Association) Expo. The running joke was we’d go over to people and tell them, ‘Denise likes hugs. Give her a hug.’ And everybody would come up to her and give her a hug.”

Though she didn’t hand out hugs at the office, she was very open to her staff’s thoughts and concerns.

“You hear the term open-door policy in every company? Okay, it’s not true. This company, it was, and still is,” said Todd Whitney, purchasing manager. “It didn’t matter who you were. She had great faith in our people. She had more faith than the person probably had in themselves; and it didn’t matter who it was.”

She wouldn’t tolerate gossip, and though it was not widely known until after her passing, she paid for expenses you would not expect, including funerals for team member relatives.

“She did lots of stuff there, knowing (as controller of the company) the things that she did, and I kept quiet. She did a lot of things like that for a lot of people. My best guesstimate is she paid for six or seven funerals. And granted small loans, she would go and pull money, and I’d say, ‘no, no, no.’ She’d go, ‘I’m going to do it. You might just say no all you want.’ But they paid off $10 a month for their 500-dollar loan.”

Denise wasn’t big on people making a big deal about her. When she was the recipient of the IDA Heritage Award, she felt it was awkward, and that she was too young to receive it.

The same applied to the waitress at the Big Biscuit.

After finishing their meal, she was offered the check with a senior citizen discount applied, despite not having requested it. “She went crazy,” Joe Shipp said. “I was like, ‘Denise, it’s 10% off.’ She goes, ‘I don’t care. You don’t just assume somebody’s a senior citizen!’ It was hilarious. I laughed all the way back. It just went on the rest of the afternoon.”

She was reticent to be called grandma but embraced the role, taking great care of not only her kids and grandbabies but also taking a strong interest in her staff’s.

“Denise was very active too,” Robert Perez said. “She used to play softball with the company. We used to have softball leagues and would play in Avondale—there used to be a ball field there. We’d go play there and then we’d go over to her house for barbecue and stuff. Sometimes I had my two youngest boys with me, and she would make dinner. She would make some macaroni and cheese and fish sticks and fed my boys.”

Ultimately, Denise didn’t take things too seriously, telling staff more than once, “we’re not trying to cure cancer here.” But she insisted on quality work, professionalism, and treating people right.

“One thing I always admired about her, Willy is good at this too, is whenever you talked to her, you always had her full attention,” Brad Dodson said. “No matter what she was working on, you know, she’s always busy. She’s got people reaching out to her constantly for different things, but if you were there in front of her and you were talking to her, you had her undivided attention.”

“She was always very open, honest, and most importantly genuine. When I needed good advice or feedback, Denise was always one to reach out to,” said Val Sigmon, president of Amarr Garage Doors. “It was also evident that her life revolved around her family. I am thankful to Denise for providing valuable work and life lessons.”

Tough Times

Denise kept things going when times got tough, leading by example.

“Sometimes it wasn’t always great, you know? But she’d just stick her head down and keep on moving.” William Dahms said. “She wouldn’t let it freak her out too bad or get all worked up. Some people kind of shut down when stuff like that happens. She just worked harder.”

“When COVID hit, and I hadn’t been in this position a couple of years, and it just flipped the script of what I’d learned. I mean, everything changed. And I told her a couple of times, I said, ‘yeah, I got another price increase.’ Just knew I was going to get browbeaten because it happened, she says ‘I’ve seen this before. It’ll go back.’”

One salesperson once expressed concern about an ascendant competitor, asking Denise what they were going to do. She looked at him and said, “Sell garage doors.”

Brad Dodson said that very sentiment would be on her mind, even at her own memorial service.

“We kept joking after Denise’s passing when people would ask if we’re shutting down the office during her services, our response was that she would jump straight out of that casket. ‘We are not shutting down business!’”

“My whole deal was, I did not want to disappoint Denise,” said Brandon Shepherd. “To me, I didn’t work for Renner Garage Door. I worked for Denise Dahms.”

Denise Carol Dahms

September 7, 1957 – August 19, 2023

Denise is survived by her beloved husband Steve of 39 years; her two sons – William (Nicolette) Dahms, and Steven Z. Dahms; and 6 grandchildren – Gunner, Maci, Cecilee, Addilynn, Corbin, and Reece.

2 thoughts on “A Legacy of Leadership: The Enduring Impact of Denise Carol Dahms

  1. Denise was my cousin. I did not know Denise as a business person – only as a cousin. She was the little sister to Dee Layne and Dennis who were closer to my age. We became closer as we got older and enjoyed the Plaza Christmas lights every December her mom and my mom, Gene’s sister. The four of us also traveled to New York City one year and I watched Denise give her very expensive left-over steak dinner to the men gathered on the church steps next to our hotel. She tried to help her nieces and nephews whenever she had the chance. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn’t, but she always tried, more than once. I miss my cousin every day. Even though we weren’t best friends we were cousins and you can’t get rid of a blood relative and she will always be in my heart. I am also not a hugger.

  2. She was so much fun!! I admired her for her patience and her generosity toward everyone, no matter what……
    Miss her so much.

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