From Raceway to Parkway

From Flipping Ferraris to Constructing Complexes, Sitting Down With John Dellagnese

Article by Chris Watson

Photography by Dan Karipides

Originally published in Canton Lifestyle

John D. Dellagnese III is a name synonymous with achievement here in Northeast Ohio. This self-made man is responsible for a veritable empire of exquisite structures, from office buildings to medical and industrial properties to shopping centers and beyond.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” says John, the 75-year-old and semi-retired president and chairman of Dellagnese Construction Company. “My employees do amazing things, and we’ve never had a tenant leave because they didn’t like the building."

That’s quite an accomplishment considering the sheer volume of tenants and buildings for which Dellagnese Companies is responsible.

John didn’t begin as real estate royalty, of course, but he’s always been a motivated entrepreneur. As a 14-year-old, he traded foreign cars out of his mother’s garage and under her name he purchased, repaired and sold enough European Peugeots, Jaguars and MGs to draw the attention of the state of Ohio, which issued a letter warning that his mother would need to obtain a license to continue. Still, he pursued his vision of speeding cars and growing wealth.

“I used to think the fastest way to become rich was to become a racecar driver,” says John. 

At 16, John joined a Toronto-based motorsports club in order to circumvent the American age restriction on racing, and at 17 he began to race himself. Before long, however, John decided that racing to riches was only the fastest route in the punniest sense. This is when he set the metaphorical handbrake and entered the world of construction.

“After I finished my first general contracting job,” says John, “I realized that meant I was already unemployed again. So I started building on my own account.”

Thus, Dellagnese Construction Company was founded in 1964, and 57 years later business is still strong from John’s creation. Perhaps this is because tenants recognize the value in a Dellagnese building. Designed by a team of dedicated and talented architects, the Class A constructions feature astonishing amounts of natural light, modern yet timeless design and stunning glassed atriums that have become something of a calling card for John over the past 40 years.

One day in 1980, John was having lunch with his chief architect and sketching out designs for a large office building on a napkin. 

“I said I don’t want any windows,” says John, chuckling at the memory. “I’m tired of looking at slush and snow. I want a big atrium, with lots of green plants.”

Of course, the office still needed windows, but that elegant, light-filled atrium started a trend that earned him some notoriety as the “Guy Who Builds Atriums.” However, John’s true claim to fame is as the mastermind behind Embassy Parkway, a 140-acre office park featuring a bevy of buildings erected by Dellagnese.

“I started Embassy Parkway in 1986,” says John, reminiscing on the area’s establishment. “I thought I’d be there 10 years, and here I am, still there. It’s almost finished!”

“These buildings didn't happen by chance,” says Deborah Davis, personal assistant to John. “He attached himself to the project and is very proud of the work.”

He’d never tell you that, though. A pointedly humble man, John quips, “I don’t even know how to use a pencil without going into debt!”

Modest roots give John the perspective needed to blend business and values. When it comes to design, he believes that satisfying the tenant begins with satisfying their employees, making quality amenities crucial. In regards to ethics, John espouses honesty and integrity, standing behind his work years after completing it without hesitation. As for his own staff, he ensures they are well cared for and supported. He’s even gone so far as to use his personal funds to make payroll during an economic downturn. These qualities shine in Dellagnese Companies as well and are why they are the best at what they do.

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