After graduating from Colorado State in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in construction management, Joseph Phelps spent four years as a Naval reserve officer during the Korean War.
Upon his return in 1955, Phelps joined his father, Hensel Phelps, as a partner in Hensel Phelps Construction Co., a general contracting and modestly sized commercial construction business. Hensel Phelps retired two years later, and the younger Phelps purchased his interest in the company.
Shortly after, Joseph Phelps began to make equity interests available to managers and employees of the company, and created a uniquely successful incentive program which he and others have credited with playing a major role in the phenomenal growth-in terms of volume, strength and prestige-of his father’s small company, now in its 64th year.
Thinking of it originally as a hobby, Phelps pursued a second passion-collecting and learning about wine and visiting the wine-growing regions of Europe. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he began making wine in the basement of his home in Greeley using grapes air-shipped from California. Phelps also planted vines in Northern Colorado, but the winters proved too harsh.
In early 1973, he purchased a ranch in the Napa Valley and launched a second career as a professional vintner and wine grower. His best-known wine, Insignia, has been ranked among the top 10 red wines of the world during the last two decades.
In 1975, Robert Tointon became president of Hensel Phelps Construction Co. with Phelps remaining as chairman of the board. Phelps’ day-to-day involvement in the company gradually declined, and in 1982 he became a full-time resident of California and full-time vintner.
Phelps Inc., the parent company of Hensel Phelps Construction, was reorganized in 1989. Under the reorganization, Jerry Morgensen and other "third-generation" managers assumed control over Phelps Inc.’s general contracting business. Joe Phelps then joined Tointon and his family in creating Phelps-Tointon Inc., which assumed control over the diversified real estate and non-general contracting activities of Phelps Inc.
Over the years, Phelps’ support of Colorado State has come through scholarships, faculty development grants, internships and employment opportunities for construction management graduates. In 1996, Phelps gave $500,000 to establish an internship program for construction management students. In previous years, Phelps also has offered his construction managers and staff to participate in visiting lecture programs at Colorado State.