JE Dunn Construction Deepens Its Roots as a Community Builder
Kansas City-based JE Dunn Construction boosts its jobsite technology and in-house collaboration to build more complex, iconic buildings
In 1943, at the height of World War II, JE Dunn Construction had just earned what Steve Dunn, grandson of founder John Ernest Dunn, describes as “a decent profit” building the U.S. Army Quartermaster’s Depot on Independence Avenue in Kansas City, Mo.
As recounted by the younger Dunn, now the company’s chairman, Ernie Dunn—a World War I veteran with two sons in the military—felt uneasy about keeping the money. Instead, he persuaded the government’s contracting officer to write a change order that allowed Dunn to give it back.
The gesture caught the attention of local newspapers and ultimately was recognized by Engineering News-Record. In a 1999 profile of Ernie Dunn, who died in 1964, ENR wrote, “After the story ran nationally, letters of gratitude poured in—one of them from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Other construction firms soon refused war profits as well.”
Indeed, the 92-year-old, Kansas City-based company, with 2015 revenues of $2.9 billion, sets an impressive example with its philanthropy. The firm, which is nearly 20% owned by its employees and 80% by the Dunn family and has 21 offices around the U.S., annually gives away more than 10% of its pretax earnings, according to Gordon Lansford, president and CEO. Since its beginnings in 1981, the Dunn Family Foundation has supported a variety of causes, perhaps most notably education and programs for the poor.
“It really started with the family, but it’s transitioned to the entire organization,” Lansford says. “We’re very blessed to work for a great company in great communities, and we enjoy giving back.”
Christann Vasquez, president of the Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas in Austin, says JE Dunn does more than just write checks. Vasquez says that besides constructing the medical center’s $192.6-million facility in downtown Austin, JE Dunn is helping to raise $50 million for the hospital.
“They’re very engaged in the Austin community,” Vasquez says. “It not like they just sponsor something. They show up. They get involved in a lot of the work being done in Austin.”
The new medical center is among numerous high-profile projects that JE Dunn has completed or is currently working on. Perhaps the most notable finished projects in Kansas City are the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2011, along with the H&R Block headquarters and Science City at Kansas City’s Union Station, both built for developer Hines.
Current projects include renovations of the state capitol buildings in Minnesota and Wyoming—JE Dunn finished an extensive remodel of the Kansas Statehouse in 2013—and the first buildings of the $4.45-billion Innovations campus being constructed for North Kansas City-based Cerner Corp., the world’s largest publicly traded health-information-technology company.
The 875,000-sq-ft Cerner project in southeast Kansas City—the first two of 16 phases in what has been described by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon as the largest economic development project in the state’s history—had its topping-out ceremony on March 18. It’s scheduled for completion at the end of the year.
Big on Learning
Dell Seton Medical Center will be a teaching hospital, and learning is something Steve Dunn feels strongly about—not just professional education but also secondary and undergraduate training aimed at the construction industry. Dunn, who serves on numerous boards in the Kansas City area, is currently spearheading an effort with the Kansas City public schools to establish a city-wide vocational education program that would open opportunities for local high school students to enter the construction industry.
“We’re big believers in education,” Dunn says. “I just feel that it’s not only important for our company, but I think it’s really important for this country that we have an educated workforce. In our industry, it’s changing so fast, even in the field.”
“When I started working in the field [as a laborer while attending college 45 years ago], most of the superintendents didn’t have a college education. A lot of them did have a high school education, and some of the laborers I worked with got through the seventh or eighth grade. Construction has changed so much—technology has been the driver—that you have to be educated,” he says.
At his own company, at least, Dunn is right about the impact of technology. Under the chief information officer, John Jacobs, JE Dunn has recently embraced technology and considers it a key competitive differentiator.
“The industry as a whole has been so slow to adopt technology,” Jacobs says, “and frankly JE Dunn was a part of that industry. We stayed just good enough in technology for a very long time, like everyone else did. And, thankfully, we’ve seen some opportunity in an industry that just is begging for giant advances, to take a leading position in that journey.”
A critical component in JE Dunn’s technological strategy is integrating data, especially construction and financial information. Jacobs recalls the old joke about construction companies being accounting firms that just happen to build buildings. Now they must be highly data savvy as well. His 36-person information technology team has created numerous proprietary solutions based on Autodesk’s BIM 360 suite of applications, along with Microsoft SharePoint.
Perhaps the most impressive in-house technology to date is a secure, web-based extranet used by nearly 50,000 people in JE Dunn’s corporate and client universe. Called the Dunn Dashboard, the extranet supports just short of 400 projects and provides what Jacobs calls a “single source of truth” about each one. For every person on a project, the dashboard is customized and “tells you what need to do to be successful,” he says. In the field, staff carry Apple iPads and Microsoft Surface tablets that provide access to their dashboards and other applications.
Another system, developed in concert with JE Dunn’s financial group, tracks projects from the first conversations with a potential client until a building is finished. The chief financial officer, Beth Soukup, says the system, called Contact 2 Completion, not only shows which projects are likely to materialize but also helps predict the firm’s work over the next several years.
“It kind of gives us our own pulse on the economy,” Soukup says. “It’s helped us both from our marketing side and our finance side. As I try to forecast what’s going to happen in the next one to five years, we have that tool, and I can really go out and see what’s in our pipeline and how good do we feel about what’s in our pipeline. It really helps our marketing people, too, to continue to push the pipeline and to go work hard at generating new opportunities for our business developers.”
Systems such as Dunn Dashboard and Contact 2 Completion are the products of a collaborative culture that Soukup describes as “empowerment filled.” Lansford says the corporate culture emphasizes safety above all other values, a goal backed up by the company’s current worker’s compensation insurance experience modification rate (EMR) of 0.55. The EMR compares actual losses with those expected, based on industry averages. An EMR of less than 1.0 earns proportionally lower workers’ compensation insurance rates.
Nonetheless, the company experienced a fatality on Sept. 9 when a worker for a subcontractor fell 14 stories from an office-and-retail complex that JE Dunn is constructing in Oklahoma City. Lansford says the accident was a stunning blow to the company, and that JE Dunn is cooperating with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in its investigation.
Safety was a priority for Vasquez, Dell Seton Medical Center president, who says the company has done “an incredible job of ensuring safety for their construction workers on the site.” Vasquez’s satisfaction is echoed generally by Cerner executive vice president and chief operating officer, Mike Nill, who observes: “At Cerner, words matter, and we’re very careful about the words we use. We would never refer to JE Dunn as a ‘vendor’ or a ‘supplier.’ Really, ‘partnership’ is a very good word to describe our relationship with them.”
“The cultures between our two firms are very similar,” adds Jerry Lea, executive vice president of conceptual construction for Hines. “[JE] Dunn is a family business, Hines is a family business, and we take the reputation of the families very seriously. Integrity and honesty are very important to both firms … and I think that’s one of the reasons we work together so well.
“The thing about them, that unfortunately has become somewhat rare in the contracting community, is that they do what they say they’re going to do,” Lea adds. “Because of that, it’s been a great experience.”