J. David “Dave” Pepper, the longtime CEO and chairman of family-owned Chicago-based Pepper Construction Group, died on Dec. 28, in Barrington, Ill., after several years of illness. He was 59. Under his leadership, the contractor expanded into Ohio and delivered the world’s first LEED-Gold certified museum.
Pepper joined the firm—founded in 1927 by his grandfather Stanley F. Pepper—after graduating in 1985 from Iowa State University with a civil engineering degree. He became its CEO in 2003. Pepper Construction ranks at No. 65 on ENR’S Top 400 Contractors list with $1.26 billion in 2018 reported revenue.
In addition to expanding Ohio operations in Cincinnati and Columbus, as well as in Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago, Pepper supervised work to deliver Grand Rapids Art Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., the first LEED-Gold museum in the U.S. The company now has 1,110 employees in five U.S. offices.
“Leadership comes in many styles, but if you are authentic, consistent and operate with principled values people will trust you,” Dave Pepper said during his induction speech to the Iowa State Construction Engineering Hall of Fame in 2017. “It’s not always pleasant, but it’s helped me.”
The contractor has consistently delivered some of the region’s biggest renovation and reconstruction projects, including a $575-million project in 2019 at Wrigley Field that stabilized and renovated the iconic 106-year-old ballpark; renovation of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in downtown Chicago that was a former retail store; and the $400-million modernization of the Rolls-Royce manufacturing campus in Indianapolis.
Dave Pepper was both preceded and succeeded in the CEO role by his older brother, J. Stanley "Stan” Pepper, who resumed the chief executive role and the chairmanship of the parent company, Pepper Construction Cos., in 2015 after spending 12 years away from the contractor, including a stint as CEO of StratusVue, a project management software firm. Dave Pepper remained as chairman of Pepper Construction Group, which owns the subsidiary companies, upon his return.
Stan Pepper says that his brother’s Iowa State induction comments “about laughter, hope, honesty, character, trustworthiness, integrity [are] really the way he lived his life. That’s a good legacy for us to keep in mind.”
Dave Pepper had been battling several health issues over the last five years, according to his brother. "His body just wore out on him,” he adds.
Dave Pepper had been a former president of the Associated General Contractors Education and Research Foundation and also was active in workforce training education mentoring programs. Most recently, he was a board director of Junior Achievement of Chicago and a management trustee of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters.
Dave Pepper is survived by his wife, Katy and their three children. His son, Colin, is a Pepper project engineer.
At his induction ceremony at the Iowa State Hall of Fame, Dave Pepper also encouraged future engineers and construction professionals to define their values early on and use them to guide career decisionmaking. “Really think about what you want to be remembered for and what you want to be known as throughout your career,” he said.