Case Studies

Dowling Construction Inc.

A Reliable Team, Building Trust One Square Foot-at-a-time

Jim Dowling’s background is neither in business nor contracting, but somehow he’s still managed to turn Dowling Construction Inc. (Dowling) into a successful tenant improvement company over the past 15 years. “When people ask me how I started this business I jokingly say with a handful of credit cards and no brains,” says Jim.

But, to a certain extent, Jim isn’t joking. “I don’t have an MBA in business,” he shares. “I’ve been doing this by the seat of my pants for pretty much my whole life.”

The majority of his early experience is actually in woodworking. “Growing up in Vermont, there were a lot of woodworkers, but my grandfather, who was a professor at MIT and a woodworker by trade, really showed me craft,” adds Jim.

With his fascination in woodworking and cabinetry, Jim began to build a set of repeat clients. “One of the first major projects I did was a series of bible holders for a local Catholic church,” he recalls. “In 1983 I decided I wanted to turn my skills into a business. I already had clients I’d worked with previously who said they would support me and pay me quickly.”

By 1998 Jim and two other partners established Dowling in San Diego. “Our first year I figured we’d do about $400,000 but things really took off and we ended up pulling in about $2 million, and now we’re well over that number,” shares Jim. “This December will be our 15th year in business.”

Today Dowling operates as a tenant improvement contractor, serving property managers and owners throughout San Diego County. “We’ve gone to Orange County in the past for a customer, but we typically stay within San Diego County,” notes Jim.

Relying on Good People

At its largest Dowling employed about 50 individuals, but Jim admits that number has dropped to about 25 with the onset of the economic downturn. “When I started the company things took off and we grew each year, so much so that when the recession hit I almost didn’t want to recognize that we were losing ground,” he reveals. “We went into debt after a project went under and I had to pay the subcontractors because it was the right thing to do, but I really didn’t want to let go of people.”

After nearly whipping out the company’s savings, Jim learned a hard lesson. “We had to let some people go and implement some pay cuts, but I think we’re finally coming out of it now thanks to the dedication of the professionals here,” he says. “I have people who’ve been here for a long time, some nine years or more, including Gayle, my CFO. She watches every penny and has been by my side the whole way.”

However, Jim notes that the company is pressing on. “We’ve restored the pay cuts we initially had to make; except for myself,” he continues. “We’re certainly moving forward and we’ve made it, because of the special group of people we have at Dowling.”

A Collaborative Approach

Jim admits his people represent a team in every sense of the word. “I think what really sets us apart is our attention to detail,” he adds. “We have a lot of systems in place that everyone else says they have but really don’t. We’re very organized through a team mentality. There’s a project manager, project coordinator and superintendent on every job we do; whether is a $2,000 project or $2 million one.”

Although it’s a little more expense to run the show this way, Jim says that’s what gets clients coming back to Dowling year after year. “We’re not a huge contractor; most of what we do is repeat business,” he shares. “There’s good competition out there, but we’re better than the majority. I’d say we’re in the top five to 10 percent of contractors in this area.”

For over a decade, Dowling has been maximizing value-engineering, delivering the best subcontractors and managing projects through flexible, low impact scheduling on occupied buildings. The company offers a variety of preconstruction services, scheduling and budgeting, estimating, green building construction and facility maintenance.

“We also self perform door installations, framing, drywall, small-scale demolition and handy-man service in-house,” adds Jim. “We’ve expanded our subcontractor base, finding guys who really want the work and forming good relationships, because if you’re using the same people over and over sometimes they get too complacent.”

The company frequently works with the University Of California San Diego (UCSD) and other state organizations. “We’re currently finishing up a project for a property manager at UCSD,” reveals Jim. “This is a good size project revamping the human resources department. We do a lot of turnover work for the university throughout the summer months.”

According to Jim, the company’s largest project to-date was for Novatel, a cellular software company. “We remodeled their corporate office in San Diego, which is worth about $4 million over the course of six phases,” he details. “Novatel consolidated an off-site testing facility and we had to drill holes into the first floor slab to burry chambers they use for testing. All in all, it took about a year to complete.”

With work on the horizon and the economy picking up, Jim says Dowling poised for growth and to learn from the past couple of years. “My goal is to prepare for the next recession so we don’t suffer as much as we did this time around and, on a personal level, to get out of the day-to-day operations of projects and run the company more as an executive,” he shares. Over the past 15 years, Dowling Construction Inc. has stayed afloat and continues to climb to the top of the tenant improvement industry in California through good people and collaboration.

For more information about Dowling Construction Inc., please visit: www.dowlingconst.com.

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