Business Person of the Year 2010 – Runner-Up
With expert help from family members, down-to-earth Wells excavation company owner hollows out success.
Photo by Kris Kathmann
Jerry Dulas is much more comfortable moving dirt from the seat of an excavator cab than sitting at an office table answering a magazine writer’s questions. That’s why his daughter, Tanya Pierce, offered to buffer the experience by joining in the interview. It was Tanya who nominated her father for Connect Business Magazine Business Person of the Year 2010, somewhat to his dismay.
Dulas, the 63-year-old founder and chief operating officer of Dulas Excavating, Inc. in Wells, personifies the self-effacing image of a small-town Minnesota business owner. His often-quoted philosophy of life: “Don’t spend money buying stuff you don’t need, with money you don’t have, to impress people you don’t know,” but some of the actual words are a bit saltier.
It’s how he has run his business for four decades, as well as his life. He downplays his success, saying, “Some people like to hire the home town boy.”
Dulas grew up the middle child (seventh of thirteen) in Wells. Working summers as a hired hand for an uncle on a nearby farm, “there always was construction of some sort,” he said. He also ran a pea combine for Green Giant.
After graduating from Wells High School in 1964, Dulas joined the U.S. Marine Corps, and was deployed to Vietnam and stationed at a supply camp, where he drove heavy-duty trucks. When returning home in 1967, he knew he wanted to turn his passion for “moving massive piles of earth” into a business and a career.
Using educational benefits from the G.I. Bill of Rights, Dulas enrolled in the two-year heavy equipment operations program at Staples Technical College, now Central Lakes College. During that time, he and a friend (another student) operated a small landscaping business. In addition, Dulas worked full-time at a welding business. His conservative lifestyle helped him save money for equipment purchases. After graduation in 1969, he sold his 1964 Chevy and drove back to Wells in a dump truck he bought from the landscaping business.
Dulas bought his first machine, a crawler-loader, from a local businessman he’d known in the past. By then he was married to Marilyn, whom he’d convinced to sell her 1965 Mustang to help finance the purchase of the crawler-loader. For additional start-up money, he went to the bank he’d used previously, but was denied a loan. He then secured his first business loan from the other bank in town, Peoples State Bank, and to this day he’s faithful to the bank that showed faith in him four decades ago.
Dulas met Marilyn at the local dance hall, the Bubble, where he indulged his passion for dancing to “Old Time Music,” as was the custom in Wells in those days. When Marilyn accepted his marriage proposal, the wedding was scheduled for “off season.” They wed on a snowy January day when no machines were moving dirt.
In spring 1971 the Dulases spent the last of the their money on a wheel-loader backhoe and set up their business on their four-acre residence on Wells’ west side. They still live in the same home, now remodeled, but in 1985 moved the office and equipment to a site on the east side of town. At the time of purchase, the area was low ground, with nothing on it but a shed used for cold storage. Dulas added a small office onto the building and used it as it stood for a few years. In 1992, he purchased a portion of the land from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, bringing the yard to nearly eight acres. To accommodate larger machines he added onto the building and raised the roof. A few years later, he built a larger office.
Another milestone came on September 8, 1979, when Dulas bought his first nearly new piece of equipment—a loader. Although not able to pinpoint most dates when asked, he remembers this date easily because it was the day he and Marilyn brought their newborn son, Ike, home from the hospital. Dulas pointed out, “To this day we’ve still got that loader and use it.”
Dulas has no favorite machine; he’s smitten with them all. When he was beginning in business, he would forget about time and continue to work through meals, quitting only when it was too dark to see what he was doing.
During the first decade of the business, Marilyn worked as a nurse on the night shift so she could work in the office during the day and take care of the children. Tanya, the oldest of Dulas’ three children (See Sidebar #1), remembers the early days. She said, “Dad always took us into the shop with him after Mom had gone to work. We were always just in the business. I washed trucks in the middle of winter, not a pleasant job. My sister Crystal painted truck rims white, and we both cleaned the shop. Our brother Ike, who is more mechanically inclined, changed tires, moved equipment around and moved gravel. He began operating a bulldozer at age 8, sitting on phone books so he could see out of the window of the cab.
“On family trips we always stopped to watch massive piles of earth being moved and to look at trucks and equipment on other people’s job sites, as well as on sales lots,” Tanya said. “I remember stopping on a trip to the Duluth area to look at the Silver Creek Cliff Tunnel because it was an engineering wonder. We also looked at iron ore piles.” At first, Dulas did all of the gravel and fill hauling. He said, “I’d hear about a job and go talk to the guys. Then someone sees you out there, and it’s word-of-mouth. There wasn’t as much competition. Now everyone seems to have an excavator.”
Dulas hired his first full-time employee in the mid-‘70s and by the late ‘70s he had built a crew. He used to repair his own trucks (“You do what you have to do”) and considered it another milestone when he hired a mechanic around 1980.
As Dulas Excavating grew, there were many hurdles along the way, including a credit crunch of the ‘70s and an oil crisis that hindered a business running on diesel fuel. Nevertheless, the business thrived. It was during the major recession of the early ’80s that Marilyn stopped juggling two jobs and focused only on the family business. Dulas’ low-key humor surfaces in his comment: “I couldn’t fire her, so she had to quit her other job.”
The business hit a turning point in the early ‘90s, reaching $2 million in revenues and holding steady since. At that time, the business included 20 trucks and trailers for hauling, 25 employees and a collection of heavy equipment. The size of the fleet has remained the same for several years. Dulas perceives updating equipment as an expensive challenge, with purchase of a $200,000-plus machine requiring substantial planning.
The challenges of managing a growing company, however, didn’t seem to phase him. Tanya explained, “In complex situations Dad sees exactly what needs to be done.”
Yet his goal has always been to maintain a company size that allows him personal interaction with every customer. Initially, the work was farm related, but it soon segued into working with prime contractors as a hauler for highway work. Dulas pointed out, however, that “we still do a lot of private work such as building demolition and basements,” which he enjoys because such jobs don’t involve him in bidding wars.
Tanya said, “Dad’s very service driven, so he often gets jobs, including all of the agricultural work, without having to bid against competition. There’s a lot of handshaking.”
About 25 percent of the work still is agricultural, with another 25 percent demolition, such as a flood plain remediation project for the City of Austin. The company also is expert in abatement services, including underground storage tank removal and hazardous material abatement. The company uses a network of industrial base partners to maximize the salvage value and maintain environmental control over each project.
The remaining 50 percent is site work, including jobs such as a school site in Alden and a store site in Fairmont. Dulas explained, “We clear the land and then dig and put in footing foundations. We put in sewer and water infrastructure underground. The last couple of years we’ve worked along Interstate 90, from Austin to Blue Earth. About 10 or 15 years ago, we did a lot of work in Mankato.” Working for Wells Concrete since 1975, he has sent trucks north to St. Cloud, south into Iowa, east to Wisconsin, and west to Sioux Falls. He explained, “They’re very particular about the aggregate they get for their concrete products and where it comes from.”
So how does he spread the word nowadays about the family business? It’s still largely word-of-mouth, but there’s plenty of community involvement, although he doesn’t call it networking. (“What is that?” he asked.) He has donated time to improving the Wells Golf Course, joined a team of business owners to raise money in support of a bond referendum for a new school, done site work at a nursing home and sponsored various local events. He also advertises on the covers of plat books in the four counties where the company does most of its work. He watches for bid requests and announcements of expansions in newspapers, and hears about them from people in the community.
With the addition of Crystal and Ike, Dulas Excavating has incorporated state-of-the-art marketing and technology into its operations. When Crystal asked a friend in Denver to create a website for the company, the friend asked, “Who is Dulas Excavating?” The result was to go through a branding exercise and hire a branding company to design a company logo, write a brochure and create a website. The logo appears on shirts, hard hats, vests and brochures. The website (www.dulasexcavating.com) and brochure provide similar information, including a list of the industry-specific technologies used in providing accuracy and control over various aspects of each project. Networking also is becoming a regular activity, as Crystal is involved in Jaycees, leadership forums with community leaders and school and church functions. She promotes business in rural southern Minnesota. Ike focuses on developing relationships with various contractors as well as with clients.
On the job, GPS helps equipment operators easily see where the footprint goes for building footings. GPS simply makes running any piece of equipment easier. Dulas said, “A dozer will almost run itself on GPS, so the driver can do the job better.”
Another technological advantage is a computer program that uses electronic drawings to indicate how much dirt fill should be removed from a site, thus making complicated projects less difficult.
What hasn’t changed much is the daily and weekly routine. Dulas usually begins his day around 6:30 a.m., Monday through Saturday. He shuts off the equipment by 9 p.m. in the summer, 7 p.m. in the winter. He said, “We hardly ever work on Sunday, but we have done so. On cold winter days, it can take one or two hours to get machines running, and with shorter daylight there is so little time to work. The ground is frozen, so it takes more time to get the work done. The frozen ground can cause breakdowns and increase wear on many machines.” It’s easy to understand why summer is the season of “push” for an excavating company.
When Dulas looks back on four decades in business, he has few regrets. “I don’t know if we really had a goal when we started,” he said. “Survival, I guess. I never thought about doing anything different. I only wanted to play in the dirt. I should have put someone in charge of running things instead of trying to do it all myself. I never wanted to manage employees. Now, success is having the kids take over the business and run it successfully. My wife says, ‘If we can vacation in June, I’ll know that retirement is close and the kids can manage without us.’ (The first-ever summer vacation for Dulas and his wife is planned for June 2010, an idea that makes him a bit apprehensive.) But I’ll probably never quit working as long as I’m able. I don’t even think about it.”
- Company president Marilyn Dulas oversees the office and financial activity. As her role evolved from bookkeeping and helping with daily survival, she found that hiring an employee to handle bookkeeping, insurance, etc., gave her the opportunity to focus on longer-term financial matters, such as equipment replacement, annual situational analysis, balancing overall growth with profit and loss, and hiring and employee evaluation.
- Crystal Dulas, 32, as director of special projects, is in charge of contract administration. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from South Dakota State in Brookings. After working with multi-billion dollar corporations and moving nine times in five years, she returned to Wells and joined the company in 2007. She handles job costing, estimating, and job bidding. Running the back office, she dispatches employees (10 full-time and 10 others as needed), coordinates permits and other paperwork, and schedules and verifies delivery of materials to job sites. A recent strength-finding exercise showed she does well in building relationships and brings out the best in people and situations.
- Director of engineering Ike Dulas, 30, has a Bachelor of Science degree in construction engineering from North Dakota State in Fargo, and is described by his sisters as “a total techie.” After working for several related businesses, he joined the company in 2005. Along with his father, he handles day-to-day field operations and is the on-site manager of employees, suppliers and vendors. He also does bidding and interacts with construction managers with whom Dulas Excavating subcontracts. His strengths include strategy and analysis, seeing both the big picture and the details.
- Although not an employee, Tanya Dulas Pierce, 34, provides marketing advice to the family business. With a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota—Duluth, she’s a marketing consultant for various other businesses.
- Favorite school subject: “Shop, because you could work with your hands. I made an end table that the shop teacher took to a show, where it won a prize.”
- Preparation for business: “I prepared for the physical aspects, but should have taken business classes. Instead, I went to the school of hard knocks.”
- Hobbies: “I do a little metal work with salvaged metal.” Among the artwork he has created are window boxes made by welding together rotary hoes and yard decorations for Tanya’s wedding.
- Recreation: “I enjoy water skiing and boating. We also have a pontoon.”
- Words that describe Jerry Dulas. (He had no answer, but his daughters did.) Tanya: “Modest, yet proud, hard-working, tenacious. He likes to see success or progress and pushes himself and others.” Crystal: “Private.”