On a recent rainy morning in Downtown Madison, Richard and David Cullen looked out the southwest window of their boardroom office, admiring the restoration work their family company completed on the state Capitol.
The project began in 1990 and took 11 years to finish, but the century-old Capitol was restored to a like-new condition inside and out. While the name J.P. Cullen isn’t stamped in a visible spot anywhere on the grounds, the owners, other family members and employees of the Janesville-based construction firm still take pride knowing it was their effort that preserved the building for future generations.
“For all the men and women who worked on the Capitol building, being able to tell their friends, family and children that they restored such a recognizable building is something they can be proud of for the rest of their lives,” said David Cullen, CEO of the company founded in 1892 by his great-great grandfather, carpenter John Patrick Cullen.
Today, J.P. Cullen generates about $400 million in annual revenue and employs more than 500 people. Its work ranges from jobs as small as $1,000 to major multi-year projects that cost millions to complete.
A big imprint
The company is based in Janesville but has offices in Milwaukee and Madison, and its projects blanket the Madison region.
On the UW-Madison campus, J.P. Cullen has built more than two dozen structures dating back to the 1920s — dorms, academic buildings and athletic facilities, including numerous renovations to Camp Randall Stadium. Presently, the company is working on the new Hamel Music Center at Lake Street and University Avenue, the new Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory on Linden Drive, an expansion to UW Hospital’s parking ramp and an addition to the university police station.
In the commercial sector, J.P. Cullen built the Deep Space Auditorium on the Verona campus of medical records giant Epic Systems. Richard Cullen, vice president of field operations, described the project, much of which is underground, among J.P. Cullen’s most unique buildings.
One of the Cullens’ first major manufacturing sites was the Samson Tractor Co. in Janesville, which later was purchased by General Motors and became a major assembly plant for the one-time world’s largest automaker. The Cullens were involved in every expansion that grew the facility to more than 4 million square feet before GM closed it in 2009.
J.P. Cullen is also contributing to the revitalization of downtown Milwaukee. Its expertise in restoration helped it secure the $65 million job to redo the steel, masonry and terra cotta work on the City Hall in 2008. It’s also erecting the structural steel for the Bucks’ $524 million new arena, scheduled to open for the 2018-19 NBA season, and building the team’s new training center nearby.
Work outside the area has included a federal office building in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, built in 1933 that’s now a national historic landmark.
The company has enjoyed strong relations with the state and University of Wisconsin System throughout its history. A focus on projects in the mostly stable government, higher education and health care sectors has solidified the company’s foundation, but it’ll also take on select commercial projects, David Cullen said.
“We’ve seen a lot of competitors encounter a lot of significant problems when developers are not able to pay,” David Cullen said. “As our company has grown, we’ve been able to focus on projects that are well funded and more challenging to do.”
Seven members of the Cullen family currently work for the company, but they said they have always tried to make all employees feel like they’re part of the family.
J.P. Cullen, Richard’s and David’s father, was a daily visitor to the company’s Janesville headquarters until his death in February at age 91. Richard Cullen said his dad enjoyed stopping by employee’s desks, asking how their day was going as well as their life outside work.
“Our dad instilled a work ethic in us, not just the skills we needed to build things or how to be a contractor but how you work with people,” he said.
While the family misses daily visits from J.P. Cullen, they strive to keep the practice alive.
“It means a lot to (the employees) when someone who owns the business stops to talk to them,” said George Cullen, a project manager with the company. “Our grandfather genuinely was interested in learning about what people did outside work.”
The family has made an impression outside the company as well.
Westphal & Co., an electrical construction firm founded in Janesville in 1931, began working with the Cullens simply because the Westphals were the only commercial electrical firm in Janesville at the time.
But the connection between the two multi-generation, family-owned businesses grew far beyond necessity. Westphal has worked on many of the Cullens’ projects outside Wisconsin.
“Over the years, we worked on more projects together and just developed a great relationship,” said John Westphal, grandson of company founder Fred H. Westphal. “I think it’s persevered because of the fair and ethical dealings in both directions from both firms to each other.”
Earning a place
Cullens who want to work in the family business must earn their place.
Before they’re even considered for a job in the company, they must work for another construction business or in a related industry for a few years. And positions won’t be created for them.
“It’s a rule our dad and uncles put in place,” said Laura Cullen, marketing manager. “If you want to come back to J.P. Cullen, you can do it only by applying for open positions.”
Cullen family members are given no special consideration when interviewing for a job with the company. Family members do not interview other family members and they go through the same process as other candidates.
Laura, who is George Cullen’s sister, had worked in the San Francisco area for a few years before deciding to apply for a job with the family business. While living in California, she earned a certificate in construction management from the University of California-Berkeley.
George Cullen also lived in California for a few years, working for a major mechanical contractor with revenue of more than $1 billion. “It was a good experience to be in a company that size,” he said.
Both siblings said their time away from home gave them the opportunity to grow but also learn best practices from other businesses.
Knowing that each generation has helped J.P. Cullen become a larger company is a heavy burden to carry, George Cullen said, but he and his sisters and cousin are up for the challenge.
“All of us grew up with our grandfather, dad and uncles pointing out buildings that either our great grandfather or grandfather or dad and uncles were involved in,” George Cullen said. “Each generation has grown the company and have done a great job making it more efficient and that’s a lot of responsibility to carry, but when you have good people around you, they can help you carry the ball forward.”