Published September 21, 1999
Volume 7, Number 9

Donald Sundgren is Still Building Foundations at Dillingham

Donald Sundgren has a strong opinion regarding his favorite job in the construction industry. It's — surprise — not in the board room. 

"I think the best job in construction is out working on a project or running a project, because you get to see the fruits of your labor immediately," he begins. "You're a business owner every guy that's running a project for us in the field, he's a business owner. He's got his own staff of people right there, his own set of resources, and it's up to him to put those together in the right way to make the thing successful. It's a wonderful thing to do." 

A Co-op Kid 
Sundgren's experience in construction began when he was an engineering student at the University of Cincinnati, which he attended after growing up in Buffalo, New York. 

Donald Sundgren"I looked around at various engineering schools and the University of Cincinnati had a pretty well known co-op program whereby you would go to school for half a year and work for half a year, and the university lined up your co-op job," he explains. 

After one summer spent in Buffalo digging ditches and installing gas lines into houses "I learned very well how to use a shovel," he laughs Sundgren's next co-op job was on a J.A. Jones Construction project, a navigation lock and dam on the Ohio River. 

"It was a seven year project and I was there about three years," he says. It was his first exposure to construction and he took an immediate liking to it.

His first tasks there consisted of things like filing, making copies of drawings, and doing some drafting work. "Just every level of fairly menial task there is," he adds. "Really, it was great. I got a terrific background in that. It's not something you want to skip over." 

After leaving Cincinnati with a graduate degree in 1969, Sundgren spent two years on active duty in the Army, teaching at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and fulfilling his ROTC obligation. 

The Field and the Classroom
He returned to J.A. Jones in 1971, working as an on-site manager on projects on the East Coast and Southeast. He then accepted an offer to return to teaching in 1977 at Purdue University. He had intended to stay for three to five years, but it didn't turn out that way.

"Teaching is wonderful I love it, I'd like to do it for my whole life but it's pretty underpaid for the service that's provided," he says. 

After going through what he calls "one of the worst winters to ever hit Lafayette, Indiana" and don't forget this assessment is coming from a Buffalo native a job offer came in from Watkins Engineers and Constructors, a full service engineering and construction company based in Tallahassee, Florida. "Florida looked pretty good at that point in time," he says. 

He had other reasons, too.

"The Watkins organization itself was small, felt like more of a family atmosphere, and had a reputation for doing very good work for very good clients," he says.

Key to the deal was Watkins' business philosophy, one which Sundgren shares to this day. 

"They were doing business in a way that was positive and had a good, positive relationship with their clients," he says. "It was kind of getting out of the harshness of some other aspects of the business and into more of a win-win for both the contractor and the client. A lot of construction is really hard nosed and claim intensive, with adversarial relationships with owners."

Still a Project Manager
After leaving graduate school, Sundgren's construction career had mainly consisted of work as an on-site manager. 

He continued as a project manager with Watkins until 1983, then moved into the Tallahassee headquarters in 1983, the same year that Dillingham acquired the Florida firm. 

"In 1987, my predecessor retired and I was named to succeed him as president, and I served in that role until I moved out here (as president and CEO of Dillingham) in 1997."

There are elements of the site work that he misses. 

"Running a project, I think you can kind of get your hands around it, put your resources together and really go after it," he explains. "When you get to a position in a corporate office, you're quite a bit removed from a lot of that, though not entirely." 

A Different Satisfaction
One of Sundgren's challenges has been finding different ways to measure both his and the company's performance, without the clear-cut budget and cost information any on-site manager has. 

"Instead, you've got to measure yourself against, 'What am I really doing to meet the obligation I have to the company and the people in it?' You can't assume that you're in a position where the people in the company are there to serve you in fact, it's just the other way around," he explains. "The success of an organization comes about from the people working in the organization, not from the leadership of the organization.

"The leadership has the obligation to make sure that the company is generally going in the right direction." 

Despite the fact that he's not on hand to oversee concrete deliveries, he's still building a foundation. 

"I think the best way for us to be successful is for us to provide people the opportunity to do their jobs well, give them an environment where they've got the chance to be successful and then get out of the way and let them do their jobs well," he says. "The satisfaction comes from seeing the organization work in that manner; the satisfaction is almost in being a spectator to all that going on." 


Also in this issue ...