With the record books showing 95% of contractors failing within five years, even in good times, why would an otherwise sane man start a contracting firm in the depths of a recession? Designers Illustrated takes a closer look.
Driven by a passion for building, contractor Dan Dowling has seen the best and worst his industry has to offer. Having parlayed a History degree from Harvard into a unique arsenal of weapons against the vagaries of construction, he has managed not just to survive but to prosper.
Dowling’s Redwood City business is thriving these days. Current projects include kitchen and family room additions, master suites, and structural renovations to one of the oldest houses in San Mateo County. The walls of his office are lined with critical path schedules; budgets and contracts are at his finger tips. In a profession marred by nightmare stories of delays and fiscal mismanagement, Dowling is firmly in control of his projects.
Teaming with his brother/superintendent, Mark, and financial advisor, George Rix, Dowling has steadily built a list of impressive references. “The essence of our success is that our word is our bond,” say the elder Dowling. “We fulfill our promises.” The testimonials flow freely from their clients. Dennis Kennelley, of Menlo Park, has typically glowing comments. “They come in on time and on budget. I’m extremely satisfied. In fact, I’ll tell you just two things. We plan on using him in the final stage of our grand plan for the house. And we’re still friends.”
When told of of such comments, Dowling responds with a gratitude that belies his years. “That is what makes the struggle worth it.”
ne year out of Harvard, Dan Dowling nearly lost everything on a house in the recession of 1990. Unwillingly possessing a beautifully remodeled home and a mounting pile of bills, he took an unusual approach. “I had never imagined that I couldn’t just unload a house if necessary,” says Dowling. “But I was at the mercy of the market.” Rather than succumb to the pressures, he had a party, to which he invited all his friends and family. He cut the bottom out of a plastic garbage can, made suspenders out of two pieces of rope, undressed to his shorts, and greeted people at the door wearing the can and holding a rubber chicken. It was a defining moment for a 22-year-old kid who’d assumed that success was simply a function of talent, ambition, and discipline. Passion and self-reliance could not overcome a rapidly deteriorating real estate market.
He’d assumed that the Bay Area real estate market would never decline, which was an unpleasant irony because the one thing his Harvard education had taught him was that one doesn’t assume. You read the fine print, you find the original document, you follow knowledge to its source. Then you build a conclusion. Having earned high honors for his research abilities he knew better than to assume.
So here was Dowling, dressed in his garbage can, making light of his failure, although he’d lost six or seven times his annual salary. Additionally, he had been laid off from his job as a superintendent for a subdivision builder, who was also struggling with
the recession. He was past broke and could only think, “This is my crucible. Endurance is not optional.”