By Debra Jensen-De Hart
Special to the Daily News
JANESVILLE — Mark Cullen and his brothers David and Richard Cullen know full well the meaning of “standing on the shoulders of those who have come before you.”
As members of the fourth generation of Cullens, they have taken a construction business with a strong foundation and continued to build and grow that legacy.
The company, founded by Irish carpenter John Paul Cullen in 1892 in Janesville, is about to celebrate its 125th anniversary. Presently, fourth and fifth generation Cullens are involved in operating the 600-employee operation. In a recent interview, Mark Cullen, chairman of JP Cullen, talked about the business that has been part of his life since birth.
“I started sorting nuts and bolts in the eighth grade,” he said.
Later, he and his brothers did a lot of construction work out on jobs all the way through the college years.
“It was natural for us,” he said of himself and his siblings.
Then in 1982, their father, J.P. Cullen, passed on managing the company to Mark and David. Brother Richard, the carpenter, later also joined the management team.
Today, “The three brothers are in a transfer of business to the next generation; we share the family business.”
But future Cullen children have other requirements before they can join the company as well. They have to get a degree and work somewhere else for three years before working in the business, Mark Cullen said. They also need to feel a passion for it and they need to earn respect from their colleagues.
When he talks about the construction business, Mark Cullen compares it to the world of sports.
“My dad was an athlete and my brothers and I were athletes, too, and very competitive. There’s a great similarity between team sports and construction,” he said.
Having competitors in the area helped build a healthy sense of competition for the Cullens, he said. But as with sports, there can only be one winner.
Therefore, the biggest challenge is: “Getting the work, earning the work. Then once you get it, executing the work so that each job you do helps you get the next one,” he said.
In the beginning, the first J.P. Cullen began by building houses. Over the years, the work the company does has changed and expanded to offer construction on commercial, institutional and industrial projects.
“It’s custom work, not assembly work,” Mark Cullen said.
Some of those projects came into view when the building of hospitals and structures for the University of Wisconsin System went on a building spree, he said. Beloit Memorial Hospital was a project. General Motors also expanded. In the mid-1970s, however, the economy changed and there were leaner years, Mark Cullen said. Then things picked up again for the Cullens with the building of the DuPont building (Genencor International, Inc.) in Beloit’s industrial park. Chrysler also expanded and K-12 school building projects emerged.
In the 1990s, JP Cullen did a major addition to Beloit Memorial High School. A 12-year project at the Capitol in Madison involved the company completing historic restoration. That was a huge ongoing project for the company, Mark Cullen said.
Epic Systems of Verona, a healthcare software company, also pumped up the work load for the company.
In fact, “Epic has been a great economic stimulus for Rock County,” Mark Cullen said.
JP Cullen also has done much work for Frito Lay.
“We’ve been in 10 states doing work inside the plants” he said.
Roughly 70 percent of the work done at a site is done by other construction workers, however.
“We do carpentry, masonry and steel work…areas of heating, electrical and plumbing, for example, are done by other trade contractors,” he said. Therefore, “It’s important to have a good field manager who can execute complicated jobs.”
A more recent challenging job in Beloit was the building of the Fran Fruzen Intermediate School on Milwaukee Road.
“There was torrential rain when we did the Fran Fruzen School,” he said.
That made it difficult to move heavy equipment on wet, muddy land. That’s where the people onsite who do the work are critical, he said. The Cullens also believe in giving back to the community. The J.P. Cullen Foundation was established by Mark, David and Richard Cullen in 1992 in honor of their father. Since then, the Foundation has given more than $4.26 million in gifts and grants to the community.
Keeping a business in operation for 125 years is no easy task.
“This business has been built on a lot of men and family people who have made the business their commitment. They are skilled and progressive and they attract good people,” Mark Cullen said.
And what does the future look like for the Cullens and the company?
“I have no doubt that the next generation of Cullens will be better educated and more worldly,” he said.
As for his own passion for the construction business?
“It’s awfully gratifying to build something that will last beyond you,” he said.