By Ellen Cagle, Kansas City Business Journal, July 20, 2023
William Dunn Sr., who worked in construction most of his life and was the face of JE Dunn Construction for more than 70 years, turned 100 last week.
Dunn took over the company his father, John Ernest “Ernie” Dunn, founded and helped steer it to a bigger future. In turn, his successors at the company — son and former CEO Terry Dunn and current CEO Gordon Lansford — attribute the company’s success to Bill Dunn Sr.
In honor of Dunn’s birthday, the company held celebration for employees at its Downtown headquarters last Thursday, with Dunn making a virtual appearance.
Bill Dunn started working for his father’s company right before the beginning of World War II. His father founded the company in 1924, and at the time it was a small construction company. After his sophomore year of college at Rockhurst University, Bill Dunn joined the war effort, working as a laborer building a quartermaster depot. Dunn later enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
In 1964, Ernie Dunn Sr. died, leaving his $1.4 million construction company to his children and wife. In the 1970s, Bill Dunn bought out the company, first from his sisters and mother, and then his brother.
After disagreements with his brother came to a head, Dunn paid him $3 million for his share of the company, agreeing to put a million down and pay the other $2 million off over five years with interest. The company was only worth $2 million at the time.
“My brother loved that idea. I was close to some of his kids. They told me later he got them all together and said: “I want to tell you something. Your uncle Billy, he’s an idiot. He’s giving us exactly three times what our worth is in this company,” Dunn said in an interview with the Kansas City Business Journal in 2014.
By the time Dunn passed the reins to Lansford in 2014, the company was the largest general contractor in Kansas City, with annual revenue of $2.18 billion.
JE Dunn still is the top general contractor in the area and built many of the most recognizable structures in Kansas City, including the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Worlds of Fun.
“Any success this company has had … I can attribute it to the fact I followed my father’s advice. He told me: Hire the best people you can find; treat them the way you want to be treated yourself; and if you make any money, share the benefits with them. So we’ve always had that philosophy,” he said.