(By Luisa Kroll)
“My biggest concern was always money. It was a capital-intensive business. I always tried to use other people’s money as much as possible by getting 90-day credit with a 2% discount from explosives, fuel and tire people. I was always worried about how I would pay people back. I knew that if I missed a payment, my reputation would be ruined. Even as I got more successful, I still never borrowed money for cars, boats and homes. I never really felt financially secure until about 1988.“
This article, by construction magnate and long time Forbes 400 member, Dennis Washington, as told to Luisa Kroll, appears in the upcoming June issue of ForbesLife magazine, as part of its “When I Was 25″ series.
I developed my instincts during my childhood. I had to. I bounced around a good deal. I went to several different grade schools all over the West Coast. I got polio when I was 8 and spent eight months in the hospital and a rehab clinic in Seattle. I lived in a government housing project with my parents during World War II and made pocket money shining shoes with my neighborhood friend Quincy Jones [the musician] at a naval shipyard gate in Bremerton, Washington. When my parents separated, I lived with my mom for a while in California, then went to a boarding school, then a Catholic day school. Then I was sent to my uncle and dad’s place in Washington State. I didn’t see my dad much. He was working construction overseas. I ended up in Missoula, Montana, with my grandparents.
I discovered my passion right away: I loved machinery. The day after my high school graduation, in 1952, I headed to Alaska. I was 17. I started out greasing equipment, then became a heavy-crane operator. I made and saved good money there for two years. When the project was finished, I went home to visit my grandmother. I was planning to head to Spain for another project. But I met a girl at a root beer stand and decided to stay.
I got a job with my uncle Hugh King’s construction company. I was one of a handful of employees. I started out doing everything, running equipment and later managing small logging road jobs and secondary highways. By 22, I was working on my first interstate highway job. By 26, I was vice president running all operations of a joint venture between King and a group called McLaughlin. We had four big interstate jobs.
Everything seemed great, but both owners were getting old and out of touch. I told them they needed to invest in new machinery, because they were losing their competitive edge, but they were complacent and kept doing it the same way they always had. I didn’t see much of a future there.
At age 29 I married a former beauty queen. Phyllis and I took what was supposed to be a two-day honeymoon during which I thought a lot about my future. But on the way home, we got lost. We got back a day late. The office manager told me that my uncle was very, very upset and that he was going to give me a lesson in the facts of life. He wouldn’t need to. I’d decided I’d had enough and that I needed a change.
I had a job offer from Peter Kiewit construction company right after I quit. But one of my best friends–Gary Gallagher, who owned a Caterpillar dealership with his father–asked me the all-important question: “With your experience and at your age, why would you want to go work for someone else?”
He was right. I realized, hell, if I didn’t take the risk now, I’d never do it. It still left me with a very insecure feeling. I borrowed $30,000 from Gallagher’s company, got a tractor and motor grader on credit and started Washington Construction. I relied heavily on my wife. Phyllis was a teacher, and we lived mostly on her salary. Our house had an outdoor bathroom. Phyllis took the wash to the Laundromat. It would be a couple of years before we had an indoor bathroom.
Discipline was the key for me. In the beginning, I worked six days a week and Phyllis came with me to job sites on some Sundays. I got up at 4 a.m., had some toast, then headed out to the jobs. I got home at 9 or 10 at night. Even if I partied hard, I still woke up for work at 4 a.m. You’re not going to make it working eight hours a day. I knew my capabilities, too. I always marked up a piece of paper before taking a job, looking at the pluses and minuses. If the latter outnumbered the former, I would pass. I saw how other contractors ate their young and lowered their bids to the point where they could make no money. I stuck to my guns and only did a job if I thought it would be profitable.
I had plenty of work from the beginning. I started out with small jobs. I did a forest service road though Glacier National Park. It built from there. I did highways. Then I got into mining and dam construction. A copper mine in Butte was a huge success. That allowed me to diversify. I got into real estate, shipping and aviation.
My biggest concern was always money. It was a capital-intensive business. I always tried to use other people’s money as much as possible by getting 90-day credit with a 2% discount from explosives, fuel and tire people. I was always worried about how I would pay people back. I knew that if I missed a payment, my reputation would be ruined. Even as I got more successful, I still never borrowed money for cars, boats and homes. I never really felt financially secure until about 1988.
People always ask me for my secret. There isn’t one. You’ve just got to keep a level head and stay away from greed, which is the worst thing that can happen to a successful person. People downplay the role of timing. I just think in my life I relied on my instincts and had good intuition, and things just kind of fell into place.
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