By Warren Miller
Dee Burch comes to both construction and mentoring naturally.
The oldest of five children raised in rural Oregon by a single mother, Burch earned a B.S. degree in civil engineering at Oregon State University. He worked after graduation for Chicago Bridge & Iron and Kiewit, managing projects throughout the western United States, before joining a small diving company that he helped transform into a general contractor.
When Burch was elected president of his local Associated General Contractors chapter in 2011, Ted Aadland, then-president of AGC of America President, said of Burch, “Dee’s always helping with leadership and education issues and is a tremendous asset to the industry. Besides being an excellent contractor and president of an outstanding company, he’s a guy that you are truly proud to call your friend.”
Dee Burch shared his experience and what he learned from it with Marine Construction Magazine.
Marine Construction Magazine: People who go into construction usually do so because someone in the industry had an influence on them when they were young. Who were your early influences?
Dee Burch: My grandfather, Harry Rowland, was the first. He was a heavy equipment operator, and he took me out on his dozer two or three times. He was a quiet guy, but I did get to see what the work was all about.
When I was growing up, my best friend, Jay Compton, and I were pretty much inseparable from the third grade on. We were in the same, class, on the same teams, and when we weren’t doing that, I was staying at his house. Jay’s father, John Compton, treated me almost like his son.
John Compton had an asphalt company. When I was getting ready to go to college, he called me up out of the blue and said he wanted to talk to me. Jay, his son, and I both signed up to go to Oregon State. He asked what my plans were and how was I going to pay for college. I told him I’d saved enough money to pay for the first year, but he asked, “What are you going to do if you get sick or your car breaks down?”
I said I really couldn’t afford to have that happen. So he offered to pay my tuition for the first year. I didn’t ask, but he said, “I just want to make sure you get off to a decent start.” He also gave me a Texas Instruments calculator, the full model with function buttons and graphing. That would be like giving someone a laptop today. I also worked on his paving crew the summer before I went to college.
Where did you begin your career?
After graduation, I worked for Chicago Bridge & Iron for about three years, then went to work for Kiewit.
Kiewit was moving into a different type of project in those days. The district I was in was gearing toward bridge, foundation, structures and marine work, but they didn’t have a bunch of folks who’d been in the division for 20 years. Instead, they took a lot of young guys like myself and gave us a tremendous amount of responsibility—not because they wanted to, but because they just didn’t have people on board. People at that time joked that a year working for Kiewit was like a dog year, because they gave you way more responsibility than you deserved.
I learned an incredible amount working for both CB&I and Kiewit. Working for Kiewit was not easy. I saw subs come in and say, “I really need to receive this payment, I could lose my credit line, what can you do to help me?” I was pretty junior and not someone who could move it along well, even though I tried.
When I saw what some contractors bid and what they were up against, it definitely brought home how big risk-takers small subcontractors are, especially in their early years.
It was while you were working at Kiewit that you met Konrad Schweiger, one of the founders of what became Advanced American Construction, right?
Yes. I met Konnie on a job in Arizona. Advanced American Diving was a subcontractor, and I was assigned to manage their work. They had a very difficult piece of work to do, so I got to know them well. They had bid the job significantly lower than anyone else did. If it hadn’t been managed well, it could have put them out of business.
Konrad was an interesting guy. He was personable and full of energy. He was bringing up the idea of me joining them early on. I told him I wasn’t really ready for that, but we kept talking. Four or five years later I got really serious about it.
I was very fortunate to work for CBI and Kiewit and learned a tremendous amount from working for those companies. But I didn’t like big company HR departments and policies written about everything … between those things and the travel, I wanted to have more control over my life and get more directly involved in running the whole business, and not just managing the work.
When you joined AAD, was there an area you naturally gravitated to?
Yes. Konrad and Kent Cochran, the co-founders of Advanced American Diving, came up through crafts. Kent learned how to dive in the Navy. When he got out, Konrad and he wanted to have more control over their work and to travel less, so they started AAD with the idea to be a small specialty diving subcontractor. They weren’t interested in building a big company.
But by the time I met Konnie in Arizona, he was starting to think that to grow they needed to become a general contractor, and they had nobody in the company with an engineering degree or construction management experience.
The first week I came to the company, we bid and won a couple of projects as the general contractor. Looking back on it, it’s kind of miraculous. Lots of times, it takes years for what you’re trying to do and what actually happens to line up, but in our case, it was immediate. I went out and managed the jobs and did really well. We just kind of took off from there and transitioned into a marine, heavy civil general contractor right away. That was in 1990.
Did diving become less important as Advanced American Diving became Advanced American Construction?
Not less important, because diving was always the hook that set us apart as a general contractor. A lot of GCs sub out the diving work or try to do it internally by hiring divers from the union hall, and they tend to struggle getting the costs right on that part of the work. Konrad and Kent really understood the diving side, so we were able to be pretty aggressive on pricing it. Their expertise and the people they’d built the company around were really great. So when a project came out that had a mix of pile driving, concrete work and a diving component, as a startup company with lower overhead, we could be competitive on that kind of work right out of the gate.
It sounds like your experience in managing subcontractors was critical to bidding and winning jobs.
That’s true. Konrad and Kent had this philosophy that I really believed in. We’re in a regional market and we’re going to run into people over and over again. When a sub or a supplier works for us, we want to make sure they’re given every opportunity to be successful, to make money, and to be treated fairly when it comes to payments and terms and negotiating change orders. It’s a huge part of why we’ve become successful. We look at our subs and suppliers as partners, not as somebody to get the lowest price out of.
When we call a subcontractor on the phone, and they hear it’s us, we want them to say, “Great! Put him through!” – not, “Oh, no. Those guys again.”
“I’ve just been really blessed in my career. Some of it is timing and luck, and finding things that really suit your skills. I’ve had a lot of things happen that were lucky, to be honest, and I was able to take advantage of the opportunities“Dee Birch
How did you transition into the leadership of the company?
It was a natural progression. I ran the large jobs pretty much from the beginning. When it came to running the company’s overall business affairs, I kind of took that role over a few years into it. I officially became president in 2000, but I was acting as president four or five years earlier, performing the function without the title. Titles have never been a huge issue in our company. We don’t have assigned parking spots and that stuff.
What are AAC’s greatest strengths?
We really shine at high-profile, difficult projects. We actually look for high-risk projects within our expertise. If it’s heavy civil, marine, structures related that we’re comfortable with, that’s what we prefer. A lot of companies shy away from that work, but we actually run toward it. And it’s been true from the beginning.
We try to hire people who are problem solvers and used to performing at a high level, rather than doing commodity type work where you’re measured by how many units you can put out at a price, versus your competitor. If you bid commodity work, you’re doing basically the same thing as everybody else.
Success at high-challenge projects requires detailed planning, and from how you’ve described your training and experience, you seem like a methodical, detail-oriented person.
I think that’s true. I was fortunate to work for Kiewit and manage a lot of high-risk work where I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Those weren’t situations where I could wing it. I had to figure out how to plan the work and get it done.
Working for Kiewit and Chicago Bridge, I was able to work in a lot of different markets, and in almost every western state. I was dropped into markets where I didn’t know anybody, where I had no prior experience. It forced me to learn how to build relationships with people quickly, how to network and get people to be part of our team. I didn’t have a choice. So when I came to Advanced, I was able to pull people together who hadn’t worked together before and make it work.
I’ve just been really blessed in my career. Some of it is timing and luck, and finding things that really suit your skills. I’ve had a lot of things happen that were lucky, to be honest, and I was able to take advantage of the opportunities.
How long do you plan to keep working?
My goal is to get myself in a position where I can do the things I really enjoy doing. And what I enjoy most is the big picture, trying to set the direction of the company, the kinds of projects we work on, reviewing the bids and making sure that we’re pricing them accordingly. Problem-solving, if we have a job that’s not working as planned. Even though I’m not as involved in the day-to-day as I used to be, I’m working on getting myself into a position where I can focus on the things I really like to do, which I’m not in now.
But I don’t have any intention of hanging it up any time soon.
Republished from Marine Construction Magazine Issue II, 2022