Building a small business can be like running a gamut of tax regulations and benefit programs – in today’s economy, it’s survival of the fittest.
Growth could mean expansion, specialized staffing or cutting-edge equipment. But for nearly 50 years, Pat Dumm Construction of Summerhill has grown its customer base with little more than a handful of employees and a warm, personal touch. In this way, Dumm and his family-run business have become less of a local contractor and more of a community fixture.
This month, the Dumm family is celebrating the golden milestone of their business, which averages about 50 to 60 jobs a year, including custom homes. And patriarch Pat is still at the forefront of his craft, despite pushing 80.
The small firm is very much a family affair, with Pat’s wife, Barbara, helping with payroll and his son, Darrell, handling estimates and running the job sites. Pat supervises and lends his decades of expertise while on site. When he founded the business in 1963, he was the only employee.
Now 50 years old, Darrell has been transitioning into his father's place at the head of operations.
The company has garnered awards from the Home Builders Association, and both Pat and Darrell have spent time as president of the organization. Keeping in the public eye, Pat moves through the contractor conference circuit, with speaking arrangements and organizational meetings aplenty.
And it all started – and still remains – in the family garage.
“I’d worked for someone else, and he didn’t keep us working in the winter time. So I just went out on my own then,” Pat said of his business’s origins.
“(Darrell joined) when he got old enough to work,” he said with a chuckle.
They usually keep four or five full-time employees, each with their own specialization – heating, electrical, plumbing, etc. – and can boast a very low turnover rate.
“A lot of them retire from working for us,” said Darrell. “We have a little Christmas party every year and some of the old employees still come to gatherings around Christmastime.”
In October, company workers broke ground on a two-story custom home in Winterset, north of Ebensburg, the larger of their two current jobs. With little to no marketing or advertising, Pat Dumm Construction relies on word-of-mouth for work – and it hasn’t left the company dry yet.
Pat and Darrell make the personal, one-on-one approach to business a cornerstone of their work. Meetings are done largely in person, and all the bills are delivered by hand – the more human the interaction, the better. In fact, Pat never has owned a computer and the business has yet to go digital. Their records are mostly paper. But father and son wouldn’t have it any other way. In this sense, they seem more like neighbors than a company.
Ed Long, whose family owns The Long Barn in Ebensburg, knows the Dumms very well. Pat Dumm Construction made it the company’s primary spot for picking up materials almost 40 years ago, when Ed’s father opened the business. Long says the quality of their work is of “absolute excellence.”
“They’re the best you’d ever meet,” he said.
“He’s always done business with us and we treat each other extremely well.
“He’s the guy that got me to start opening the door at 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.,” he said. “And it (ended up being) a good decision ... Being in business as long as he has, he would know hundreds of people, for sure.”
“I think everybody knows him,” said daughter Linda Wess, who is the director of financial aid services for Cambria-Rowe Business College. “I go to my kids’ basketball games and he knows the parents – I don’t.”
It’s also the product of a healthy, active and social lifestyle that Pat is known for. Between hitting the links nearly every day during golf season and the leagues he and his wife bowl in, it’s clear not much can slow him down.
That’s why when Pat suffered a heart attack in 1996 – and underwent the resulting open heart surgery – it meant he would have to scale back his involvement in the family business.
“I just do the bookwork (now),” Pat said. “The trenches aren’t my cup of tea anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Darrell took over operations during his father’s recovery – not too big of a leap, considering he had been on job sites since the age of 10.
“That’s when I think (dad) stopped running around,” Linda said. “Darrell had no choice but to step up to the plate.”
And by all accounts, he’s been swinging for the fences.
Pat was more than happy to take a back seat.
“It was a recommendation from myself,” he said. “I had pains that I had before and I didn’t want any more of them.
“I said, ‘You did such a good job while I was in the hospital, you just keep on going,’ ” he said with a laugh.
Darrell’s not sure if he’ll make the same transition with his kids. He’d rather leave it up to them.
“I’ll take it as long as I can keep doing it,” he said. “If one of my boys wants to get into it – who knows, maybe one of the girls will want to – maybe we’ll keep it going another generation.”
Pat provided a more tactile context.
“It’s the school of hard knocks, is what it is,” he said with a chuckle.
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