In 2003, at the age of 23 Dustin Gruetter applied for and received his contractor’s license.
That license has led him down an entrepreneurial path from painting houses to building world class structures all over the country. But his journey is still evolving in ways that keep his entrepreneurial mind racing.
DC Buildings, headquartered in NW Portland, started as a general construction business focusing on normal projects like decking work, siding, painting and remodels. There was no thought to developing a business plan or set marketing direction. They simply started working.
Dustin honed his craft through a building construction technology program at Clackamas Community College, while building a structure on his Grandma’s property so he had a place to live while ramping up the company. But it wasn’t just Dustin sleeping on the couch. Half of the team would sleep on couches then get up and work hard all day. The initial work led to more referrals, and the company started to slowly grow into a sustainable business.
But the business and the new ideas were still percolating within Dustin and the company as they expanded outside of Portland.
“We got a call to build an equestrian facility, with one of first ones being in Northwest Portland out on Germantown Road. And then right after that, this company was referring us work and asked if Battle Ground was too far, and we said ‘nope’. Then requests came in from Willamina, Baker City and eventually California and the East coast.”
But managing multi-state growth as a fairly streamlined staff was something they had to work on daily.
“It wasn’t easy, and it was only made possible because of the great people that we have in place on our Project Management and Carpentry team along with utilizing technology to collaborate. We have always been modern in the way that we communicate with our clients and internally as a company. We’ve focused on using assets like cloud based project management tools that keep our clients and construction teams updated on a daily basis with photos, daily logs, and a file storage system to keep all of our documents maintained and manage our client’s selections in one spot. We also utilize Skype and web meetings to make sure that we stay aligned as a team on our projects.”
The communication between team members allowed them to manage their internal processes, but since they handle everything from the initial design process to handing over the keys, open lines of communication and personal outreach with their clients has always played a key role.
“On the building side of things, yes, 100%, that’s our focus. Our mission is that once a client commits to us we’re gonna treat them like kings and queens and try to meet all their needs, over-communicate and shower them with options. But the options are not meant to overcomplicate things or make a building more expensive – we just don’t want them to look back and say, “Hey, I wish somebody would have told me about this.” To hear that at the end of a project, that means we didn’t do our job.”
The referrals kept coming and the diversity of projects expanded, including a clubhouse for the Carmel Athletic Club, a all-in-one home and processing facility for Upchurch Vineyards, custom homes across the country, wedding venues and a myriad of barns. And as they grew, they found themselves saying ‘no’ more often than they wanted to. There was a large group of people whom DC Building could not service, because it didn’t fit into their business model from a cost standpoint. So the DC team, as entrepreneurs are wont to do, got to work turning what was initially a negative into a new part of their business, by finding a way to share their designs and streamlined processes to a broader customer base.
Bringing custom barns to the masses
With a schedule that had them talking to 700 people a month along with being highlighted in various magazines, DC Building looked to their construction knowledge, and their awareness of other kit companies, to create a series of barn kits.
The barn kits were conceived and created to leverage a more simple process that is streamlined and cost effective for their clients. They spent 2014 planning the vendor relationships, supply chain, marketing and website development, and launched in May of 2015 with 9 barn kit designs and 9 pavillion designs.
The first kits were sent to Tennessee, San Juan Islands, North Carolina, Colorado and also locally here in Oregon. Although the initial logistics of shipping to all 50 states with varying site conditions did pose some issues for the DC team, their building experience and background allowed them to navigate those early challenges and dial-in a process that is scalable.
“We provide them with a very detailed set of plans and instructions, and then also support them through what we can provide for them here from our building crews. We also pre-assemble certain components that make sense to make it easier for construction, and then we source all this material here in Oregon and the Northwest. “
That focus from the outset has resulted in a very streamlined process – one where the value is passed onto the client.
“ These buildings are pre designed and engineered, and so we already know how much it costs for the materials, and have a general idea of how much it will cost our clients to complete. Combined with the blueprints and building materials that are needed, in as little as 4-6 weeks we can have these packages onsite and ready to build. This is where the cost saving comes in for our clients. We save them time, money, and headache and give them certainty in what the end result is going to be.”
One key aspect of the kits is the integration of the highest quality materials from the Pacific Northwest – many of which these clients could not get at their local lumberyards. These are the same materials used in many in their custom builds, and so even though the costs are reduced, the end product will stand the test of time. This ability to use the highest quality materials, even as operations scale, is a result of the vendor relationships built over time, and DC does not see changing the source materials in the future.
What the future does hold are changes to the line of kits being offered based on client demand. The new line, which include cabins, barn homes and also timber frame kits, is in the works in 2016. The kits have taken off and have created an interesting evolution to the two business verticals, an evolution Dustin is keenly aware of and planning for.
“ You know, this company has really taken off. It actually feels like it’ll probably end up outgrowing the Building business. Probably not this year, but looking ahead in the next year, this company will outgrow the Building company just because we’re able to reach that many more people.”
Growth and evolution
Along with growth comes new opportunities, which include strategic partnerships that can benefit multiple companies. That is the case in the merging of FrameWork Plus into the DC family of brands. It’s a combination that makes sense for both current operations and future goals.
“ FrameWork Plus has been in business since 1994. They specialize in timber frame construction. The DC style of construction is more post and beam, which is very attractive. But their construction is actually a step up from what we do in a true timber framed building, so everything is put together with very little steel hardware. It’s mostly by hand – mortise and tenon joinery and wood pegs.”
The collaboration with FrameWork allows DC to offer more on both the building and structure sides of the business. It allows the company to offer conventional, post and beam, and timber frame as options. As they scale up the kits, there will be a focus on tying in more timber-framed buildings, barns, and homes. On the flip side, DC brands will incorporate some of their designs and learnings into the FrameWork projects going forwards.
And currently the projects are stacked up. The DC team has 66 total projects going on either in construction or design with about 45 people working on them, and internally the culture has evolved into one where they work hard, but also have fun.
“ It’s been a lot of fun and really enjoyable to just build this team. We have a very low turnover rate and when we bring people in, we tell them that we want to have them retire in this company, and we truly mean it. We’ve seen two or three years of really intense growth, and to be honest, we don’t want to grow too fast either.”
But with DC Structures on a steep growth trajectory, the company knows that it will be hard to balance strategic growth from a project side with that of a personnel perspective.Their pathway forward is based around creating new product lines for the kits. Lines that build in upgrades and allow the clients to accessorize it a bit more. Lines that will potentially shift the balance of the work towards the structure side of the business.
That growth trajectory is fine with Dustin and his team. They know from experience that hard work pays off in the end, so they are willing to put the time in now in order to create a long term, unique, and sustainable business. The crazy ride the DC brands company has been on over the past 10 years has also imparted a lot of wisdom onto the founders – wisdom that is applicable to a great deal of entrepreneurs out there today.
“ Go with your gut always! Make decisions quickly and have confidence in them and realize there is no time wasted in pre project planning. Focus on the people, both from an employee side and also how you interact and treat your customers. Most importantly, have fun.”