Standing The Test Of Time
For over 50 years, Sullivan designBUILD and Zimbrick Inc. have grown better together
“Zimbrick Inc.” says John, President of SdB. “They gave us the foundation we have today to do auto dealer work. Theirs was the first auto dealership our company did business with, and they’ve helped give us the niche that we now have within the auto industry. Without them, I don’t know where we would be. In the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, we had three really strong customers that gave us project after project: Zimbrick, American TV & Appliance and Jefferson Cold Storage. Zimbrick is the only company still around. To be together over 50 years later is…amazing. I’m proud to say we still have a really strong relationship.”
The feeling is mutual, says Zimbrick’s general manager Kendall Dahmen.
“I have personally worked with and have known the Sullivan team since the late 1990s,” says Dahmen. “I have had the pleasure of working with John Riley and Tom Knoop on numerous projects, most currently our new Hyundai facility. Having close ties is big as it makes working together easy. You can have the hard conversations and still remain business partners.” Knoop is an architect and Executive Vice President for SdB.
Dahmen says the two companies mirror each other in values: outstanding customer service; care, concern and respect for employees; responsible individual initiative; continuous improvement; and strong relationships with business partners and the community.
“These are the core values of Zimbrick, and it is what we look for when hiring any company to work with us,” Dahmen says.
My, How Each Has Grown
The relationship between the two Madison-based companies dates back to 1965, but it isn’t exclusive. Sullivan designBUILD has constructed and renovated dealerships for several other companies in Madison and across Wisconsin.
Dahmen says he would gladly recommend SdB to any auto dealership needing remodeling work or a new build.
The more auto dealership work SdB does, the more John and his partners are convinced to focus on the niche and expand its market.
“We keep up on what dealerships need to stay compliant with, what the automakers want and what the gray areas are, so dealerships can add their own touch,” John says. “Because of our experience and expertise, dealerships call us to save time and money. They know what they’re getting when they hire us. There are a lot of intricate details some builders and architects will miss that automakers insist on having. There are do’s and don’ts, or can’ts, to be compliant.”
SdB now does about $25 million to $30 million in business annually, but it wasn’t always that way. Founded in 1937, SdB began to flourish by being one of the first companies to bring all aspects of the build under one roof in the early 1970s. It has since continued to design and build medical buildings, churches, office buildings, industrial buildings and commercial projects of all types and sizes.
“This company was a pioneer in the industry,” says Jill Riley, John’s wife and Executive Vice President of Business Development for SdB. “We believed then as we still do today in pulling together our team of architects, engineers, general contractors—everyone—early on to maximize value for our clients. We do the planning and designing of a facility with our client’s needs and budget in mind from the start. Our uncompromising commitment to quality is what we call ‘The Sullivan Way.’”
Zimbrick has also grown since it built its first Buick dealership at the corner of Beltline Highway and Fish Hatchery Road in Madison in 1969. Zimbrick now has 950 employees across Wisconsin, sells 15 new car brands and has used car facilities at each location with four body shops across Madison, Dahmen says.
Coming Full Circle
John would probably agree that he’s led a charmed life in many ways and, in large part, it’s because he’s always been a part of the Sullivan designBUILD family.
When he was 15, his dad, Bob, still a partner and former president of the firm, started taking him to work with him. He put his son to work sweeping and cleaning the warehouse and office, bringing tools to workers and fetching whatever the yardman needed.
“I was the lowest of the low on the totem pole,” John says, laughing. “I loved it though. As soon as I got my license, I started to deliver for the company. I spent my life working alongside my dad. He’s my best friend and always put me around people I could learn from. He was always dangling carrots to keep me going further and learning more.”
Bob Riley, 82, officially retired from the business two years ago after joining it in 1968 as a civil engineer, but still offers advice when needed.
John is now a co-partner and so is his wife, Jill, whom he met while making a run to a light fixture store while building a home. Together, they have three children (Alaina, 14; Aiden, 12; and Ashlyn, 9) and a great working relationship.
“John is very good at the nuts and bolts of construction, and I focus on the marketing, relationships with our clients and employees, continuously improving our ‘Sullivan Way,’” Jill says.
“She really does a good job,” John says. She has a way of putting an image out there. She started as our secretary while she was home with the kids; now she’s a partner. It’s challenging at times being husband and wife and working together, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Another key person is senior architect Jim Triatik. “He has a wealth of knowledge and has been here longer than I have,” John says. “He understands the operations of a dealership, the flow from one department to the next. He knows the auto image programs well. He’s just a great man and I’ve learned a lot from him. We have a lot of great people here.”
Cars, Cars, Cars
The auto industry is special to the Riley family.
Years ago, doctors told Bob Riley he was working too much and needed a hobby to relax. He asked John to join him and the two worked side-by-side to restore vehicles.
“It’s a passion,” John says. “I’m really into Ford Model Ts right now. This is the era when cars were just being developed and there were thousands of ideas on how to build. I also love ’50s Corvettes, Mustangs and Jeeps. We’ve probably restored 20 vehicles, but the 1914 Model T is really interesting to me. It’s so old and antiquated that you have to light the headlights with a match.”
The Zimbrick staff’s definition for an “old” car varies from that of the Rileys.
“I’m pretty sure Kendall is more like John Zimbrick, who used to say, ‘I don’t like any car more than 90 days old,’ ” John (Riley) adds, laughing. “But yes, I am grateful to be working in the auto industry and with Kendall and Zimbrick. This is something I love.”