A Father’s Legacy Lives On
DeWitt Construction built on foundations of hard work, honesty and integrity
Many would admire the legacy left by Arthur Wayne Dewitt. Described by his son as a man of great integrity, Wayne was highly respected in the industry for the hard work and, most of all, for his good character.
“He was as honest as the day was long,” says Ty Dewitt, about the father he lost five months earlier, only a few months after his mother, Kay, died.
Wayne was born in 1928 and was raised on a farm in Idaho. A voracious reader, as a young man he attended the University of Idaho, where he trained as a civil engineer. Wayne married Kay at the age of 19. She helped support him through college, and later by doing the payroll for the family business. The two enjoyed 66 years of marriage.
Over those years, the couple raised two children, their son, Ty, and daughter, Shelly Speyer. Beginning in 1977, through high school and college, Ty spent his holidays and summers working with his father in the construction industry—first at a pile driving company where Wayne was the general contractor and then at DeWitt Construction Inc., which Wayne launched in October 1979. Wayne was a passionate and curious man, who patented a pile system called the driven grout pile that DeWitt Construction installed across Oregon throughout the last three decades.
Passing on the Torch
Ty studied corporate finance at college, but he credits much of his business education and success to his father’s teaching. By 1984, Ty began acting as a project superintendent at Dewitt Construction and was mentored by Wayne throughout the process. Wayne connected Ty with his trusted network of professionals, like Dave Roggenkamp, an engineer with whom Ty continues to work to this day.
“I had a problem with my first job,” Ty recalls. “I called my dad who gave me Dave’s number. Dave is as nice as they get; he has no arrogance about him, even when listening to my naive questions. He’s still our engineer after all of these years, and he’s been a blessing.”
Wayne also imparted to Ty key lessons about the importance of integrity in life as well as in business.
“Years and years ago, we had a job that went bad, and I was making excuses. I strongly felt it wasn’t all our problem, but Dad did,” says Ty.
“He said, ‘You go in there, and you fix the problem, I don’t care what it costs; go in there and fix it as fast as you possibly can.’ He stuck his finger in my chest and said, ‘Don’t you ever put a price on your integrity.’ It cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he didn’t hesitate. That was the biggest lesson I ever learned.”
Shelly joined the business part-time in the early 1990s and started working on payroll after Kay retired. When Wayne finally retired in 1996, Ty and Shelly took over as equal partners of the company.
Expansion and Diversity
The pair has faced many obstacles over the years. Pile driving is now less prominent than it once was, due to the noise and vibration that it causes. To overcome the challenge of a shrinking industry, DeWitt Construction invested in shoring equipment and a large drill rig, and expanded from pile driving into excavation, something that proved popular with general contractors who appreciated being able to source multiple services from one company.
Now, the company’s revenues vary between $23 million and $34 million annually, and this year it aims to exceed $34 million. As a union contractor, DeWitt Construction employs between 50 to 110 people annually.
Many of these employees have worked for the business between 15 and 34 years, and these long-term relationships have given the company a strong feeling of family and a positive atmosphere. The core team includes six superintendents and a project manager, Garth Ullakko, who has been with the company for 25 years.
Garth, who grew up in Naselle, Washington, joined DeWitt Construction in his early 20s as an apprentice, and worked his way up. He now oversees all of the company’s projects.
“Garth has a tremendous work ethic,” Ty says. “His parents instilled hard work, honesty and integrity in him. He doesn’t waver in that either. He’s intelligent; he’s a reader. He’s highly respected both in the industry and the company.” Ty adds that Garth often reminds him of his father.
Inspiring the Next Generation
In recent years, DeWitt Construction recruited two very special employees, Ty’s son, Chase DeWitt, and Shelly’s son, Garett Speyer. Both started in the company’s workshop, and then joined the building trade union for pile drivers. They now work as superintendents, working out in the field to build their experience.
“Hopefully, they’ll eventually boot us out and continue on,” says Ty. Last Thanksgiving, shortly before Wayne’s passing, Ty asked for advice on how to manage his son and nephew’s level of responsibility in the business. In particular, he asked his father how he knew when to hand over the reins.
“My father said, ‘I just knew. I would have worked for another 10 years, but you were ready, and it was your time,’” recalls Ty.
Over the next 10 years, as Shelly and Ty’s retirements draw nearer, they plan to prepare their sons as best as they can, emulating the lessons of hard work, integrity and honesty passed on to them from Wayne. These days, a number of DeWitt Construction’s long-term employees have also begun thinking about retirement, as their sons join the pile driver union and begin working with them in the field. “I’m going to miss those guys,” says Ty. “It feels like a changing of the guard.”
In the meantime, Ty is relishing the time spent mentoring Chase and Garett, who are eager to learn from him, to listen in on his business calls, to grab a beer after work to talk shop, and to hear Ty’s stories about their grandfather.
Ty anticipates that he will be able to focus on the simple pleasures of life in his retirement. He and his wife have plans to travel more, to golf and ski, to work on landscaping their yard and to enjoy campfires at sunset with beers.
He also plans to occasionally wander around the company’s jobs to check in on how they’re doing from time to time. But, like his father, Ty wants to give his son and nephew the room to lead the business on their terms.
“I still love the work, but it’ll be their time. I’m looking forward to that day to see them succeed,” Ty adds.