With the oil boom in full swing, Marc Mellmer saw the possibilities for growth and looming building projects in western North Dakota, and he wanted JE Dunn Construction to be a part of it.
Nearly three years and more than 20 building projects later, the 31-year-old construction operations coordinator sits in his sensible, windowless office in one of the city’s newest buildings — one his firm had no hand in building, he notes with a laugh — and said despite the economic downturn in North Dakota set off by plunging oil prices, business is still looking good.
“I’ve been asked a million times, ‘Why would JE Dunn put an office in Dickinson, N.D.? That just seems crazy. Why would you do that?’” he said with a smile. “But our goal was to touch the entire state, and we’ll continue to touch the entire state and create relationships.”
This year, JE Dunn will begin or continue work on — among its many projects — the North Dakota governor’s residence and the new Bank of North Dakota Financial Center in Bismarck, Harold Newman Arena in Jamestown, and the Trinity High School reconstruction and expansion, a project near to Mellmer’s heart as he’s a graduate of the Dickinson Catholic school.
Mellmer graduated from Trinity 13 years ago and went on to earn his degree in construction management at the University of Minnesota. He was working for JE Dunn on the Sanford Health Clinic in Detroit Lakes, Minn., when he began pushing for the company to bid on projects in booming Dickinson.
“I requested that we begin to chase projects in western North Dakota, and it was made my primary responsibility to not only pursue the projects I wanted to back home, but also take them from the pre-construction all the way through the completion and warranty phase of projects,” Mellmer said.
So far, Mellmer and his team are doing just what he set out to do.
JE Dunn came to the area in 2011 to build the Mercy Medical Center Birthing Center in Williston, where they’ve had an office since 2012. Not long after that, the company was awarded building contracts for the $70 million Williston Area Recreation Center and the $100 million CHI St. Joseph’s Health campus in Dickinson.
“When we were about halfways through St. Joe’s hospital project, we decided we needed to open an office in Dickinson,” Mellmer said. “What anchored those projects like that were not only the fact that we were building those two big jobs, but also servicing those buildings and staying close to the owners and being committed to the area — to both Williston and Dickinson — after we completed the projects. And then the smaller projects started to spawn off of the two big anchor projects.”
Mellmer said what makes the JE Dunn Dickinson and Williston offices unique within the company is that they chase projects across in the entire state.
“The logistics of the North Dakota offices are different than the logistics of any of our other offices in the country,” he said. “They’re all in metropolitan areas, where you have a certain radius of work that keeps the business afloat. We think of North Dakota as a client. That’s been our motto from day one.”
JE Dunn, which is headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., has 22 offices in cities across the nation. It’s two smallest are Dickinson and Williston. Between the two Oil Patch hubs, the firm has about 20 full-time employees, and Mellmer said at any given time, it can employ 10 to 15 more specialists working in the state for up to two years at a time. Most of its work is done by local subcontractors.
“We thought it was in the best interest of us and our clients to open a physical office and hire local people to work for JE Dunn,” said Mellmer, a Dickinson native. “And also import our people to become local residents of western North Dakota and commit to the area.”
The newest employee is Michael Murphy, a project engineer and recent graduate of North Dakota State University who’s doing pre-construction work on the planned Newman Arena
Murphy, from Fargo, works in the Dickinson office but said he’ll be traveling around the state regularly once the arena project begins. He said he was convinced to join JE Dunn after speaking to the firm’s representatives at a job fair.
“The Dickinson area, at the time, was a very expanding market,” he said. “With the recent oil declines, the construction is still going strong. Being a new hire here, it’s a good opportunity.”
Other employees, like project coordinator Melissa Gjermundson, have been around the area their entire lives. She said working for JE Dunn has been a good fit.
Gjermundson came on board after spending time working for Dickinson’s planning and zoning office, Marathon Oil Co., and as a Dickinson Police Department dispatcher. She met Mellmer while working for the city shortly after its leaders decided to build the Public Safety Center — the new police and fire station that’s now the workplace of her former dispatch co-workers. At JE Dunn, she primarily works with subcontractors.
“I make sure they get their contracts,” she said. “I make sure they’re compliant and I make sure that they get paid.”
Having a strong stable of subcontractors is vital to JE Dunn’s success in western North Dakota, Mellmer said.
When the firm moved first started working in North Dakota, he said the oil boom made it difficult to hire top-quality subcontractors.
“The biggest successes were building the hospitals and the Williston recreation center at the peak of the boom, when contracting was at it’s highest level of difficulty,” Mellmer said. “From then, being able to transition to do smaller projects and more of what I’d call normal-size projects for western North Dakota, we’ve made a really smooth transition to become economic in building those projects and really creating relationships with our owners of these smaller projects, which seem to be difficult for a large corporation.”
Because the firm planted roots during the oil boom, Mellmer said he knows projects will become fewer and farther between with the state in an economic slowdown. He said that just means JE Dunn will have to venture out of western North Dakota more often and seek contracts in cities like Fargo and Grand Forks.
“That’s where we hold our ground and stretch our wings even further, and chase projects down every rabbit hole,” Mellmer said.
He said JE Dunn doesn’t view itself as a construction firm that only chases huge projects, and notes that the slowdown has afforded it the opportunity to do work that means a big deal to some small towns.
He pointed to the projects such as a new classroom and library at the Home on the Range near Sentinel Butte, the Killdeer Aquatics and Wellness Center that’s nearing completion, and the Flasher High School and Gymnasium.
All are small projects compared to JE Dunn’s usual scale, but Mellmer described them as fun and a positive experiences because of the response the firm receives from the small communities.
“We’re not too big or too proud to chase and work in any town, on any project, of any size,” he said.