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J.P. Cullen dies at 91, handed business practices to next generation

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(Photos courtesy of J.P. Cullen & Sons)

John Paul Cullen, a president of J.P. Cullen & Sons for about two decades, used his long life in large part to carry on a legacy first started at the Janesville-based general contractor 125 years ago.

Cullen died at the age of 91 on Sunday. His death from natural causes came at his Edgerton home, where he was surrounded by loved-ones.

Born in 1925 in Madison, Cullen started working at the family business in 1950 after serving in World War II as an infantryman in the U.S. Army and graduating from the University of Nebraska, where he received a degree in business administration. He became president of the company in the 1960s and remained in that role until the 1980s, when he turned over the reins to his sons, David, Mark and Richard.

David, chief executive officer at J.P. Cullen, said his father possessed qualities not always found in businessmen. Perhaps most notable was the way he treated his employees, regardless of their position.

“He really is a man who feels that every person in the company is valued,” David said. “And it doesn’t matter who you are. He wants to know how you’re doing. He wants to know how your family’s doing. He wants to know how the project’s going.”

During J.P.’s time as president, the company — which has gone through several name changes even while remaining in the family — was kept busy with projects ranging across a wide variety of sectors within the construction industry. Two big sources of business were the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and K-12 schools, David said. Much of J.P.’s time with the firm came during the post-WWII “baby boom,” when districts needed more room to accommodate the droves of students then going through the school system.

J.P. Cullen also saw work from the expanding General Motors factory in Janesville, which was first built in 1914 by J.P.’s grandfather, John Patrick Cullen. Then there were the company’s health-care projects. Perhaps most prominent among these was the Beloit Memorial Hospital.

Anyone who met J.P. was usually left with a lasting impression.

David Kemp worked as a superintendent for J.P. Cullen for 33 years. He recalled that when he was first offered a job by J.P. Cullen in 1975, one thing was made clear: Kemp should only accept if he thought it was best for his family.

To work for Cullen, Kemp would have to sell his home in Minnesota and move with his wife and two children to Marshalltown, Iowa. His first assignment would be to work on the Iowa Veterans Home.

Before accepting, Kemp was told by J.P. to take a week to go over everything with his wife, Karen.

“It told me a lot about him,” Kemp said.

So why did he stay at Cullen and work for J.P. and his sons for more than three decades?

“Because I knew I had a good company. I was always treated well,” said Kemp.

jpcullen_wwiiJohn Westphal, president and CEO of the Madison-based electrical contractor Westphal & Co., said his company has worked on projects with J.P. Cullen for 83 years.

“I’ve basically known him my whole life,” said Westphal.

Westphal noted that his father and J.P. were close friends outside of work, going on hunting trips together.

“From a business standpoint he was very firm and he was very shrewd, and he had very high standards,” Westphal said. “But he was eminently fair.”

Westphal said that even when he was young, he was treated by J.P. as if he were an adult. And Westphal knew that meant he had to prove he deserved the respect.

J.P. Cullen, founded in 1892 by John Patrick Cullen, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.

Among the many projects now keeping the company busy is the new Bucks arena in downtown Milwaukee. J.P. Cullen is both overseeing the steel work needed for the $524 million structure and the construction of a team training center being built just northwest of the arena.

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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