The Biggest Little Businessman In Texas
Ninety miles from Longview we got to talking about hands-on management, but the focus was all on his hands. Billy Joe DuPree, 10 years into his All-Pro football career as a tight end with the Dallas Cowboys and 5 years at the helm of CWC Construction Inc., a rising star in Dallas's business marketplace, gripped the wheel of his Jeep Laredo and nudged the speedometer up toward 85. Scrub oak flew by us like startled quail. Seldom had east Texas looked so small.
"I take one vacation a year away from work," DuPree was explaining, his enormous fingers spread like tentacles across the brim of his baseball cap, "and that's the month I spend in California at Cowboys training camp. Otherwise, I like to be in the office every day."
He flexed his hand and made a fist. Little crescent-shaped pieces of scar tissue -- one, it seemed, for each of his 40 career touchdown catches, the enduring legacies of the cleats of a lot of beaten cornerbacks -- winked in the sunlight like cheap costume jewelry. Surprisingly, not even the winners' ring from Super Bowl XII was there to offset them; only by his healed wounds did one of pro football's premier performers advertise his craft. And that, he added, was just how he liked things.
"I never thought much about playing in the NFL," he continued in his soft Louisiana drawl. "Even now, after 10 seasons, I think of myself more as an athlete-entrepreneur than a player. Not many people around Dallas even know I'm in the construction business, which is fine by me. My company can't service the average fan who comes to see me play, anyway." He drummed on the dashboard. "There was a time when I could be standing in a crowd of a hundred people and only three would say, 'Hey, there goes Billy Joe DuPree!' That let me get a whole lot of business done before the talk ever swung around to football."
There was also a time when his construction company could operate comfortably out of the hip pocket of DuPree's oversize pants; but those days, like the miles between Dallas and Longview when the accelerator is pressed flat to the floor, are long gone. In the last three years, CWC has gone from pouring sidewalks and patios to putting up 18-story commercial buildings, and its annual gross has grown from $200,000 to well over $5 million, with an average contract tag of $600,000. Instead of DuPree's kitchen table, the company now works out of 1,600 square feet of office space at its north Dallas headquarters and another 20,000 square feet -- most of it enclosed storage -- at its nearby Garland warehouse.
During this same spurt, CWC has added a full-time administrative staff of 12, plus 100 to 150 regular hourly wage-earners and has expanded its services to include not only concrete-pouring, but also crane installation, rebar installation for steel reinforced concrete, post-tension cable system design and installation, and general contracting. In a tight economy, a growth curve like this would test the mettle of any ambitious young chief executive officer, not to mention one who, from mid-July through December, regularly leaves his desk to get knocked six ways from Sunday by the Jack Lamberts of the modern world.
Billy Joe DuPree, however, is anything but average -- even by National Football League standards. A survey of all 28 NFL football clubs produced only a handful of players who are also active business managers, and most of them were running businesses that are either sports-related (such as racquetball clubs and sporting-goods stores) or trade heavily on name identification (for example, Ron Jaworski Sports Enterprises, which runs a speakers' bureau and summer camps). A Claudie Minor (Denver Broncos), who owns a drilling-fluid company and is branching out into real estate and cable TV, or a Mike Pruitt (Cleveland Browns), who helps run a construction rehab company, are the exceptions to the rule. Like DuPree, they work as hard reading spreadsheets as they do reading playbooks. Not many athlete-entrepreneurs are in their league.
"The main thing about Billy Joe is he's always under control," marvels teammate Drew Pearson, a training camp roommate along with Harvey Martin and Benny Barnes. "He's so in control, in fact, that sometimes I think it makes the front office nervous, because he's not as dependent on them as they'd like him to be. But in our room anyway, the talk is always more business than football. And all the guys, especially the younger players, seek Billy Joe out. He's so stable. No matter what's going down during the football season, B. J.'s got his business stuff well in hand."
"The most remarkable thing about him is he never saw football as his way to get rich," adds Dale Dodson, chairman of Dalcor Financial Inc., a venture capital and real estate investment group, and DuPree's longtime financial adviser. "For him, playing pro ball was only the means to get himself into the free enterprise system so he could show what he could do. And B. J.'s unbelievably dedicated. I've seen him go to the office at 7, be out at the practice field by 8:45, take his lunch break back at work, go back to practice in the afternoon, and then stop by the office for an hour or two on the way home. He set goals for his business early on, hired the top people in town to help implement them, listens to their advice, and only tackles what he thinks he can do well. Forget other athletes; that's highly unusual for any executive in Billy Joe's position.
Perhaps even more than the bruising tight end, the executive in Billy Joe DuPree has its roots in northeast Louisiana, where he grew up before becoming a star athlete at Michigan State University. DuPree's father drove a truck for a construction company, and B. J. liked to hang around work sites. He appreciated the engineering skills it took to throw a bridge over a bayou without the whole thing sinking into the swamp. He first wanted to become a civil engineer, but Michigan State had other ideas. Not atypically for a Big Ten school, it made full use of DuPree's talents on the gridiron and basketball court while giving him precious little constructive advice on how to get what he wanted out of the academic curriculum. He stumbled on the department of building construction and took as many courses as he could there. But when his college playing days ended DuPree was still several credits short of a degree (a situation he plans to rectify soon) and worried about how he would support his wife, Marsha, and their infant son. By making Dupree their first pick in the 1973 draft, the Cowboys eliminated his immediate problems, but he was still wary.
"I signed for a lot less than I could have because I hate hassling over contracts," he admits. "Once I signed, though, I felt like I'd made a commitment to the team and the city. I knew I wanted to play there a long time and make it my home."
Throughout the sporting world, the Dallas Cowboys are known for making their primary commitment the famous Cowboy System, a highly structured approach to playing and management that includes drafting the best available athletes regardless of position, breaking them into playing roles slowly, keeping rookies subservient to veterans, keeping everyone subservient to Coach Tom Landry, and wrapping the whole package in blue, silver, and stars and selling it to Texas -- and the world -- as high-tech athletic entertainment. They call the Cowboys "America's Team," but it is really more like a Japanese techno-giant, investing heavily in research and development (scouting), emphasizing long-term goals over short-term profits, and stressing continuity at the top, where head coach, general manager, and team owner have all ruled since the club's inception in 1960, a modern sports-world miracle. DuPree came into this system as so many others have, learning to accept whatever role was given to him and to prove to his coaches that he could be counted on to play -- and play hard -- week in and week out, no matter what.
But unlike most, DuPree also knew early in his NFL career that football would never be enough to satisfy him. It wasn't merely further financial rewards he sought, but rather the chance to build something permanent for himself and his family. And in this area his indoctrination into the Cowboy System has served him exceedingly well, for DuPree has been able to absorb and apply key aspects of the Cowboys' organizational philosophy to his own entrepreneurial skills and to do it in ways far beyond the obvious one of parlaying his Dallas Cowboy identity into chummy construction contracts. That process of assimilation becomes most tangible when DuPree gets to talking about one of his favorite subjects: Tom Landry.
"Let me tell you about the first time I met Tom," he was saying over the roar of the wind through the Jeep. "I was a rookie at Cowboys quarterback camp, working out with stars like [Roger] Staubach and Bob Hayes. The first day the feeling down on the field was real loose, almost like a sandlot game, and when I ran downfield for a pass and messed it up, I started clowning around just like everyone else had been doing. All of a sudden I noticed it'd gotten real quiet. I mean, I could have tossed a pin down on the grass and heard it land. I looked around, and there was Tom, staring at me. He didn't even say anything, and he didn't need to. That was my first taste of the military mentality that rules the Cowboys, and for a long time -- three years or so -- I honestly didn't know if I could adjust to it."
He shifted his six-foot-four-inch frame around as if physically reaccommodating himself to his once-lowly rookie's lot. "I've since learned," he said, "that even when I don't agree with Tom or necessarily like what he's doing, two qualities stand out: his absolute control and his absolute honesty. When Tom Landry says something is so, it's true today, it's true tomorrow, and it's true until he says it isn't. He gives his players very defined responsibilities on the football field and leaves it up to them to execute them. Really, it isn't even Landry anymore but Landry's system that runs the Cowboys. It's a very comfortable, very flexible system for coming up with new plans of attack, and it's the way I want to run my business. I want to be dependable, honest, and full of trust for the people under me, because playing ball means they have to function well without me always around telling them what to do on a day-to-day basis."
DuPree formally launched CWC in 1977, after setting up a two-man partnership that went after the kind of small cement jobs that bigger contractors weren't much interested in bidding on. When that enterprise proved quite successful, he bought out his original partner, incorporated, and moved the whole operation out of his home, where Marsha DuPree had acted as bookkeeper and account manager. Nothing like guaranteed profitability awaited him in the Dallas marketplace.
Resisting the temptation to splash his name across the company letterhead or corral other Cowboys as investors ("I preferred to develop this outside the framework of my team affiliation," he says), DuPree at first went door to door to drum up business and later relied heavily on word of mouth. He figures it cost him $40,000 to $50,000 of his own money to get launched and says the first chunk of startup capital came from his loser's share ($24,000) of Super Bowl X. People like Dale Dodson, whom DuPree met when he was setting up the financing on his first home, cautioned him about trying to get a construction company going in the middle of a recession, but Billy Joe was undeterred, preferring to see the depressed marketplace as an opportunity, not a liability.
OuPree set up shop in the northwest section of town, where CWC has ridden a wave of commercial expansion ever since. Just as important, he has brought to his managerial role the same fierce determination that made him so successful in pro football, and that, as much as anything else, has made the enterprise go.
"I remember early on going out to a house site with Billy Joe," Dodson recalls. "He didn't have any permanent employees then, and the guys he'd hired for this particular job had screwed up and poured the foundation backward. B. J. was pretty upset, but rather than get all discouraged about it he simply realized he'd have to exercise more direct control over the operation in the future. This man is very smart when it comes to learning from his mistakes."
Actually, DuPree hasn't made that many. He claims that although he is willing to take a loss if it means fulfilling the letter of a contract, he has had to eat his profits only three times in five years. The main reason for this success rate is that DuPree will not take a job that is bigger than he thinks CWC can handle at any given time. Nor has he had to fall back on his Cowboys income (a $150,000 base salary, with bonuses and incentives of up to $75,000 more, well above the median base of about $85,000 for NFL tight ends) to keep CWC's cash flow afloat. But DuPree is also quick to credit much of the company's success to the managers he has brought in to work for him.
First aboard was David Douglass, CWC's executive vice-president and general manager. Douglass was a general contractor with his own structural-remodeling concern when DuPree lured him away in 1980 with profit-sharing bonuses and DuPree's personal marketability, a factor Douglass did not discount in the highly competitive Dallas marketplace. Together they laid out a conservative, step-by-step growth plan that soon led to new company divisions and the hiring of George Humphries, head of the rebar facility and post-tension division, and Santos Aguilar, who oversees the forming division. Humphries once ran his own steel company, and Aguilar had served as general superintendent for Alamo Forms Inc., a concrete-forming company.
While these elements of the corporate structure were falling into place, DuPree was also forging links to three of the top accounting, banking, and legal firms in Dallas: Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.; Allied Bank of Dallas; and Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, respectively. He wanted those resources in place, he says, even before his business grew enough to make full use of them, and he wasn't [much concerned about getting lost in the shuffle with the big firms. As one associate put it, "Billy Joe's always believed you get what you pay for."
Says Douglass: "Our growth has been a challenge for us to deal with, but it has not been unexpected. When Billy goes away to play football, we all know what we have to do. Aguilar is probably the most highly thought of forming person in the state of Texas, and Humphries and the foremen under him have a wealth of experience to draw on. Like the Cowboys, we have a real depth of talent here, and also like the Cowboys, no one person is irreplaceable."
As founder of and sole stockholder in CWC, DuPree has delegated plenty of authority within the company without relinquishing one iota of ultimate control. But as a professional football player, he has also faced the constant threat of debilitating injury or trade to another franchise. Recognizing that, he says he has been careful to build the business in such a way that he could disappear for six months at a time instead of one and still not lose the operation.
Now, however, the rapid growth of CWC is forcing another kind of contingency planning. With annual revenues pointed toward the $10 million mark, CWC has rapidly outgrown its paper-flow, management-information, and accounting systems, and the need both to automate and to provide management with more up-to-date technical information is apparent. Recently, Dodson's group, Dalcor Financial, did a company "physical" on CWC and recommended the hiring of a chief operating officer (with DuPree to function more as board chairman) and the establishment of an outside board of directors that would meet monthly to discuss long-range objectives. Such a board, as yet unnamed except for Dodson, would pull together different areas of expertise -- banking, contracting, heavy industry -- that could be enormously useful to CWC's climb from small business to medium-size company.
"It's clear this is no longer a company Billy Joe can run over the phone from training camp," said Dodson one morning at his north Dallas office. "What a good board can do now is give him the kind of expert, specialized advice he'd get hiring top-of-the line budget analysts and comptrollers but at a much more minimal cost. He'd get some real good talent in there, too. Not just CEOs who've already seen how much he's given to this community -- like all the charity and public-speaking work he never talks about -- and want to give him something back."
Also in the category of things that don't get talked about much around Billy Joe DuPree is the fact that he is a visibly successful black entrepreneur running an ethnically integrated company and making it in one of the whitest, most ultraconservative big cities in America. It is not an issue anyone ducks, just one that hasn't seemed to come up often. There are perhaps two sound reasons for this, one being that his association with the Cowboys and their own rich tradition of conservatism has benefited him ("I've never traded on my position with the team," he says, "but let's face it, working for them is like working for Xerox or IBM. People figure if you're with the Cowboys, you must be okay."), the other being that he is so supremely confident in what he does that no racial roadblock, subtle or obvious, is going to slow him down. As he likes to put it, if somebody chooses not to do business with him because he is black, why then, he knows a dozen more who will. He doesn't believe in bogging himself down in issues he can't control. While also discounting the black-white angle, Dodson, however, thinks it is a legitimate issue that may have far more of an impact later down the line.
"This is a conservative place," Dodson echoes, "and as Billy Joe's business gets bigger and bigger it'll be interesting to see if the white financial analyst with the six-figure salary and the fancy resume will want to go to work for him. I honestly don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that Billy Joe isn't only a black Dallas Cowboy, he's a black Catholic and a black Republican to boot, and that's a pretty rare combination in any city."
We were getting close to Longview, a medium-size (pop. around 60,000 and growing) east Texas town resting on extensive coal and mineral deposits. DuPree had an appointment with local bank officials about financing the construction of a restaurant he is investing in there. But the talk, as it inevitably seemed to do, swung back around to Landry and the Cowboys.
"I was talking to Tom just yesterday," DuPree said. "Sort of a little chat about my future with the club, I guess you'd call it. I told him I'd like to play one more year in whatever capacity he wants to use me, but that if I'm going to be paid as an experienced backup and not as a starter, then I'd still better be paid what I'm worth."
At that, he remembered the first time his coach had demoted him to second string and let Jean Fugett, another of the Cowboys' durable offensive linemen, fill his shoes as starter.
"Tom hadn't said anything to me all week," he said with a grin, "so I was really fuming. We played Philadelphia that Sunday. Jean did great, and when I finally went in I was so mad I could hardly see straight. First play, I ran downfield and took aim at this poor Eagles cornerback who had no idea what was happening. The play wasn't even to his side of the field, and when he relaxed, Bam! I absolutely destroyed him. He picks himself up and says, 'Damn, B. J., what the hell's gotten into you?' I don't say a word. Next play, same thing. Bam! I practically knock his helmet off. Now he's talking to himself, really looking scared. Third time I had to run all the way across the field, but I popped him so good all the air went out of him with a whoosh. He looks up at me like I'm crazy, and I say, 'Go talk to Landry [expletive deleted], 'cause that man don't know the half of what he's done."
He laughed again with a deep Louisiana rumble and flexed those hands. They looked like they could squeeze a small computer back into its base elements.
"Sometimes," he mused, "I think about all the guys I went to college with and figure they're a good five, six years ahead of me in technical business knowledge. Other times I think about what I've seen in the Cowboys system -- how they move players around to get the results they want, how they plan on people having 10-, 12-year careers, how they don't bring in a new coach and a whole new playbook every two years -- and realize it's been like a business-school education for me. I also notice how a lot of my colleagues fail to understand the importance of doing the kind of legwork I do. I probably could've done Longview [the restaurant deal] over the telephone, but it seems to mean so much more when you turn up in person and let people know you care."
We made a couple of wobbly passes at downtown Longview before the right bank appeared on the right corner. Billy Joe allowed as how he might one day buy his own bank, just so his company wouldn't have to fret about long-range financing. That seemed a small worry, given its track record to date, but DuPree hasn't gotten where he has gotten by taking things for granted. Nor is the rest of the Texas business community likely to be as surprised as that poor Eagles defenseman was, either. As DuPree says with genuine modesty, "People who sit down with me and think they've got just another dumb jock on their hands are only putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage.