For the first time in its 128-year history, Janesville commercial builder JP Cullen has named not one company president but two.
On Tuesday, JP Cullen announced that siblings George Cullen and Jeannie Cullen-Schultz, children of onetime JP Cullen President Mark Cullen, will take the helm of one of the city’s longest-running, family-owned companies.
In an interview Tuesday, Cullen and Cullen-Schultz said they had accepted co-president roles at JP Cullen late last year after a nearly two-year internal interview process.
Their promotion within the company was previously unannounced, and neither had planned to take over for another few years, pending JP Cullen President Ron Becher’s retirement in 2022, George Cullen said.
Becher had worked for JP Cullen two decades and had served as company president for the last seven years. He was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year and died in August from complications of the disease.
Cullen, 32, and Cullen-Schultz, 37, said they had been gearing up as successors under Becher’s guidance since last year. Cullen has worked for JP Cullen for the last five years, Cullen-Schultz for seven years, both serving as vice presidents of different divisions in the company.
Since last year, the plan has been for the siblings to share the top leadership spot. They had been asked about that earlier by JP Cullen’s search committee and a consultant involved in the search.
The siblings have since learned of two men—brothers—who ran a similarly sized construction company in New Jersey. The two men for 30 years split leadership duties down the middle based on strengths, experience and skills.
It’s the first time any Cullen has been named the leader since the late 1980s or 1990s, when three Cullen brothers traded the leadership roles—an arrangement that ran up to Becher being named president in 2013.
Since 1980, JP Cullen has grown from a 100-employee company worth about $50 million a year to a $350 million to $400 million entity with about 500 workers—a number that is split between corporate and field leadership and union labor ranks, Cullen said.
The two siblings rose as finalists out of a pool of five Cullen family members, all JP Cullen employees in the company’s fifth generation.
Based on national industry averages, most family-owned companies—97%—never make it to a third generation of family ownership, let alone a fifth generation.
The siblings say JP Cullen’s long, uninterrupted run as a family-owned company is not lost on them.
“Any vision that we have among our fifth-generation ownership group is to get us to a sixth generation, and that’s really important to us for JP Cullen to continue to be a family-owned business, and subset of that is a place where families want to work for us, too,” Cullen said.
“We’ve got a lot of ‘non-Cullen’ families working within the business that have multiple generations of family members working for the company, most of them long-term employees,” he added. “That’s pretty special. It just means good, organic growth here in Wisconsin, Janesville, Milwaukee, Madison, and in northern Illinois and eastern Iowa.”
Cullen-Schultz, a graduate of Dartmouth College and UW-Madison, said she came out of college 15 years ago with hopes to be a college basketball coach. She said she had a “change of heart” and decided to work in the construction industry after she learned that women had growing leadership opportunities in the commercial construction industry.
For the last five years, Cullen-Schultz has been vice president of JP Cullen’s health care construction division.
George Cullen, a graduate of Georgetown University and UW-Madison, has been a JP Cullen vice president in the manufacturing construction division and the lead of JP Cullen's work procurement for the last year. Both siblings had prior stints working for other companies, but Cullen said he always had aspirations to lead JP Cullen in some capacity.
He said the company’s new mission statement is to “identify, hire, train and retain” the best local employees.
Cullen and Cullen-Schultz said the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the playing field for many businesses, the construction industry included.
“On top of that, we lost a leader (Becher) who’d been with us for 20 years and led our company. So it’s not lost on George and me that we’re leading a company that is really a family,” Cullen-Schultz said.
Cullen views the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of family history. He cites a historical account he read in The Gazette earlier this year about how company founder J.P. Cullen addressed Janesville’s business community during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
“He said, ‘Listen to health professionals, cover your face …’ and I’m paraphrasing,” Cullen said, “but what he said was, ‘We will get through this.’”