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DPR Construction's easygoing style belies serious business

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Jay Leopold stands stiffly with his arms folded inside a chic, modern office building and squints at the bright flash of a camera.

Photo: J. Kat Woronowicz

Two co-workers pull at his shirt, trying to adjust it to look perfect, while other employees walk by and poke fun at the regional manager of DPR Construction about having his picture taken for a newspaper spot.

"It's not easy being a model," he tells one of his employees.

Finally, the photographer asks Leopold if he could lean against the pillar for some more casual shots. Instantly, he exerts a sigh of relief, pleased to be settling into a more familiar position.

"This is how I actually live," Leopold says, with a smile and a splash of confidence.

Overall, Leopold is cool, calm and collected -- hardly the characteristics that epitomize a person who, last year, oversaw about $235 million of construction contracts.

But then, not much is normal at the offices of DPR Construction.

Take the wine bar, for instance. Upon visiting DPR's offices, clients and employees huddle around an oval-shaped bar in the middle of the work room to tie off a cold beer or sip a glass of wine at the end of a work day.

Add the fact that Leopold sits at a cubicle just like the rest of his employees, and doesn't have his title of "regional manager" scrawled on his business card, and you know that something is unusual about this business.

Leopold wouldn't have it any other way.

Since the early 1990s, the company has experienced a steady stream of high-end clientele -- particularly in the biotech industry, which accounts for about half of DPR's business.

The company is responsible for one of the largest construction projects built in San Diego County: the Genentech Manufacturing Facility in Oceanside. The more than $300 million project, which was initially built for Biogen Idec (Nasdaq: BIIB) and sold to Genentech (NYSE: DNA), brought massive revenues to the company throughout 2003 and 2004. In those years, DPR grossed $240 million and $330 million, respectively. The company's figures have since tapered off a bit, but Leopold says that its sustainable target revenue is about $240 million to $250 million annually.

Its customer roll is a virtual who's who of the biotech industry. Idec, The Scripps Research Institute, Scripps Health, The Burnham Institute and Pfizer all do business with DPR's San Diego offices. On the national level, the list only protracts.

Leopold sees DPR's unique way of doing business as the key to retaining those big-name clients.

"It's become an industry that's not really trusted," he said. "People really don't do what they say they're going to do.

"It creates a manner of doing business that over the years has been really adversarial," he added. "We differentiate ourselves just by doing what we say we're going to do."

That's why DPR is striving to become one of the most admired businesses by 2030 -- not just one of the most admired construction businesses.

The company is well on its way, judging by its placement in the new book "Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win."

"Being different has made all the difference at DPR," the authors write. "There's no question that the company has prospered by unleashing a disruptive business strategy in its industry."

And customers seem satisfied as well.

Ben Morris, vice president of facilities at The Scripps Research Institute, described DPR as an incredibly reliable firm. DPR has worked with the institute since 1999 and currently works on all of its multimillion-dollar projects.

"They're very professional. They have highly motivated employees. They think through problems before they actually happen. They're very customer oriented, and they have a strong mechanical and electrical backbone," he said.

As an outsider to the biotech industry in the respect that he's not poring over reports and hovering over microscopes all day, Leopold still provides perspective on the state of the industry.

In the past few years, he said biotech firms have been increasingly looking for green construction -- a good thing for DPR, which has 19 LEED certified contractors on staff, and 28 more in a LEED training class.

He also noted that biotech firms are also starting to branch out of the Torrey Pines area into places such as Eastgate Mall and Sorrento Mesa.

"It was sort of a Torrey Pines or bust mindset," he said. "And it feels like that barrier has been broken. And I feel like people are becoming more comfortable outside the confines of that hill."

Regardless of where the industry wants to build, however, if it's a valued client, DPR will follow them to the edge of the world, or at least the edge of the country. The firm is currently doing construction for The Scripps Research Institute at its proposed facility in Florida.

All around, DPR's casual style of doing serious business has been successful, Leopold said, because the company stuck to its purpose, which is "to build great things."

That, he said, is why more than 90 percent of DPR's business is repeat customers.

"That's why we don't knock on doors."

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