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These stories by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 9, 1998. All rights reserved.
Chip Durell: Builder and Shaker
by Barbara Fox
A hard hat labeled "Durell" sits on the center
hall table next to the vase of fresh flowers and the framed print
of Edward Hicks’ "Peaceable Kingdom" painting. On the wall
of the graceful staircase are giant framed photos of a Gothic-style
dormitory at Princeton University and various Philadelphia hospitals.
In a room to one side of the hall, behind French doors, a
is tough-talking the estimator, trying to renegotiate terms: In spite
of his pugnacity he is having minimal success. From the back of the
building, from the CEO’s office, the big booming voice of Edward
Durell III fills the building.
Durell has just moved his office from one historic building, Beatty
House, and has taken temporary space at 230 Nassau Street in the
Gloria Nilson house while he looks for another historic building to
complement his antiques.
The new spot, preferably, will be outside of Princeton Borough.
Zoning! Lights! No lights!" he can be heard exclaiming on the
telephone, in protest against the borough’s notorious restrictions.
"Chip" Durell comes from an impressive heritage — five
generations of Philadelphia master builders — and, at age 50,
is warming up for his busiest year ever. His signs seem to be
Durell Builders/Construction Managers is building the Miele Appliance
headquarters, designed by Michael Graves, on Route 1 North, and it
is supervising the renovations of Princeton Borough Hall. The firm
is rehabbing one building at Lawrenceville School and getting ready
to build another. It is renovating two buildings at Princeton
and doing preconstruction on a third.
Though Durell anticipates going from $25 million in 1998 to $40
in 1999, in 1993 he dipped deeply into the red. He did not file
but he dissolved the family firm (founded in 1891 by his grandfather)
and reorganized under a new name. Relentlessly confident at this
time, he is sticking to his game plan: Promote and protect your
and take setbacks in stride.
Is his attitude confidence? Or arrogance? That is in the eye of the
Says an admirer: "Chip is very impatient. He believes in
things and getting them done — and that’s exactly what you want
in a builder. He’s a man of action."
Says a detractor, "If a self promoter is someone who toots his
own horn, Chip Durell would be the whole brass band."
Marketing platitudes do flow easily from Durell, a natty dresser who
drives a silver Jaguar. He almost always has his game face on. Often
he sounds like a coach giving the pre-game peptalk. "We’re
We’re very different," says Durell, citing the tag line of his
brochure: "We make the difference." But for him to score one
of the coveted "preferred contractor" slots at Princeton
required more than just talk.
"We’re real good, fast track, on budget. We service them,"
says Durell, and most people agree with that analysis. Princeton
chooses its construction managers based on interviews rather than
by taking bids on finished drawings. Settling on a maximum guaranteed
price results in better pricing and fewer surprises, says Eugene
Princeton University’s vice president for facilities. The university
does reward contractors who unfailingly meet deadlines. When you need
the dorm to be ready in September, punctuality is at least as
Much of Durell’s recent work has been in Palmer Square: the Lindt
rehab of the Nassau Inn’s Greenhouse restaurant, Mediterra, various
estimates on development plans for the Nassau Inn. Historical projects
that he likes to refer to include renovations on the Edgar Allen Poe
house in Philadelphia and shuttering the windows at Morven. At
University he did a massive two-stage renovation of Forbes College
and rehabbed Guyot Hall. At Princeton Theological Seminary he
the McKay campus center dining hall in the space of two summers. He
also did the skating rink at Princeton Day School.
Durell’s current construction projects include work for Federated
Department Stores (a Macy’s in the Lehigh Valley, a mall in
Pennsylvania), the Noyes Building at Law-renceville School, eight
departments at the Memorial Hospital of Burlington County, Mercer
Street Friends’ Village Charter School in Trenton, Princeton
Dillon Pool and Henry Hall, and Pottery Barn at MarketFair. The firm
has just completed work on a Sterns department store in Wayne. It
is the owner’s representative/construction manager (not
the general contractor) for the renovations to Princeton’s Borough
The plum project for now, of course, is the Michael Graves Architects
(MGA) building for Miele Appliances North American headquarters. It
is bright yellow and blue on Route 1 North next to Novotel. On Friday,
December 11, Durell will stop work on the site long enough to host
a holiday luncheon, catered by Mediterra and Witherspoon Bread
with international Miele executives in attendance. Robert Fahr, an
associate at MGA, says the architect and the owners wanted to have
a local builder so their project would not get lost in the shuffle
and that the work has been "uneventful."
Next up for Durell: a major renovation of Princeton University’s
Eighty percent of marketing, Durell agrees, is who you know.
depends on your name and reputation. You know how the Princeton people
are," he says. "If you have a good name and solid reputation,
you are sought after to work for national clients. But it’s hard to
get on a list if you don’t know someone."
His pivotal first job at Princeton University actually resulted from
another contractor’s too-high prices for the renovation for Edwards
Hall. William Wolfe, an architect who is now among Durell’s admirers,
had designed the renovations for the 100-year-old Edwards Hall, and
he disagreed with the estimates provided by the contractor that the
university was planning to hire.
Durell quoted lower numbers and got the contract, which ran from 1983
to 1985. "Durell’s numbers were extremely competitive," says
Wolfe. "He gained a lot of favor in my eyes because his numbers
confirmed our estimates. He was trying to get his first university
job and in the process he certainly saved my credibility."
"I brought him on another job (the addition to the Recording for
the Blind and Dyslexic building on Roszel Road) because of essentially
the same circumstance," says Wolfe. How can Durell succeed using
the lower numbers? "One can only conclude that he is good at what
he does," says Wolfe.
Another entry point for Durell has been to start small. He competed
for the job of building a library at Lawrenceville School but did
not win. "He stuck with it, and got some smaller jobs, and now
he is doing our large work," says Bill Ehret, director of
at Lawrenceville. Starting in 1984 Durell restored the chapel,
an entrance gate, did various dormitory restorations, and renovated
an office space. The large projects were renovating the old Noyes
science building to be Hillier-designed classrooms for the history
department, and — next year — constructing the new Juliet
Wilson music building.
"Their track record of finishing jobs on time without sacrificing
quality of the product was a factor in their selection," says
Ehret. He is careful to add that he has had similar good results from
another family-owned firm, Princeton Avenue-based V.J. Scozzari &
The small jobs (renovate a lobby, put down cobblestones for a walkway)
can help keep an old client happy. "He is very willing and able
to do the small but critical jobs as well as the major capital
says the university’s McPartland.
Durell also has a reputation for clean worksites. "A job that
he does is always immaculate. He was good about walking through a
building and picking out those things that weren’t quite right,"
says Frederic "Rick" Lansill, vice president of Princeton
Theological Seminary. "He was fastidious about everything."
Contributing to Durell’s credibility are conscientious people in his
firm, which employs 80 people full-time in the summer, 40 people in
the winter, and 18 of those stay mostly in the office. (Multiply his
payroll by a factor of 20 and you come up with a figure for how many
subcontractors’ workers are on the jobs at any one time.)
Wolfe remembers the hurricane force winds that threatened Edwards
Hall when the roof was open to the elements. The crew tied tarps over
the building but Wolfe and Henk Bleeker — Durell’s project
— were out in the storm, hauling on the ropes, keeping it
Bleeker is one of several employees who have stuck with Durell for
a number of years and, with 25 years here, is the most senior. Robert
A. J. Linson (senior project manager), John Kuhn (project
for the Miele building) and Regina Canty (controller) joined in the
1980s. Alan C. Meyer, a civil engineer from Cornell, is vice president
of estimating and a director of the firm.
Roland C. (RC) Massimino can also talk a game plan. He joined the
firm in 1988, is vice president of construction and operations, and
owns 25 percent of the business. He is the son of the basketball coach
at Villanova, and he played for his father in the 1985 championship
game when Villanova beat Georgetown by one point. He and
his wife recently moved to Princeton with four-year-old triplets and
But make no mistake. This is Chip Durell’s team, run his way. The
spirit is Chip’s, says Wolfe. "He’s a very strong leader. It is
his optimism, his positive attitude, his insistence on moving forward.
It is a company small enough to completely reflect his
In high school in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Chip and
his late brother Richard B. Durell were football stars. Chip was
first team running back, and Richard, two years younger, was All-State
first team defensive end. Chip had a football scholarship to the
of Richmond, where he played tailback and wide receiver. He also ran
track and won a state medal for the quarter mile. Richard followed
him to the University of Richmond but encountered severe health
(colitis and a rare form of diabetes, among others) and had to leave
After graduation Chip Durell spent one season as a wide receiver for
Philadelphia Eagles under coach Mike McCormick. "I went in as
a free agent and made the team, but I didn’t play as much as I
Durell maintains a serious training schedule despite business and
domestic chores, which include pre-dawn feedings of a newborn baby.
He swims a mile a day at an outside pool in the summer, and at
University’s pool in the winter. He runs three or four miles a day,
three days a week. In the summer he plays tennis and in the winter
takes some tennis lessons. He does not do weights ("they add too
much bulk and stiffness"), and he does not play golf.
After he left the Eagles in 1972, he went to work for his father’s
firm, continuing a tradition (according to the company history) that
dates from 1820, when William Durell was a carpenter in New Jersey.
Charles Durell founded the first company in 1891. His son, Edward
Clifford Durell Sr., (Chip’s grandfather) graduated from Williamson
Trade School (an eminent institution for future builders in Delaware
County, Pennsylvania) and joined the Carpenters’ Company of
a historical society with the exclusivity of an old-style country
club; it governs the historic Carpenters’ Hall building.
Edward Clifford Durell Jr. (Chip’s father) went to Lafayette College
and joined the firm in 1935, when the name changed to Edward Clifford
Durell & Son. According to company documents, "The firm was the
premier builder for the City of Philadelphia and expanded into the
Chip Durell and his brother Richard were the third generation of the
Durell family to be members of the Carpenters’ Company, and until
1978 they worked with their father. "My father used to say, `One
bad job is worth 100 good ones.’ That meant," says Durell,
do quality work, even at the cost of losing your profit, to make sure
a job is perfect, to maintain your name and reputation. That’s why
we don’t bid too much work; we negotiate 90 percent of our work."
Durell turned his relationship with Eagles owner Leonard Tose into
a three year contract for stadium skyboxes. In 1978 he bought a 17th
century farmhouse in New Hope. Burgess Lea, now a 40-acre estate,
was granted to the original owners by William Penn, and the Durells
represent only the third family to have owned it. The building is
on the National Historic Register. "You have to duck once or
he admits, "but it’s worth the duck, let me tell you — for
the quality of the house, the beauty, the smell, the odor from the
fireplace. It’s 300 years old. It’s built up great character. You
can’t get 300 year-old character out of aluminum studs and aluminum
Also in 1978, Edward Sr. handed off the firm to his sons, avoiding
what most say is the major hazard for family-owned construction
failure to transfer power. He retired and moved to St. Michael’s on
Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Chip Durell’s first child, Lauren Alexis, was born in 1983. Two years
later Edward C. Durell IV ("Quartie") was born; both are Hun
It hit Chip Durell hard when his brother was fatally injured in a
car accident in 1983. And his father died just this fall. When you
ask who he turns to in moments of crisis, he says, "Myself. I
pretty much turn to myself."
By the early ’80s Durell had started working at Princeton University.
In 1994 it moved its headquarters to Beatty House on Vandeventer
built in 1780 and now owned by the Princeton Historical Society.
Now Durell is in temporary space at 230 Nassau Street. The antiques
in his office/conference room include a grandfather clock and an
carving of an cigar store Indian. On one wall are framed pictures
of three Durell generations — grandfather, father, and his late
brother — together with the certificates of their membership in
Carpenter’s Hall, the prestigious trade association that dates from
Philadelphia’s colonial days. High, near the ceiling, large framed
certificates flank two black-and-white portraits of a beautiful woman,
who turns out to be his wife Kimberely. A color picture of her at
the beach, plus a snap of their six-week-old daughter Kelley Lynn,
lean against the window.
Durell tried to buy 12 Stockton Street, recently vacated by the
School Admission Test Board. Coincidentally, that is the temporary
home of Princeton Borough’s government, and Durell is the "owner’s
rep" for the Borough Hall renovation. He is careful to point out
that he is not the general contractor. "We are not running
says Durell, disavowing the various problems that the job has had.
His efforts to buy 12 Stockton got mired down in a zoning battle.
Residents didn’t want the historical area zoned for offices. "Now
we are looking at historical properties between here and
If living in an antique house is esthetically pleasing, having an
office in a historic house also works as a silent advertisement for
a construction firm that seeks to rehab other old buildings. The
of a well-used building also conveys a certain prestige that plays
particularly well in the Princeton market, where showy is bad and
old is good. "The furniture we have, and the family like we like
to be, need a place with charm and character, with individuality,"
Most agree that Chip Durell himself is very charming, but that he
is also a character. You don’t want to be the subcontractor who didn’t
meet your deadline. "Delicacy is not his strong suit," says
an architect who has worked with him. But perhaps his most significant
trait is his rallying power.
In 1993 and 1994, probably the worst part of the building recession,
when developers and contractors were falling by the wayside, he had
to reorganize his company. As Durell recalls it, a Philadelphia client
defaulted on a major job, and other clients failed to pay in full.
He was in the middle of the Hillier-designed Luce library job for
Princeton Theological Seminary, and that project was behind schedule.
"We just liquidated, sized down, and kept going. We got
reincorporated in the state of New Jersey," says Durell. "Whatever
we got paid, we paid our subcontractors."
"He honored his contract," says Lansill of the seminary.
"Then he came in as a bidder to complete the job and we were
extremely pleased with that."
It wasn’t the only job that ever had problems, but because of the
legal reorganization it was the most public. "Every contractor
has had that experience," says Wolfe, the architect. "I know
for a fact that Chip has lost money on large jobs, and he bounces
Bouncing back may be, in fact, what Durell does best. "Always
there are difficult moments, jobs that have problems. But I’m a
says the former Eagles player. "If I lose a game or two, I bounce
back the next month. If I lose, I come back tomorrow and win. I never
lose sleep. That’s the way I am. I’m an athlete. You start with the
playback films. You gotta come back and win next Sunday. Every day
is a new day."
Princeton 08542. Chip Durell, owner. 609-683-0903; fax, 609-683-5488.
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