Building foundations: embracing challenges and uncertainty to create a company

Connie Dohn portrait
Connie Dohn, co-founder of Dohn Construction, stands for a portrait outside of one of her company’s building sites downtown Fort Collins.

When Connie Dohn graduated from the College of Business, her life was already beginning to transform. She had taken charge of her education and grown from a waitress unsure how to build job skills to an assistant general manager of a local restaurant, completing her course work along the way.

Crossing the stage at graduation, she was poised to tackle a career in the business world.

Dohn became a certified public accountant and went to work helping people across the business spectrum, getting a firsthand look into the ways successful companies operated.

“My favorite client was that small entrepreneur,” said Dohn, who would help them understand their business expenses and make sure they knew what they were getting themselves into.

A new direction

Ten years after she left CSU, Dohn and her husband decided to take an entrepreneurial leap of their own. With three young daughters at the time – and a fourth to follow – the couple took stock of where they were in their careers and decided to make a change.

“We were both at jobs where we didn’t have benefits, and we didn’t know how we were going to put our kids through college and save for retirement.”

Her husband suggested they start their own contracting company, building off his construction experience and her business skills.

“I was nervous; you go from two nice salaries to the potential of none.”

They decided to give it a shot, founding Dohn Construction in 1992.

“Owning your own business, people think you don’t have to work as hard, but you have to work a lot harder.”

Dohn Construction's Uncommon
Uncommon, Dohn Construction's recently completed 180,000 square-foot, mixed-use apartment building in Old Town Fort Collins.

“It was just going to be this little thing, and I was going to keep my job,” said Dohn. “But it just grew way too quickly, so I had to quit and take a big risk.”

The pair operated the company out of their house, with Dohn working from home to cut child care expenses.

“I like to say I ran the business of the business, and my husband ran the construction side of it,” said Dohn.

Starting early in the morning and working late at night to move the company forward meant long hours. It also afforded her the opportunity to spend time with her kids during the day, taking them to sports practice and being involved in school activities.

“It gave me a lot of flexibility.”

Changing her community

Developing her skills since graduating from CSU, Dohn is now seeing the impact of her and her husband’s company all across Fort Collins. After a competitive bid process, Dohn Construction even did work at CSU, completing the Rockwell Hall expansion for the College of Business in 2010 and renovating several campus dorms.

“One of the things that’s really cool is you get to see all these projects, and I can drive through town and say, ‘Oh, we built that and we built that,’” said Dohn.

“That’s kind of unique. It’s fun being part of that whole process.”

However, as a woman working in an industry that’s more than 90 percent male, Dohn was presented with some challenges.

She’s faced derisive subcontractors and those who wrote her off as riding the coattails of her husband’s success. Sometimes Dohn would have to suppress the desire to share a snide rebuttal.

Instead, she displayed her diploma proudly above her desk, secure in the role she played as the company’s co-founder, and let people know, “I’m not just the wife that does the books. I am a CPA.”

“I actually have skill sets, and I always had to interject that into the conversation,” said Dohn.

“You have to believe in yourself, and you have to have confidence to be able to stand up. … I’ve gained that respect through the years, and it took time to get there.”

Because of her experiences, Dohn has worked to make her and her husband’s company a positive working environment for women wanting to chart their own careers in the construction industry.

Women make up more than 20 percent of Dohn Construction’s staff – including leadership roles – more than double the national average of the construction industry.

“One of our senior project managers is female, and she is one of our top producers,” said Dohn.

“I think that women sort of bring a softer side to construction, but they have to stand firm or they’re not going to make it,” she said. “It’s a hard profession to be in.”

She’s found the soft skills people bring into the company to be invaluable, with technical training being much easier to teach.

“Knowing how to treat people right, and respecting people, that will take you further.”