One of the true pleasures of studying and chronicling the careers of highly successful, self-made business people is enjoying the sheer unusualness of many of their stories.
Ideas and undertakings that would never occur to the average person seem almost commonplace for those who strive to make their mark in business.
Take Julie Dean. She runs a large custom welding firm, employing 27 skilled workers and utilizing massive and sophisticated ultratechnology equipment. Her firm, J&T Welding, Inc., is situated on 100 acres in Jeannette, a sleepy little burg west of Greensburg in Westmoreland County. J&T makes almost anything a customer wants, from mining cars to anchor bolts to structural members.
So what's the big deal about Julie Dean? Well, for starters, she was born in 1947 in Nicaragua -- not one of the world's great industrial centers. She left Central America 34 years ago and has been working in a variety of steel fabricating and welding jobs ever since -- learning by doing as well as through formal training and education.
"I left my homeland 34 years ago because I met a wonderful man," Dean says. "We were married and we worked together. We traveled, we learned this business. But most important, through it all, he is the best man I've ever known, and he has always been my best friend. That is a major part of our success -- the support we've always given one another."
After all those years of working at all kinds of jobs for all kinds of companies in many parts of the world, Dean says, "I decided I wanted something for myself. I love this work. I find it fascinating and demanding. I wanted to gain the benefits of all my enthusiasm and effort -- I wanted to be the owner."
Woman of steel
Julie and husband Rockie Dean moved to Jeannette 18 years ago and built a house on one acre of land, There, Julie founded the business that would eventually grow to cover an adjacent 99 acres.
Jeannette was a good location, she says, because it was near Pittsburgh but was without the urban clutter and confusion. In addition, she notes, land was inexpensive, the town was small and safe, and the semi-industrial character of that part of Westmoreland County provided a generous labor pool.
Says Dean of her chosen career path: "I'm the boss. I run the place. I work two shifts if I'm not careful."
Although she's the head honcho, Dean says, it's a family business. Her husband works as a supervisor and is a key employee. The couple's son, Jerry, is a skilled technician who specializes in operating a $500,000 cutting machine, said to be the only one of its type in Pennsylvania.
The couple also has a daughter who is in college but who fills in at the company when she's on break.
Honesty before all else
Asked about the reasons for her success, Dean is unequivocal.
"Honesty is everything," she says. "You must be honest, first, last and always. I always tell customers, 'We're expensive, but we're excellent.' And you know, I'm not really joking when I say that.
"Other than that, it's been a matter of just working hard and persevering and always trying to make the proper connections. And, of course, I've been very fortunate to have an excellent relationship with my bank -- to get the lines of credit and all the other financial moves we've needed to grow as we have."
But a good banking relationship isn't the only one she credits for her company's success.
"Besides being blessed with a wonderful husband and family -- as I've already mentioned -- I also owe a lot of credit and sincere gratitude to two people," she is quick to point out. "My dear friend and associate Barbara Fisher taught me what I needed to do to get business with the Army Corps of Engineers. This was after years of trying on my own without success. That business relationship was a real turning point in our growth.
"Finally, a wonderful man named Richard Gilman joined us as an engineer about seven years ago," she adds. "I can't say enough about Richard -- what expertise he's brought to the company and what all he's permitted us to accomplish." How to reach: Julie Dean, J&T Welding Inc., (724) 527-5317, or by e-mail at JTWeld@helicon.net.
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.