He wanted to be as far from the family business as possible; now, he runs it
‘I love the idea of growing stuff’
Dave Jersen never planned to become CEO of the construction company his dad started almost 35 years ago in the basement of the family home. His professional and personal life led him to the place where he was meant to be.
Your dad, John, left General Electric’s real estate and construction division in 1983 to start his own company. Why? He wanted to work for himself. Jersen Industries was born in our basement in Glenville. My mom helped out with billing. He had a small crew and started doing small projects. The first couple years, probably averaged $2 million in revenue a year. He then moved out of the basement, bought this parcel [in Waterford] which is roughly 25 acres and developed Hudson Shores Industrial Park.
What are some of your earliest memories of his construction business? He had built the Girls Club in Schenectady. I was probably 11 or 12 years old. There was a wide-open concrete slab floor for the gym. He let my friend, Bob, and I skateboard around and throw a football while he checked out the job.
Why did you transfer out of Clarkson University after your first semester? I really liked math, science and engineering. It was desolate, cold and very male dominated. It didn’t appeal to me as much as I thought it would. I wound up transferring to Syracuse.
Did you go to college intending on getting into the construction business? No. I had every intention of staying as far away from it as I could.
Why? Back then I thought there may have been a stigma working construction, in addition to working for my father and staying home. I felt like I had to check out other opportunities and prove to myself I could make it in the world without relying on my family.
After graduating you worked for a year at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Virginia, and then at a construction company in Burlington, Vermont. Why did you leave that job? I kind of grew restless. I was questioning whether I wanted to do that the rest of my life and pursued an early career change into stock trading. I was hired as a trader at Knight Trading Group, the biggest trader on the Nasdaq.
What did you learn from that experience? Quite a bit. You don’t have to be smart to make a lot of money. There were a lot of idiots I worked with who made more than you could ever imagine. You don’t have to be smart to lose it, either. A lot of people who make a lot of money don’t seem to be fiscally responsible.
How did you not get sucked into that? I think I’ve always been pretty grounded. I owe that to my parents. I’m living this life and I’m watching these other people live this life but at the same time saying, “This isn’t reality, this can’t last.”
Why did you leave New York City in 2003? I realized after being down there it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When I graduated college, the last thing on my mind was living here, but then being in D.C. and then Burlington and New York City, we realized how good we had it here and what a great upbringing we both had. Another reason: I was diagnosed with adult onset hydrocephalus when I was 31. You die from it unless you have brain surgery. The guy who did the surgery was also a Niskayuna graduate. I was going through that while Traci was pregnant. We moved back a month after our daughter was born, knowing we wanted to raise a family here.
Did you come back knowing you would be working with your dad and older brother, Ken? I did. We had discussed our desire to move back when we found out Traci was pregnant.
You say “lightning finally struck.” What do you mean? I love the idea of growing stuff. I love the idea of managing people. I have friends who manage their own business and I was always envious of the sense of accomplishment they always had. You don’t have that sense of accomplishment trading stocks.
How have your responsibilities changed since joining the company? My dad was always the president and, as his confidence in Ken and I grew, his involvement ebbed. My father was never big on direct praise to anybody. My mother would say, “You should have heard him. We were out to dinner with friends and he was saying how proud he was and how comfortable he was with you guys.” He would never tell us that face-to-face but I think as that level of comfort grew, he was able to step back. We had a buyout plan and followed that through. He’s retired now in Hilton Head.
What’s your biggest frustration as the owner of a construction business in upstate New York? Trying to comply with rules and regulations especially concerning municipal work and [minority- and women-owned business] requirements. It’s kind of insulting they think there needs to be a law because they think a good segment of the population is racist or sexist. It’s frustrating.
Where do you see Jersen Construction in five or 10 years as far as size, type of projects and geographic reach? We’re pretty comfortable where we are. I think we are always looking to grow and at least keep up with inflation, try to grow by at least 3 to 5 percent a year. If you’re not doing that, you are basically shrinking. I really don’t have a desire to expand geographically or open regional offices. We’re familiar with our community. We’re entrenched in it.
What are the chances your daughter, Lilli, will want to get into the business? I don’t know. She puts my hard hat on every time she gets into the car so maybe that’s a sign.
Would you want her to pursue it I would never push her into it but if she had the desire that would be great. She’s kind of a born leader. If she liked the business, if she likes the construction industry, I would have no issues with it. Good for her.
Company: Jersen Construction Group
Financials: Annual revenues about $70 million; 80 to 130 employees, depending on workload
Grew up: Niskayuna
Lives: Saratoga Springs
Family: Wife, Traci; daughter, Lilli, 13
Education: Bachelor’s in engineering, Syracuse University, 1994
Michael DeMasi covers real estate, construction, retail and hospitality.