California Vibes in Virginia
DaFore LLC’s laid-back owners grow business, friendship
Los Angeles in the 1980s was a cultural hotbed, where skateboarding was a regional secret, surfing was ubiquitous and Jeff Davies and Dennis Forrest, the Owners of DaFore LLC (DaFore) were teenagers.
Today, DaFore is a 15-year-old company that specializes in drywall, metal studs, light gauge framing, acoustical ceilings, insulation, carpentry, doors, frames, hardware and other goods and services necessary for commercial renovations and new construction. The company is located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and has worked with many contractors in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia.
But in the 1980s, Jeff and Dennis were Californians in every sense of the word. “Yeah, we’re pretty laid back,” says Jeff. “I think ‘stereotypical Californian’ does us justice. We only wear long pants in the winter and always have a pair of flip flops handy,” says Dennis, laughing. “Yeah, closed-toe shoes are only for winter and working,” adds Jeff.
Virginia may be for lovers, but both owners admit that they left Southern California following “ex-wives and children.” Of course, the story of DaFore, and Jeff and Dennis’ nearly 40-year friendship, is not that simple.
Welcome to the Jungle
Jeff and Dennis have been friends since they were kids. They recall “raising hell” throughout Santa Clarita, a city north of Los Angeles. “We were true Californian party boys,” Dennis says. “Skating, surfing, riding BMX and dirt bikes. We built half-pipes in our backyards.”
“We had a lot of fun. We have great stories,” Jeff says. “But I don’t think we’re going to tell you!” adds Dennis, laughing. The pair remained close until after high school when their paths diverged. “California’s construction industry was booming in the late 1980s,” Dennis says. “I started in the cabinet-making industry right out of high school, and was in it until I was 30. Then, I branched into different fields.”
Meanwhile, Jeff joined the military. “When I was stationed in Oxnard, I also opened a cabinet shop with another buddy we grew up with back home. We were making cabinet doors and doing remodels on the weekend.” After five years, Jeff left the military and also entered construction, first as a cabinetmaker and then in mechanical, electrical, plumbing and flooring. “I took any job I could because I wanted to learn as much as I could,” he says.
Around 1993, Dennis and Jeff lost touch. “By that time, I had worked in steel, glasswork and even auto-body custom,” says Dennis, noting that “there’s not much we haven’t done.” Both had gotten married, had children, grown their skill sets in the trades and divorced their respective partners. In 1996, Dennis moved to the D.C. Metro area to be near his children. In 1999, Jeff moved to Virginia, also following his children.
“Our lives had taken eerily similar turns,” Dennis says. “But we weren’t talking to each other,” Jeff adds.
“I knew Dennis was out here (on the East Coast) somewhere, but I had no idea where, or what he was doing.”
That changed in 2000 when Dennis called Jeff out of the blue. “That call reignited our friendship,” Dennis says. They eventually met up, had a couple of beers and learned that their lives had taken similar journeys involving construction, divorces, children. “We picked up where we left off,” Dennis says.
At the time, Dennis was working for a drywall contractor in Virginia and Jeff was working in building maintenance. “I convinced him to come work near me,” Dennis says. Jeff moved to Virginia and started working in drywall. “We worked for separate companies and started picking up side projects,” Dennis says. “Soon, we realized that we should open a business together, so we put a plan together,” Jeff adds.
In 2004, they opened DaFore LLC, a name forged in friendship and the combination of their last names.
Jeff and Dennis will admit the first year was rough. “We had our day jobs at other contractors, our side jobs doing basic handyman work and our DaFore projects,” Jeff says. “We were committed to self-funding our business, so we worked hard.”
The hard work paid off. By the second year, Dennis and Jeff quit their day (and night) jobs and strategically focused on the commercial market. “We found that’s where the money and consistent work was,” Dennis says. “We also focused on growing our work with the federal government.”
Dennis adds, “We also started doing more LEED work. That’s our key differentiator.”
To the uninitiated, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building was designed and built in a manner that respects the environment and uses resources efficiently.
“We dove into projects when LEED was in its infancy,” Jeff says. “We jumped in while others stayed away from it. We grew with the program, giving us knowledge that not all contractors have.”
In 2005, they began work on the Oakton Library in Fairfax County, Virginia. “It was an enormously successful and interesting project,” Dennis says. Opened to the public on September 29, 2007, the Oakton Library is certified with a LEED Silver Rating, sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. The American Public Works Association (APWA) selected the building as its Project of the Year in 2008 for the Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., region.
Dennis explains that LEED can be demanding. “The Oakton Library was a great project to work on. Through it, and others, we gained an understanding of the administrative process of LEED certification. This means working with the suppliers to make sure the materials and raw materials meet LEED requirements,” Jeff adds. “There’s a lot of information you have to weed through. You have to work with someone who is well versed. And we are well-versed in LEED.”
Virginia Business with a California Twist
Even though the owners have lived on the East Coast for nearly a decade, DaFore has a decidedly Californian bent. “We are real, laid-back guys, which I think people notice,” Dennis says. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t serious.
We are very involved in the business. We run all of the projects that go through the company. And, we make sure that our work is top of the line. We don’t cut corners.”
Jeff agrees. “I would say we are loyal. We work for the same general contractors continuously. We work for the same people all of the time. They like our product, and they like our honesty.”
Today, DaFore has 78 employees. “We have 15 foremen and 63 multifaceted employees who are mechanics, carpenters and skilled craftsmen,” Dennis says. “We also work with another 70 subcontractors who we run continuously.” Jeff adds, “We work hard to make sure our people stayed employed. Even in hard times, we did the moral thing and put our guys first.”
Treating people right is a core tenet of DaFore. “I want to be treated nicely and with respect, so I treat others that way,” Dennis says. “That’s why we get along so well. We care about being ethical; we start something and finish it. And, we work with the least impact on anyone else.
We come in, do our jobs and leave the site immaculate.”
Jeff agrees that simple respect is foundational, in work and in life. While the two men have watched their company grow dramatically, they still know that simple values provide a valuable compass. And, as Jeff aptly states, “At the end of the day, we’re just two California dudes in flip flops and shorts.”