James Estes, founder of the Quad-City construction company that bears his name, was a can-do entrepreneur who once remarked that he had "chosen not to participate" in the severe economic downturn of the 1980s.
That story, recalled by Kent Pilcher, nephew and current president of Estes Construction, speaks to Estes' determination to persevere through hard times and make a success of the company he founded in 1970 with money he had saved.
"Jim's mindset was that he was going to figure out a way to grow," Pilcher said.
Estes, of Pleasant Valley, died Tuesday.
In addition to powering through hard times, Estes believed in downtown Davenport, said Cal Werner, a Davenport attorney and Estes' longtime golfing friend.
Werner said he admired Estes' "bucking the trend of businesses leaving the downtown" when he decided to locate his company headquarters in the top floor of the historic Redstone building at 2nd and Main streets, where it remains today.
Estes' signature project, which became a showcase for the company, was the construction of the Quad-City Times building at 4th Street and East River Drive that opened in January 1990.
"That was the first large project the company did, and it launched us as being one of the larger construction companies," Pilcher said.
Not only was it large, but it involved the redevelopment "of a really bad site," the location of a former factory that had to be removed along with the soil underneath because it contained pollutants.
Other projects included the large screen theater at the Putnam Museum that opened as an IMAX, and the Friendly House, 1221 N. Myrtle St.
Estes' wife, Lori, served on the boards of both the Putnam and Friendly House; it was she, Pilcher said, who was the joiner of boards and the doer of community projects.
James Estes was involved in industry associations, helping found the local chapter of the Association of General Contractors and serving as the chairman of the Master Builders of Iowa in 1997, Pilcher said.
Werner recalls Estes as quiet.
"He didn't say much," Werner said, "but when he spoke, you wanted to be sure and hear it."
Estes also was a stickler for quality and a man of integrity and truth-telling, said Ralph Gibson, owner of Adel Wholesalers and another golf friend.
"He demanded a lot, but he never asked for more than he was willing to give himself," said Gibson, who added that Estes also was an advocate for women in business.
"He was respected and respectful," Werner said. "He was an old-school kind of guy in the right sense of the word."
Davenport attorney Dana Waterman, another golf friend, said Estes "was always quick to recognize when somebody needed help or might need encouragement and just quietly stepped in to do something."
Waterman recalled a time he was scheduled for a surgery with a fairly long recovery period, and Estes sent him two books.
"That spoke volumes about how he thought about people and friends and life," Waterman said.
Estes was born in Davenport and grew up in Bettendorf. He was a member of the first graduating class of Bettendorf High School, Pilcher said.
He attended the University of Iowa but didn't graduate.
"He was a pretty impatient guy," Pilcher said.
He wanted to get on with life, so he moved to Florida where he was employed in insurance, but soon returned to the Quad-Cities where he worked for a small commercial construction company.
When that firm closed, he decided to strike out on his own, establishing the company in August 1970, meaning that Estes is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, Pilcher noted.
In the beginning, Jim ran the company, and Lori, his soon-to-be-wife who worked full time as an accountant for a life insurance company, did the books and payroll "at night on a card table," Pilcher said.
After their marriage, she joined the company full time and she and her husband were a true husband-wife team, Pilcher said. She died in 2016.
"He and Lori were a wonderful couple and a great role model, particularly in how they worked side by side in business together," Waterman said. "They were complementary."
Estes' hobbies included golf — Werner witnessed his hole-in-one at the Davenport Country Club — as well as reading, fishing and bowling.
Jim and Lori did not have children, so their succession plan was with Pilcher, who bought the company in 2004.
Since then Pilcher has expanded it by acquiring other companies, including four construction businesses and an architecture firm. With nine offices in four states, the company employs about 400 people. A current project is The Summit in Bettendorf.
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