Dave Pray smiling for the camera

Anne Montague works to preserve an often overlooked corner of American history before it’s too late.

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

Dave Pray started Pray Construction in 1974 and, over the course of 25 years, grew it from a small residential construction company to a titan in regional commercial construction and a competitor on the national stage. In his years at Pray Construction he completed projects in 19 states totaling more than $500 million. He sold that company in 2005 and started on his second career: founder and principal at PrayWorks, a company that represents business owners as they work on complicated construction projects. We sat down with Pray recently to talk about what it means to do that kind of work and how he came to be doing it.

» I was always commercially driven, meaning I was always interested in taking care of myself. I worked as early as I was able to work—you had to get a work permit in New York state and I got someone to hedge that for me so I could get work when I was 14. So I worked every summer and I liked that.

» I grew up in upstate New York and came to West Virginia because my wife is a West Virginian. I was going to (New York University) film school in 1971 and was totally involved in that world, but then we had the opportunity to move to West Virginia and live on a farm for a year. So at the wise old age of 20, I thought, “You can’t make films if you don’t have any life experience,” and we came.

» While I was here I had to earn money, so I went to work as a construction worker on a housing project. I was a New York kid, and there was this cultural difference—which was reflected by me opening my mouth a lot and saying, “Why are you doing it like that?” And whether because that behavior was found as humorous or whatever, the project superintendent continued to let me learn more things and apply that mindset. So I became an apprentice carpenter, carpenter, superintendent. And I just became intrigued with building things.

» Entrepreneurs are so good at doing the “ready, fire, aim” thing, so I like to think we (at PrayWorks) provide a dose of reality. It’s not about slowing them down but while they’re busy doing their thing we add a little bit more context, so they don’t look back at the conclusion of a project saying, “If I’d known it was going to cost that much I wouldn’t have done it.”

» There was zero grand plan. I know there are people who are cut like that, where they set these goals and do all the work in order to get there, but I believe there’s a whole group of people like me who just get involved in interesting situations, realize when they’re in an interesting situation, and take advantage of it.

» There’s a good dose of luck too. Some of these things can go one way or the other, but who knows which one?

» On these projects I work on, the trusted advisers traditionally come from the world of architecture or design builders. And certainly I work with architects and design builders and I respect them and like them and they do good work, but they all have a special interest which from time to time could be in conflict with the owner’s goals.

» I like getting involved in all these different organizations and learning what they do. There’s a living vicariously component to it, when they’re doing some exciting project and you’re along for the ride. It’s not dull.

» I definitely subscribe to a go-slow-to-go-fast methodology. I’d much rather be thoughtfully realistic with the project in advance of going into construction. Hopefully construction is an afterthought to a well-conceived planning process.

» My life now, it’s not completely different from when I was the owner of the other company, for sure. But there are some big differences. It used to be, at Pray Construction Company, that when I would get work I could say, “OK, do good work, go,” and I’d have the human resources to implement it. Now I’m looking at myself in the mirror saying, “You better go after it.”

Interviewed by Shay Maunz