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Bill the Builder

August 10th, 2016 //

The ripple on the surface was subtle. Then the bubblers kicked in, the
jets followed, and the pool’s water began to crest.

Inflatable rafts drifted past rubber balls of all sizes, bobbing throughout the therapeutic pool. Across the way, the tranquil waters of the wheelchair- accessible lap pool seemed to beg for similar commotion. Only minutes later, children populated the room and made that a reality.

On this summer day, the Kappen Aquatic Center at the Overbrook School for the Blind – a palatial beacon of sensory education, for disabled students in grades kindergarten through 12th – was buzzing, and William S. Cumby, Jr. was smiling.

“This almost never happened,” said Cumby, in a reflective manner.

Tucked away in a picturesque section of West Philadelphia, Kappen became the first aquatic center in the nation to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification. Kappen uses a humidity-control system, motion-sensor lighting and other elements that make it 43 percent more energy efficient than comparable aquatic centers.

With the help of Overbrook School for the Blind’s administration, Cumby, EMBA ’89, made that possible.

His company, family-owned and Philadelphia-area-based W.S. Cumby, Inc., turned its office in Springfield, Pa., into the region’s first LEED-certified building. That was more than 10 years ago. Ever since, the construction management and general contracting professional has developed a reputation as a local leader of the LEED movement, with Cumby’s company prescribing to green building by erecting Kappen and other environmentally responsible structures just like it.

A pioneer in that realm, Cumby plunged into another fresh endeavor, when he enrolled in the Executive Master’s of Business Administration program at Temple University’s School of Business and Management. He was part of the third graduating class in an EMBA program that was just taking off.

Like his EMBA, Cumby said he couldn’t have predicted how integral LEED certification would be to his future professional undertakings.

“I had no clue how big (LEED) would be, but we believed in the concept,” Cumby said recently, on a visit to Overbrook School for the  Blind.

Cumby has overseen hundreds of projects in his 33 years in the

construction  industry.  For  example, his company built the skybox suites at Veterans  Stadium,  formerly  the  home of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies;  Cookie’s

Monster Land, a newly opened attraction   at Sesame Place in Langhorne,  Pa.; interactive park KidZooU, at  the Philadelphia Zoo; and so many more.

The story of Cumby’s present-day office space, the first LEED-certified building in the region, tumbles into a conversation about his first office space: the basement of his home in Swarthmore,  Pa.

It was there, in 1981, that Cumby and his father, the late William Sr., pursued self-employment.

The elder Cumby, who studied engineering at  Temple,  started  his career as an estimator for McCloskey & Co. Builders in Philadelphia. “He learned from the ground up,” William

Jr. said, before spending 25 years with P. Agnes Inc., a construction management company, where “he earned a strong reputation  in  the industry.”

Eventually, construction attracted William Jr., who was working as a teacher in the nearby Wallingford Swarthmore School District and running an ice cream shop in Avalon,  N.J.

“We closed at 11, a customer would come in at 11:30 looking for ice cream and we’d do whatever it took to please the customer,” Cumby said. “That’s when I knew I was an entrepreneur at heart.”

Cumby  then  started  buying  shells and renovating them, turning unsightly structures into something operational. Later,  he’d  work  as  a  project  manager at P. Agnes. Two years later, he and

his father started W.S. Cumby & Son. With  a  father-son  team  conducting the estimating and project managing, respectively, Cumby’s mother,  Jane, handled bookkeeping and his cousin, Bonnie  Mossor,  managed  the phones.

“We were a four-person operation and our work days never ended,” Cumby said, grinning. “We’d go to dinner, then go back downstairs and go to work again.”

Tapping into his father’s resources, Cumby’s company early on did a lot of municipal work for the City of Philadelphia. In 1986, they secured a contract with the city,  which  owned

Veterans Stadium, to build the skyboxes on the 16-year-old South Philadelphia sports venue. A complicated job requiring cranes and summer construction through the peak of baseball season might have deterred other new outfits.

“Not too many five-year-old companies had the expertise we had, thanks to my dad,” Cumby said.

Watching the Vet’s demolition in 2003 was humbling, he said.

“That’s when you know you’re getting old, when your work ends up in the landfill,” the 65-year-old Cumby said with a big smile.

As his family business expanded, Cumby  realized  he’d  need  to  expand his business education along with it. In

1987, Cumby turned to Temple’s EMBA program,  which  was  newly  formed  at the time. The convenience of a program

compacted into two years was particularly attractive,  he said.

“I had three children (sons Bill III and Adam, and daughter Abby) by then, and my wife (Rena) was in architecture school at night,” he said. “It was a workout,

in hindsight, but it was a phenomenal experience.  Analytics,  return  on investment – you think it’s common sense, but then you learn it and you realize why you need it to run your business.”

Cumby’s career only blossomed after he  attained  his  EMBA.  His  company was contracted by Today’s Man, and oversaw the construction of the clothing chain’s stores for nearly a decade. They also procured a contract with NFL

Films to build its offices and production headquarters, a $45 million compound in Mount Laurel, N.J. In 1997, Cumby was elected Mayor of Swarthmore, Pa., adding another line to his burgeoning resume.

The green movement, and W.S. Cumby’s place in it, only solidified Cumby’s legacy. In 2002, a client at the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, in Bryn Mawr, Pa., had asked Cumby to explore green building options. Cumby understood the  request.

He’s not sure others would have.

“At the time, if you said ‘green building,’ people might have thought you were painting a building green. It just wasn’t

in the vocabulary,” Cumby said. “Nobody knew it, and it’s hard to imagine that now because it’s so mainstream.”

With the identification of green building as  a  next-generation  concept,  Cumby made LEED certification for his project managers and estimators a prerequisite

for employment. As other companies scrambled for similarly skilled employees to meet clients’ demands, Cumby’s crew had a headstart.

When it came to working with Daly+Jalboot Architects on the design plans for the Kappen Aquatic Center, Cumby asked Overbrook School for  the Blind business manager Joseph Van Bernum – a Fox alumnus – if he had considered LEED certification. The brief chit-chat spawned a detailed conversation about energy-saving measures for an educational structure that’s unlike any other in the  country.

“The Kappen Aquatic Center parallels the mission of the school to enhance and enrich our students’ lives,” said Damaris Shiavi Schaeflein, the aquatic center coordinator at Overbrook School for the Blind. “We can’t thank Mr. Cumby enough for his role in the cutting-edge design of this building.”

Said Matthew Wittemann, the business development manager at W.S. Cumby: “With Bill, you’re a person and a part of something, and not just a number like I  was at a 1,000-person engineering firm. It’s family here.”

Just like 33 years ago, in his basement in Swarthmore.