If you’ve spent any time in Huntington Beach, you’ve most likely driven by our combined D’Ambra Construction/CATS Tax Service office on Warner Ave., just west of Beach Blvd, or maybe seen one of our trucks driving around town with our company logo prominently displayed on the sides.
What you might not know is the long history our family shares with Huntington Beach.
Long before the resorts and skinny homes dominated the downtown area, the city was primarily looked upon as just another small surfer town – the nickname, ‘Tin Can Beach’ bandied about due to left over beer cans and bottle caps buried throughout the sand. With the Cold War at its peak, the Southern California aerospace industry exploded creating a huge demand for engineers and high level professionals; leading to one of the state’s largest housing booms in history. Much of the neighborhoods dominating Huntington Beach today were built during that time. This mass production cookie-cutter approach by these builders made famous by the eastern Levittown model led to a common problem – a problem requiring a solution that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would set Dennis D’Ambra’s future in motion.
In the 1960s, the majority of home design in Huntington Beach boasted small rooms, little closet and storage space, and poorly designed kitchen layouts, many with even smaller bathrooms leading to an overall cramped feeling. As families grew, the need for larger spaces and more rooms also grew.
During this time, Dennis was working primarily as a framer for a contractor building many of the homes throughout the first developed Admiralty and Davenport islands in the harbor. Upon realizing that he could do what his boss did, rather than be told what to do, in his classic entrepreneurial fashion, decided to strike out on his own.
From the living room of their two bedroom apartment in Westminster, Dennis and Kathy started D’Ambra Construction. With the help of Kathy’s brother, also a framer and future builder, they moved to Huntington Beach and began building some of the duplexes and fourplexes strewn throughout the area south of Adams and north of Atlanta, many of which are still standing today.
As their business grew, it began to diversify more into the residential side of building. In 1972, Dennis and Kathy, with their 3 year old son, Chris, moved to their new $42,000 home on Lawn Haven Drive in the newly built tract of upper Seacliff – a home purchased with a $2,500 down payment and huge monthly payments of $225.
As Dennis reminisces, “I had no idea how we were going to make the payments! We had to settle for that home because there was no way we could afford $65,000 for the homes backing the golf course.” After all, a single story addition averaged $7,000 complete with a simple second story addition less than $20,000.
It was out of their first home’s single car garage – D’Ambra Construction’s new official office – that the company began to grow dramatically, as homeowners and their growing families all around the city and surrounding areas discovered the need for more living space.
However, it became clear that their garage office, after much complaining by local neighbors of all the cars coming and going and taking up parking along the cul-de-sac, was not ideal. Dennis and Kathy bought an old house in Westminster along Westminster Blvd between Beach and Hazard, converting it into what became D’Ambra Construction’s main office for over twenty years. That office stands today as a trophy company.
Today, the local residential remodeling business is mostly fragmented, but in the late ‘70s and much of the ‘80s a friendly relationship among the few builders servicing the area existed. As president of the local Orange County Builders Association, Dennis would gather members at a local restaurant or member’s home once a month to meet and discuss their experiences, bouncing ideas off each other in a general show of comradery among competitors. It was during this collaborative experience, and the constant complaints by his fellow builders, where his entrepreneurial side reemerged and Kathy’s tax and accounting practice known today as CATS Tax Service – (Contractors Accounting and Tax Service) was formed.
CATS filled a gap. Many of these tradesmen realized, as they ventured out on their own, that the complexities of running their businesses from the payroll, accounting and tax-related issues were far more burdensome than actually running their day to day operations. Many were sole proprietors simply trying to do what they knew best for their clients, getting bogged down quickly when trying to deal with HR and payroll issues. Originally conceived as assistance for local contractors, Kathy’s business quickly expanded into a more general tax and accounting service company, growing into the thousands of clients her company services today.
This growth meant another office move! In the late 1980s, an empty commercial building located less than a block down the street from their long standing office on Westminster Blvd presented the perfect opportunity, becoming the combined companies’ new home for the next sixteen years.
In 2004, realizing that the primary market for D’Ambra Construction was Huntington Beach and South County, Dennis and Kathy purchased the lot on the corner of Warner Ave and Oak, just west of Beach Blvd, where they built their current office. From this location, Dennis still runs the construction business, focusing his time working with city planning departments and initial jobs planning, while his son, Chris, runs the field, and oversees project management from beginning to end.