Tom and Gwenay Coniglio may have faced some trials when they began an interracial relationship, but their love may have been truly tested when they got married and went into business together. The couple entered the construction industry—a male-dominated field in which black women represent less than 1% of business owners.
“It’s tough,” says Gwenay, 36, who owns a majority stake in The Coniglio Co. and serves as its president. Her husband is the company’s vice president. “Because I’m a woman, people walk into our company and assume I’m the secretary.”
Yet, in spite of the many challenges, the couple has been happily married for six years, and their Cleveland-based firm is thriving—grossing $2 million in 2007 by specializing in general contracting and the installation of custom cabinetry for public- and private-sector clients. For 2008, with contracts currently in the pipeline and by offering their services outside of Cleveland, the couple projects reaching gross revenues between $6 million and $10 million.
The Coniglios met in 1995 when they were both employed at Cleveland-based Case Western Reserve University, helping oversee construction and maintenance projects. In 1994, Tom founded The Coniglio Co. as a part-time business. In early 1997, the couple decided to expand the business.
Gwenay restructured Tom’s original business plan—steering the company beyond typical office space contracts to higher-end projects within healthcare, education, and retail. The couple quit their jobs and operated the company full time, tapping $25,000 of their personal savings to cover startup costs.
Gwenay, who specializes in marketing, sales, planning, project evaluation, operations management, and human resources, assumed 51% ownership of the firm while Tom, 45, who manages the firm’s finances and oversees day-to-day operations in the field, maintained 49%. This structure gave the company dual minority status as an operation that is both female- and black-owned, allowing the partners to compete for set-aside government contracts. Tom adds, “Gwenay gets to have the final say in all our business decisions. It’s been really interesting watching her vision unfold.”
Within a year, the business generated $1 million in gross revenues, but when the Coniglios tried to develop it into a general contracting practice, they found themselves in a proverbial Catch-22. “We couldn’t bid on public or federal government projects as a general contractor without being bonded,” says Gwenay. Yet, the bonding agencies would not extend them the payment and performance bond they needed until they acquired a substantial work history. General contractors are required to have a payment and performance bond (a type of surety bond that provides the funds necessary to complete the terms of a contract if the general contractor defaults on the project) just to be eligible to bid on commercial projects.
The turning point came in 2005 when Gwenay completed a grueling yearlong application process for 8(a) certification by the SBA, thereby becoming more attractive to the bonding agencies.
Today, The Coniglio Co. is bonded for up to $6 million. The 25-employee enterprise recently completed a $700,000 renovation contract with Cleveland State University.
The Coniglios have defied the odds and built a