Going Against the Grain

Newcomers to the B.E.100s prove it's not where you start but where you end up that matters

There’s no doubt about it: 2001 was a tough year for Americans, economically and emotionally. But for newcomers to the BE 100S list, tough times are nothing new. In fact, Ed Corley Automotive Group, Madison Research Corp., Thor Construction, and Golden Krust haven’t merely survived tough times, they’ve thrived despite them. And in this tough year they’ve broken through to join the ranks of the nation’s largest black-owned companies.

Building the future
Some people are born entrepreneurs. Others are made. And for a few, it takes a good, swift kick in the pants. Richard Copeland of Thor Construction Inc. (No. 89 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $31.2 million in sales) falls into the latter category. The CEO of the Minneapolis-based construction firm got his wake-up call in 1980 while working for his father’s trucking company. A dispute with the elder Copeland left him jobless. “He fired me,” laughs Copeland. “He marched me out of the office right in front of everyone.”

And it was poor timing. Copeland had just gotten married and he and his wife were expecting their first of five children. But days later, while driving past a road crew for the local electric company, Copeland had an idea. “I went to their offices and said, ‘Would you give me a chance?’” This time, Copeland’s timing was perfect. “They were way behind on a job. All I needed was a work certificate. I spent my last $50 on a certificate, and they gave me stacks of work orders. I worked from sunup to sundown,” he reminisces.

Copeland’s flash of an idea lit the spark for his construction company, which posted revenues of $31.2 million in 20014not too shabby for someone who started out with a rake, a shovel, and an old pickup truck. “People used to tease me and sing the Sanford and Son song when I drove by.” But that didn’t bother Copeland, now 46. While they laughed, he was busy building a firm that today has offices in Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. “Atlanta is a great market for African American businesses because a lot of the decision makers are open to your inclusion. In Las Vegas there are no [other] sophisticated [African American] contractors who can compete. And if you don’t get a foothold in the marketplace, there’s no accessibility to the mainstream. You’re just fighting over pennies.”

But to gain accessibility, Copeland says it’s important to team up with other firms to compete for large projects. Because of a relationship he cultivated with the regional director of the majority-owned Mortenson Construction, the two firms worked on a $7 million project. It went so well, they decided to team up on future projects and landed a $37 million contract to build the Minneapolis Convention Center. In 1985 Copeland bought his father’s trucking company, which had revenues totaling $9 million for 2001. (His father passed away last year.) Copeland’s largest solo contract to date was a $19 million award to build Army barracks at Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin

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