Building A Reputation

Bidding for construction projects in Philadelphia is a competitive and time-consuming process for local contractors. But Michael Barnes, owner of RPM Contractors, is on the fast track. His award-winning approach to the construction business is garnering lucrative contracts from the city of brotherly love.

Barnes was awarded the Excellence in Construction award in December 2004 by the African American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The prestigious award capped off a year chock full of awards, including the Outstanding Demolition Contractors Award and the Minority Enterprise Development Week Committee’s 2004 Public Works Award.

After spending nearly 20 years working for Tony DePaul and Sons Construction Co. in Philadelphia, Barnes started RPM in February 2002 and revenues for the growing construction firm stood at $1.9 million last year. “I was frustrated working for someone else,” says Barnes, who wanted to experience the control of implementing his own ideas and business strategies. “I saw that there were countless opportunities for a black-owned construction company in Pennsylvania–particularly in the Philadelphia area–and I decided to go for it.”

Having no experience with managing his own business, Barnes joined the African American Chamber of Commerce Emerging Contractors program in early 2004. Among other things, the program offers management training, resources for finding access to capital, and guidance to minority-owned businesses in Philadelphia. When Barnes graduated from the program last year, he received the award for Outstanding Field Exercise. The award recognizes entrepreneurs who demonstrate excellence and expertise while working on projects in the field.

Barnes, 40, used about $50,000 in personal savings to start RPM and managed to secure a number of small projects. “Fortunately, after 20 years in the construction business, I was able to call on business contacts and get small pilot projects,” recalls Barnes, who is married with two children. Initially, the company only provided milling and paving services on highways, roadways, and parking lots. Working out of his home in the early stages, Barnes was able to expand his business to include demolition services. Eventually, he rented office space from his former employer.

A turning point for RPM came last year when Barnes partnered with Gracie Corp., a demolition company in New Jersey, to win a $700,000 contract with the city of Philadelphia for several road and demolition projects. Securing the project enabled Barnes to purchase additional equipment and increase his staff. Currently, RPM employs about 35 employees and a number of outside subcontractors and vendors.

“The contract with [Philadelphia] and a few others allowed me to increase my bonding capacity and helped me expand my business,” says Barnes, who was able to guarantee the financial performance of his contract work. In less than a year, the bonding capacity for RPM increased from $100,000 to $400,000.

“RPM does excellent work,” says Tom Woods, a Philadelphia Regional Port Authority construction engineer who worked on at least two projects with RPM. “They are easy to work with, and Barnes always checks to see that his team does a good job and high quality work.”

Barnes says keeping