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For Anthony Thompson, working over the weekends has paid off. Thompson, 41, is owner of St. Louis-based Kwame Building Group Inc., a provider of construction management, contract-claims management, estimating, scheduling and engineering services. The company was formed by Thompson in 1991, on a Saturday morning in his basement — where he initially ran the business while he was employed as an engineer at Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. Nearly a decade later, Kwame — which means “born on Saturday” in Dagbani, a language spoken in Ghana, Africa — is landing construction contracts throughout the Midwest and other U.S. regions.
The road to Kwame’s — and Thompson’s — success wasn’t a smooth one. In the early years of his company, he often had to revamp his business strategy due to the rapid growth and constant changes within the construction industry. Thompson also had another hurdle to overcome: the color barrier.
Thompson says some potential clients were initially reluctant to award contracts to a minority-owned business. “There were some clients who refused to do business with an African American-owned construction company regardless of your reputation,” he says. It took aggressive self-marketing and persistence to convince potential clients that his firm could do as good a job as a non-minority-owned business. Despite his best efforts, certain clients still avoided doing business with him, so instead he focused on those who would.
Thompson, who has an MBA in finance from Webster University in St. Louis and a Master of Science (MS) degree in civil engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, believes he had to create opportunities that weren’t there at that time. “The majority of our clients look to hire a firm with at least 20 years experience,” he says. “As a black-owned business, we didn’t have the same opportunities financially, politically and otherwise, then, that we do now.”
Now with about 80 employees, the construction company has multiple projects in the pipeline. One of the firm’s largest and most lucrative contracts is the ongoing expansion and redevelopment of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, where the company helped design and construct the terminal and develop a total project budget.
While Thompson’s business is flourishing, it’s not immune to the effects of a sluggish economy, joining scores of others affected by the September 11 terrorist strikes. Revenue projections for 2001 were lowered to approximately $7.2 million from roughly $10 million as a result of the incidents. However, Thompson, still armed with the tenacity that got him over the racial barrier, isn’t going to let something like a sluggish economy stop him from building.
Looking ahead, Thompson would like to see African Americans more involved, not only in starting their own businesses, but on the lending side as well. “As minority entrepreneurs, we are still largely dependent on banks, committees, and review boards in order to achieve and maintain our success,” he says. “We won’t truly be self-sufficient until we own the banks and actually sit on the boards and committees that determine the future of our businesses.”
Thompson practices what he preaches. More than half of
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