By Ed Finkel
Omar Shareef founded his construction company with $100, a willingness to work hard, and a growing web of connections. “This industry is not an easy industry,” Shareef, the founder and president of the African American Contractors Association, told a classroom full of women and people of color who have begun to–or would like to–follow in his footsteps. “It’s not a cakewalk. But if you work hard, you’re going to see the fruits of your labor.”
The 25 or so participants in the free six-week class, taught through the Turner School of Construction Management (part of Turner Construction Company), in partnership with the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, met at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, where they learned a variety of construction-related subjects, ranging from estimating, to risk management, to marketing strategies.
In addition to Turner personnel, the students, who graduated on November 28, heard from guest speakers like Shareef and Rick Ringold of Ringold Financial Management, a certified public accounting firm that specializes in construction clients. Ringold schooled the students on one Tuesday evening about the types of business incorporations they might consider–sole proprietorship, S-corporation, C-corporation, or partnership–and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
“There’s a lot of things you have to think about as you grow,” Ringold said, citing not only how to legally incorporate but how and where to invest, how to track your costs, how and when to grow your staff, and when to pony up for a typically expensive-but very helpful-audited financial statement, which can help assure a lender that you are a good bet.
Roxanne Wolter, project engineer at Turner, then led the students through an exercise in blueprint reading and how to discern information from the symbols and other visual cues. Students had to answer questions like how many windows and doors a blueprint indicated and what materials walls were made out of. They also discussed different construction-related documents and what each contained.
In co-sponsoring the class, the University hopes to support economic development and women and minority-owned business growth in conjunction with upward revisions in hiring goals for both the campus and the University of Chicago Medicine, said Alyssa Berman-Cutler, director of community economic development initiatives for the Office of Civic Engagement and the Polsky Center.
“The class approached construction from the business side, things like how to do estimating so that your bid makes sense, how to market your business, how to do back-end bookkeeping,” she said. “These folks are small contractors who have the construction skills and want help to grow their businesses, but they haven’t had any formal training.” Turner, which has done similar classes nationwide since the 1960s and in the Chicago area since the 1980s, has partnered with the University of Chicago in the past, although not for several years, said Pamyla Fountain Brown, director of community and citizenship for the construction firm.
“It’s part of our company’s culture to want to be accountable to the communities in which we work, we build, we live,” she said. “I would love it if some of these businesses end up on our job site.” The entrepreneurial energy in the room inspires the Turner instructors, she added. “They’re coming at night, when they’ve probably been on a job site since 7 a.m.”
Students spent the fall learning everything from financial literacy, to legal issues, to the ins and outs of city contracting, Brown said. And they gained something else: “It’s a great network for everybody who participates in the class,” she said. “There’s some connecting of the dots that happens.”
A union-certified carpenter who wants to open a general contracting business, Debbie Hermann signed up to learn “the ins and outs,” do some networking, and plan her next moves. She knew about blueprint reading and marketing but has found the information about procurement and bidding to be “an eye-opener, in terms of what their time commitment is and how the process works,” she said.
For Shawn Marsh, a lifelong plumber who went into business for himself as SCM Plumbing about two and a half years ago, the class was conveniently located to his home base on the South Side in Morgan Park. “I’m hoping to find out how to secure contracts with bigger companies, what they’re looking for in the smaller subcontractors, and how to keep my I’s dotted and my T’s crossed in submitting the different bids,” he said.
Ray Almada of Reyco LLC, which provides ground-penetrating radar for the crane industry to ensure machines are being set up on solid ground, had similar goals. “It gives insight into what a general contractor is looking for out of a small company like mine, to do business with them,” he said. “They bring all that experience with them in teaching the classes, and it’s great that they share it the way they do. They’ll forget more stuff than we’ll ever know.”
In March of 2017, the University and the University of Chicago Medicine announced increased and expanded goals for diversity and local hiring on capital construction projects. Those included increasing participation of certified, minority-owned contracting firms from 25 percent to 35 percent, women-owned firms from 5 percent to 6 percent, and raising the proportion of on-site construction workers who live in the City of Chicago to 40 percent, from 30 percent at the University and 35 percent at the Medical Center. The partnership with Turner to sponsor this class is another way the University supports economic development, as well as women and minority-owned businesses.