MED Week 2019: champions, legends and leaders
Every September, the business community in Portland comes together during Minority Enterprise Development Week to celebrate the accomplishments of local minority-owned businesses and the partners that support them. As part of this year's events on Sept. 24 and 25, the Business Diversity Institute handed out awards to honor local businesses, programs and individuals for outstanding industry efforts as well as their commitment to supporting local inclusion.
BDI Champion Award: HDR Inc.
When the team from Emerio Design wanted to start a quarterly forum series to help other firms in the building industry that have been acknowledged by the state's Certification Office for Business Inclusion and Diversity — or COBID — they knew exactly who to turn to for help.
Emerio, a surveying and civil and structural engineering firm, approached the Portland office of engineering and architecture firm HDR Inc. about co-sponsoring the forums. Earlier this week, the two firms held the first session of Coffee & Connect for about 20 people from firms designated as emerging small businesses and women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses by the state's COBID office.
This isn't the first time Emerio and the larger firm of HDR — winner of this year's MED Week Champion Award — have joined forces. The two have a track record of teaming up on projects, an approach that has allowed both firms to benefit.
HDR was founded in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1917. Today, the company has nearly 10,00 employees and more than 200 offices around the world, including five offices in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
These days, the firm handles a range of infrastructure work, with a main focus on public sector water and transportation engineering projects. But there are still some areas upon which HDR doesn't focus, such as surveying. By teaming with Emerio, HDR was able to tap the smaller firm's expertise in surveying. That gave Emerio, which currently has about 65 employees, an opportunity to get a foot in the door on projects for the Oregon Department of Transportation, which then provided opportunities for the firm to grow its civil engineering division, according to Shawn Mitchell, marketing lead for Emerio.
"Teaming with HDR has been a launching pad for us," Mitchell said. "Larger companies often don't give (smaller companies) much time; they don't have to. HDR consistently offered us opportunities, especially on large projects."
Andrew Johnson, an associate vice president who manages HDR's transportation division in Oregon and Southwest Washington, is quick to point out HDR has benefited equally from working with Emerio.
"I feel we've learned a good bit from them," Johnson said. "They've refined us to become better partners with (COBID and smaller) firms going forward."
One of the ways HDR helps smaller firms, for example, is related to the state COBID program. When HDR finds potential firms to partner with that aren't COBID-certified, HDR helps the smaller firm prepare financials and other paperwork needed to apply for the certification from the state.
"It can be a challenging thing," Johnson said. "We can play a role in helping them."
Applying for a COBID designation now could end up providing even bigger benefits for minority-owned engineering firms down the road, according to Johnson. A flood of state-driven transportation projects is expected to offer design and construction opportunities in the next five years or so. A lack of such work in recent years, however, meant many large firms that work in those areas have since left the state. That could open the door for minority-owned and other COBID firms.
"I think it's a great opportunity for disadvantaged business enterprises and other small businesses to start priming more work and investing in their own businesses," Johnson said. "I think there's going to be a great opportunity of prime (small firms) in the next few years."
BDI Minority Business Firm of the Year: Colas Construction
When Andrew Colas was studying business at the University of Oregon's Lundquist College of Business, his dream was to help his family's construction business become the most respected in the Portland area.
Now, with Colas and his siblings steering the future of the company, Portland-based Colas Construction is well on its way to achieving that goal.
The minority-owned company was founded by Andrew's father, Hermann, who migrated to the United States from Haiti. Even from the earliest days of Colas Construction, Hermann was driven to make sure his company was supporting and encouraging other minority-owned businesses.
"It's the overall philosophy of the company — as we grow, we bring others along with us," Colas, the company's president and CEO, said. "Since my father started the firm, his goal was always to make sure we were able to break down barriers to help other companies get opportunities."
The company currently employs between 75 and 85 people and has about a dozen Portland-area projects under way that represent the company's diverse range of work.
While affordable housing is "near and dear" to the company's heart, Colas Construction's portfolio also includes market-rate housing projects, as well as health care and K-12 work. However, it's the company's work in the Lloyd District that has made recent headlines.
When Colas Construction won the award to handle a major renovation at the Oregon Convention Center, the company's $27 million contract became the largest public contract ever awarded in Oregon to a minority-owned firm.
More recently, it was announced that 50% of work on the project had been awarded to subcontractors with COBID certifications, far exceeding the 30% goal that had been set by project owner Metro. Craig Stroud, executive director of the convention center, gives credit for that accomplishment to the strong relationships that Colas has established with local COBID firms, a group that includes emerging small businesses and minority-, women- and veteran-owned firms.
Andrew Colas is quick to give credit for success on the project to his brother, Alex, who runs the company's special projects division and is project manager for the convention center work.
"He's pretty much lived and breathed that project for the past 18 to 20 months," Colas said.
The company's family leadership ties also include Colas' sister, Aneshka Colas-Dickson, in the roles of CFO and vice president. "She really runs the show," Andrew Colas said
The company's success emerging as a leader among the city's top general contractors has been a deliberate, steady climb, according to Colas. The company carefully picked larger companies to partner with on past projects, but always kept focused on the longer-term goal.
"Our intention was always to grow, to be able to compete with the larger firms in town," Colas said. "We've always been focused on finding the right market segments for our business and the right clients. It's really important as you grow as a general contractor."
The company is setting an example for diversity and inclusion on projects that Colas hopes other general contractors will notice and begin to replicate.
"The work we do now, we're really looking to shape the industry and get some of the big firms out there to follow our example," Colas said.
He offers some tips for companies looking to move toward similar goals.
"You have to spend time and invest in the growth of relationships — that's the key," Colas said. "You have to build trust."
He also encourages owners and general contractors to move beyond the mindset that diversity and inclusion only apply to public projects.
"If you're a big company, it's about giving firms real opportunities to participate. Maybe it's not only the (public jobs) that have requirements. Doing it early on projects and often — and when it's not required — shows people you're really genuine about it"
BDI Leadership Award: Jan Mason
Jan Mason wasn't expecting the email that arrived alerting her that she had been chosen by the Business Diversity Institute as the recipient of the group's Leadership Award for 2019.
"I was actually quite surprised," Mason said. "It's a great honor and I have many people to thank who have helped me get to this place."
BDI selected Mason for the award in large part for her role as an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion — both in the integrated design firm of Mackenzie, where she serves as an associate principal and director of marketing, and in the architecture, engineering and construction community in Portland in general.
Supporting and promoting diversity, inclusion and equity has long been a passion for Mason, who is Filipino American.
"I'm very passionate about my own journey of diversity and equity and inclusion ... and about being able to help have conversations both within my organization and outside in the community," she said. "What I'm passionate about is seeing it be a first thought, rather than an after-thought."
Mason grew up around the building industry, the result of having a father who was a land surveyor. So pursuing a career in the industry made perfect sense.
"I was always around designers, engineers, architects who were friends of the family. I felt very fluent when it came to the (architects, engineering and construction) world. I've been around this industry all my life. So in my career, I feel I bring all of those relationships and all of the knowledge along the way of the many people who have helped lead me to where I am today."
She knew she had made the right career choice when she interviewed at Mackenzie 20 years ago. She met Rick Saito, one of the founders of the firm, which was originally called Mackenzie Saito and Associates.
"That was really exciting to me, that the owner of the company was a Japanese-American," Mason said. "That really said something to me about the kind of firm this is, where an Asian person like myself could thrive."
Having diversity as a part of the company's culture has created a supportive environment that Mason says has allowed her and other firm leaders to have honest and open conversations about the topics of equity and inclusion. Those discussions have led to the firm looking for new opportunities for partnering on projects as well as diversifying its in-house staff.
"We realized there are other circles, other networks out there that provide an opportunity to diversify the projects that we are engaged in and the work that we bring in," Mason said. "It's evolved over time to include the concept of corporate responsibility."
Mason also has found support for her advocacy from the Business Diversity Institute.
"It's through BDI ... that I've learned both as a volunteer speaking on topics relevant to my career as well as volunteering and having conversations with many of the BDI board members."
It was during one of those conversations, when Mason was looking for ways that Mackenzie could partner with BDI, that she and the organization's leaders came up with an idea to help a small COBID-certified firm in the building industry attend a prestigious business leadership class
Multnomah County has had money in its budget for a scholarship program to allow a local small business to attend the Minority Business Executive Program, an intensive one-week program offered through the University of Washington's Foster School of Business. Mason arranged to have Mackenzie help pay for up to $1,200 of costs associated with attending the program.
"One of the challenges we heard about this program is the students get the tuition paid, but the cost of travel expenses isn't included," Mason said. "We said we would pay for the lodging, the travel, the mileage, some of the meals that aren't included in the program, to help the business owner get the full benefit of the program without it being a burden to them and their emerging business. It ended up being a great public-private partnership opportunity."
BDI Construction Company of the Year: Zavala Corp.
Hugo Zavala is having a very good month.
At the beginning of September, Zavala received a Bravo Award from the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber for his work supporting and encouraging members of the local Latinx community. Then his Portland-based company, Zavala Corp., was named the 2019 MED Week Construction Company of the Year.
For Zavala, the recognition shows what can be accomplished with a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed. Since founding Zavala Corp, in 2008, he and a dedicated team of office and field employees have grown it into a company that now provides commercial concrete foundation work for projects being handled by some of the largest general contractors in the Portland-metro area.
Zavala can trace his desire to work in construction back to when he was a boy in Mexico, dreaming of being a house builder like his father. He tackled his first solo project, a water tank for his uncle, at the age of 12.
"It wasn't pretty, but it did hold water," Zavala said.
After migrating to the United States in 1992, he found a job working at a plant nursery. He eventually was offered a construction job. Building methods were different than what he was used to and he was still learning English, so he started out as a laborer. However, he soon was promoted into a position as leader of a small crew.
"When I started running a project by myself, I still didn't speak a word in English. That was a great challenge," Zavala said. "(But) that didn't stop me. I continued to ... learn more and do more."
By 2008, he had learned enough to start his own company. He managed to ride out the recession and by 2017 had built Zavala Corp. into a business with $6.65 million in revenue. The company now employs nearly 30 workers.
The journey hasn't always been easy. In 2015, for example, the company was struggling financially. Zavala decided to take out a loan but was turned down by a string of banks. He was ready to close the doors of Zavala Corp., when he received a call from a bank that was willing to help him obtain a loan from the Small Business Administration.
Since then, Zavala has made the most of that opportunity. He uses his experience and success to help others as a founding board member of LatinoBuilt, a newly formed group that supports Latino contractors.
He's also generous with advice for those looking to start their own construction-based companies, starting with his recommendation that they practice perseverance and a willingness to embrace new experiences.
"Stay open to new ideas. Network with others. Listen and learn, and help others in need of advice," he said. "It might not be easy, but if you give it your best, do the right things and get educated, you'll make it happen."
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