Abdias Calixte said he always believed his company, Complete Fusion Welding, had the potential to become a million-dollar business. He just didn't think it would happen in the space of a mere 12 months.
Prior to last year, the most revenue the Portland-based company had ever earned in a single year was $200,000. Then Calixte and his company, which is certified through the state's Certification Office for Business Inclusion and Diversity program as a minority-owned business, snagged what ended up being multiple contracts for work on the Multnomah County Central Courthouse project. By the end of 2018, Complete Fusion Welding had realized $1.3 million in revenue.
"That project contributed to a big part of our growth," Calixte said.
As heady as the rapid success has been, it also has led to what Calixte calls "growing pains," from dealing with certified payrolls to the need to expand his inventory of equipment.
While it's sometimes tempting to think about shrinking the company back to a more manageable size, Calixte also knows that if he backs down now, he may miss the chance to push his company toward his next dream — to hit $3 million in revenue. So, he's moving forward, guided by advice passed to him by his father, who received it from his father, who was a pilot: Fly first, navigate second.
"You've got to jump first," Calixte said. "Jump, but while you're up there, watch your landing."
As a young man in Haiti, Calixte says, he was interested in welding. However, he never had an opportunity to learn the trade until after he came to the United States in 2003.
He enrolled in a community college welding program, where a teacher recommended him for an apprenticeship program. He earned his journeyman card as an ironworker in 2006 and soon established himself as a leader. On project sites, he often ended up serving as an assistant to foremen — a willingness that soon earned him the nickname of "Little Foreman."
It wasn't long before several general contractors told Calixte he should think about going into business for himself. They explained how contractors were always looking for minority-owned firms to meet diversity goals on public projects.
Inspired by what he heard, Calixte decided to take the plunge. He started out with one welding machine and some basic tools, purchased with money from a tax refund. He filed for his business license at the end of 2012 and the next year began to pick up his own jobs.
An industry mentor, Faye Burch, also introduced him to Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon, a nonprofit that helps aspiring business owners, including refugees and immigrants, with business development and funding. Calixte enrolled in a three-year program that MESO offers that teaches entrepreneurs how to build a business from the ground up and secured a $200 loan that he used to further establish his one-man operation.
Little by little, Calixte earned a reputation for quality welding work and his company began to pick up more jobs, until its annual revenue reached the low six figures.
When his company's big break arrived last year, in the form of an initial $200,000 contract to work as a subcontractor to Hoffman Construction on the courthouse project, Calixte knew his company could handle the work. But he soon found out there were more business lessons to be learned.
Help from Hoffman
Calixte admits paperwork has never been his strong point. On the Hoffman job, there was payroll to manage and documents that needed to be kept up to date. On the advice of Justin Paterson, Hoffman's project manager — who Calixte says has gone "above and beyond" to help Complete Fusion Welding succeed on the courthouse project — Calixte hired Sean Dant to run the company's back office. He also hired an estimator, which freed up Calixte to focus on drumming up new work opportunities.
Calixte had been leasing a small office in a flex-space building off of Northeast Columbia Boulevard. With a growing staff, he moved the company into a new space in the building with enough room for three desks.
There's also a space in the building where the company stores the majority of its equipment. That inventory includes four brand-new welding machines, purchased at a cost of about $13,000 each, and a shiny scissors lift that's also new. Calixte purchased the equipment at the end of last year to maximize the investment.
There's enough equipment for the company to handle six jobs at a time. For now, though, most of the machinery is sitting idle.
The contracts Calixte's firm is now capable of tackling require more workers, which means bigger payrolls. With a six-figure payment for a completed project not yet arrived, he's had to make a tough choice.
In order to pay workers on the project he hasn't received compensation for, he dipped into financial reserves. Without that cushion, he's hesitant about taking on big contracts right now, which would require big crews and big payouts for payroll.
He admits he could pick up a new big project and then take out a loan to cover payroll until payment arrives. But he's seen how that approach can cause a company to end up over its head financially. That's not territory he wants to venture into.
Instead, he and his office staff are sitting back and waiting temporarily. It's hard to pass up big jobs, especially when the offers for projects are coming to him without him having to go seek them out. He's still keeping money coming in by picking up mostly quick turnaround projects, work is so small that he often can cover it himself, rather than have to bring in someone who he'll have to pay.
He also has several standing contracts for emergency services for clients such as mills. Because he lives in West Linn and wants to make sure he can respond as quickly as possible when he knows he may be needed for emergency work, he'll sometimes sleep at his office. He keeps a small stack of equipment near a loading dock door so that he can back up his truck, load it up and then head to the job.
He's optimistic about the current situation. He knows it's only temporary and believes there will still be plenty of work when that big delayed check arrives.
"The growth was so big and so fast that we had to ... stop to catch up financially," he said.
Looking toward the future, Calixte is weighing whether to take another giant leap before too long. With so many projects underway in the Portland metro area, fabrication shops are overloaded with work. That often causes delays for Calixte and his crew.
So, he's eyeing a larger space at the flex-office building where he's located to start his own fabrication facility. He hasn't signed anything yet, but walking through the space, he already can see how the area would look outfitted. He would relocate his office — with windows to look out over the floor — to one corner. The tools and equipment currently stored in a separate space in the building would be moved into another corner.
While expanding his company by adding a fabrication shop is a big jump, Calixte believes it will pay off in the long run. For one thing, he's already done the math and has found that he would end up paying less in rent to consolidate everything in one place.
It also would give him more control over the work he and his crew do. Sometimes local fabrication shops are so busy, they break up orders, sending materials as they have time to produce them. That can hold up a subcontractor's work and place them in a position to not finish on time, creating a domino effect that can then have negative impact on the rest of the project down the line. Other times, he and his workers have to stop and refabricate materials that don't meeting their original specifications, which also slows down work.
"It's easier to know I'll have what I need when I need it," Calixte said. "It's about controlling the process from start to finish. Control is the key to success — being in charge, taking charge."
Calixte isn't one to keep his business knowledge to himself. He's serving as a self-appointed mentor to small minority subcontractors, just as he has and his business have been helped. He loaned one his welding machines, for example, to a small subcontractor who was struggling to finish his company's part of a contract due to equipment that couldn't handle the work. Then he took the subcontractor shopping to help him find the best equipment to rent.
For small subcontractors who may get discouraged over business struggles, Calixte points to himself and his company as proof of what's possible through hard work, a solid understanding of business, and a willingness to fly first and navigate second.
"I'm the living example that shows that anything you want, you can go get," he said.
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