In this spotlight on entrepreneurship and diversity, Construction Executive interviewed industry leader Larry Lopez, president and CEO of Green JobWorks, a Baltimore-based staffing company that provides both skilled and general labor to clients in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
As the new chair of Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) Diversity Committee, Lopez imparts his wisdom on what it means to be a minority business owner in a rapidly changing industry, and the path he envisions for small and emerging contractors to succeed.
Why and how did you first become involved with ABC?
I’ve always been a networker—I join everything I can to build relationships and get clients. I started attending several ABC events, and I got to know people in the local chapter who work in business development. ABC was an integral part of growing Green JobWorks.
One of the business struggles we all relate to is the labor shortage. When you are recruiting for the blue-collar industries, it’s important to seek out a diverse workforce and not to exclude anyone, including ex-criminal offenders. We give people second chances, and we bring them up through training.
When a professional colleague, who was an ex-offender himself, saw that I was catering to the community and trying to make a difference, and he saw my passion to build my company, he introduced me to a construction company that became my first big customer. We never looked back. They put us on a big project, and even today that customer is still one of my biggest. That’s really due to the networking and relationships built through ABC.
How has the ABC Diversity Committee become a more integral part of the association in the past few years?
I credit recent past committee chair Kirby Wu (president of Wu & Associates, Mt. Laurel, N.J.), who took the initiative to create a group that is engaged and held accountable. He was the catalyst for the growth of this committee and the creation of its Diversity Resource Groups, which are comprised of people who have common interests and serve to promote the needs of their constituencies. These ABC members may provide training, mentoring and resources for emerging businesses.
Our society is more diverse than it has ever been. It is critical for ABC to embrace and acknowledge this. If we are to continue to be a successful and thriving organization, we must understand how diversity plays a huge role in our future growth. If we don’t, we are going to look back and say: Where did our membership go?
Look at our election cycle: Our country is divided, so I can’t imagine that divide doesn’t exist within our industry. It’s the role of our organization to be bigger than that. We can’t win by pointing fingers and blaming. We can do so much more if we unify all our members, and then we grow our membership among persons of all backgrounds: African American, Asian, Hispanic and Native American.
Look at our power if you multiply our membership within each of these minority groups times 10. In five to 10 years, imagine the size of our organization and the voice of our organization—and add the political ramifications of having each of these voices speak proudly for our industry. The potential is very high.
What are ABC’s top three diversity goals for 2017?
The first goal, relating to safety, is to get 25 percent of minority business enterprise (MBE) contractors that exist in our membership to participate in the ABC Safety Training and Evaluation Program (STEP). I hope that our Diversity Resource Groups are able to make connections with the MBE member companies and help them understand the value of the benefits ABC offers. This acknowledgment would lead to more companies becoming interested in ABC membership, knowing that they could see money directly hit their bottom line through the STEP safety commitment.
The second goal is advocacy. It’s not about supporting only Republicans or Democrats or Independents; it’s about supporting legislation that helps small and medium-sized businesses grow. As long as the legislation helps me create more jobs and more revenue, and hopefully to grow the company, then I don’t care about the politician’s designation. As a construction executive, you’ve got to be engaged locally to understand what is happening in your community, and once you do that, you need to support the leaders in politics who are going to help push for what you need in your own personal business.
Finally, we need to grow our participation in craft training and send a more diverse group of competitors to the National Craft Championships during ABC’s annual Workforce Week event. This will be the toughest challenge, but I believe it will happen gradually as we engage more companies with ABC, especially through ABC’s annual Diversity & Inclusion Summit coming up in June.
What would success look like for the industry at large?
I think it’s education-based. For example, at my local ABC Baltimore Chapter, our director of business development’s role is to help small and minority businesses get education on how to be successful in our industry. He gives technical and administrative support to all business owners. That’s where I see an opportunity on a smaller scale. These businesses are trying to do it all by themselves, and that’s hard.
Coming from a corporate culture, I know that even though I’m the owner, I can’t wear every hat. I need to solicit help. I’ve got to have experts support the business—an accountant, a bookkeeper, an insurance agent,
an attorney, etc. ABC offers the support of vendors and consultants
as a free benefit to emerging businesses locally. This is a critical component of helping these diverse businesses grow in a very competitive and challenging industry.
A confession: Green JobWorks has not been certified as an MBE firm. I am Hispanic and African American, and I am just now submitting applications to local and state agencies to achieve certification. People ask me what took so long, and I say that when I came into this industry, it seemed like being a minority business owner was a dirty word. I just wanted to be known for the quality of work that I do. I didn’t want to become successful because I simply met a requirement on someone else’s contract.
I changed my tune because I realized that if I had the designation, I could help my business partners accomplish more and win more work—not because of the designation, but because of the quality of service I’m providing already.
My advice to other entrepreneurs is: Don’t let the minority designation define you as a business. You can define yourself as a business by showing what you are capable of, and let the designation just happen to be the cherry on top.
If we were all mindful of this, we would see a huge shift in how diversity is embraced in the industry.