When Johnson Peltier Electric’s vice president Kevin Peltier took a Miller Brewing Co. contracting job in 1980, the beer company informed him that he needed to find some minority suppliers to help the company meet its minority requirements. Peltier was surprised. His Pottawatomie and Chippewa father, Howard T. Peltier, launched his industrial electrical contracting shop in 1956, and the company had a steady business of $10 to $20 million annually. Being American Indian had never been addressed, but once Miller Brewing learned Johnson Peltier was a American Indian-owned business, the relationship was solidified. Miller Brewing urged him to get his minority-owned business certification right away. The two companies have been doing business ever since.

Since getting the minority-owned business certification, the bid opportunities that cross Peltier’s desk have grown, and he said the company has the advantage of having the minority status but also having a strong client base in the industry dating back half a century.

“We’ve been registered since ’81,” Peltier said, “But it’s really more a help to our customers. I know I could use the minority status more, but any legitimate company wouldn’t go around milking it. We don’t gloat that we are American Indian; we focus on our craftsmanship and experience.”

Changes in public sector and commercial job requirements are making it increasingly beneficial for construction-based women or minority businesses, which is, basically, any business where 51 percent of the ownership is in the hands of a minority, disabled or female business person. The percentage of women- or minority-owned businesses—contractors or suppliers—ranges typically from 5 to 20 percent.

Most local and state public projects come with some kind of minority-contracting requirements. As a result, the need for minority contractors is growing, perhaps faster than the businesses are growing. In fact, some contractors find it hard to find qualified women- or minority-owned businesses in the area when they need them.

Women and minorities have plenty of presence in the business world but not nearly as much in construction. Women own 47 percent of businesses in the United States, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), but that statistic plummets when you enter traditionally male industries. The nature of the electrical industry, which has many family-owned businesses, has typically resulted in the companies being passed on to male children.

The industry is gradually changing. Construction is one of the three industries with the greatest growth in women-owned businesses, along with agriculture and manufacturing. More women are going into the electrical trade. There are more female electricians than there were 10 years ago, although, specific figures documenting that growth are hard to come by. Contracting firms that used to pass the business onto sons are increasingly passing the company onto daughters.

When looking at the minority-owned businesses, you find, in total, there are 4.1 million in the United States, though that doesn’t translate to the number in the electrical trade. Nationwide, electrical minority businesses are even less common than electrical women-owned businesses.

However, the number of minority-owned businesses is increasing in some areas. The growth of African-American-owned businesses is outpacing non-minority growth, according to the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA). And while those who are in the business enjoy some advantage in the case of government minority requirements, none of those interviewed for this story felt the government and other end-user requirements could make or break their business.

“There are concerns for those in the construction industry whether male or female or minority,” said Erin Fuller, NAWBO executive director, adding that the concerns include accessing capital, second- to third-round financing, and cash flow as well as meeting payroll demands.

According to Fuller, about 4 percent of large corporate contracting opportunities go to women-owned businesses. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring 5 percent of federal contracting go to women-owned businesses. So far, that figure is running at about 3 percent, she said.

“That’s not exactly a piece of the pie; it’s a crumb. I don’t think there’s an effort to exclude,” Fuller said, adding most new businesses have to make an effort to become part of the structure. “[However,] a lot of barriers have diminished and some of the incentives for state and local government set up a strong business case for a woman to put her money into the construction industry.

“The industry itself is so cyclical, so directly impacted by the economy, there is very little buffer,” she said. “In general, contracting, whether electrical or anything else, is a tough industry. For women, you certainly would have to be thick-skinned, but that applies to business owners in general.”

Do women have to work twice as hard as men to gain respect? Fuller doesn’t think so.

“I think that’s crap,” she said. “They have to build networks, to be aggressively extroverted in courting business. Business development is the key strategy.” That is true for minorities, women and all new business owners, she added.

Joe Kaluhiokalani, owner of Aloha Communications Contractors Inc., Cherry Hill, N.J., and a Hawaiian native, started his company in 1994. His wife, Tina, came on board to perform business development in 2000. His company is a U.S. Small Business Administration 8(a) business development contractor, allowing him access to federal programs, and he has developed a number of federal contracts in part due to his minority status.

Aloha specializes in structured connectivity and has three contracts underway on military bases providing cabling for new or existing structures. It has a service department for companies to call on technicians to respond to issues nationally. That accounts for a large percentage of Aloha’s business with about 20 national customers developed over the past eight years.

“That results in a lot of last-minute dispatch,” Tina Kaluhiokalani said. The family name—which means “guardian of the heavens”—draws a lot of comments from contractors and owners. “Everyone who meets Joe says ‘what are you doing here?’” she said. “‘Why aren’t you in Hawaii?’ It’s a great icebreaker.”

Even though Aloha uses the minority-owned business incentives, it has not made that much difference. “I can’t say we’ve maximized the potential of that,” Tina Kaluhiokalani said. “It’s one thing we do mention, that we can assist contractors with their minority requirements. But foremost is our experience. Hopefully, they’re choosing us for our skills and abilities.”

At Roughneck Concrete Drilling & Sawing Co. in Morton Grove, Ill., certification has been useful. Roughneck drills the holes for conduit and cable installations in concrete. Since 1994, Karen Johnson has been president of the business her father started in 1956. She trained in the business early on, and her other siblings weren’t interested, she said. After taking over, she has doubled the size of the company, although growth has slowed since Sept. 11, 2001, she said.

Johnson weighed in on the woman-owned business status. “[It] is sometimes a double edged sword—sometimes it’s great,” she said. The city of Chicago requires 25 percent minority-owned businesses and 5 percent women-owned, while the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) tollway requires a total of 20 percent minority and female. “That’s not going to turn me into a $200-million-a-year business,” she said.

She said the old-boy network still exists, but she’s learned not to be bothered. “Sometimes I think I’m crazy,” she said of her work in the business, “and sometimes I like it.”

O’Bryant Electric, Chatsworth, Calif., president Cathy O’Bryant has taken much of the helm for the past decade. O’Bryant is both a woman and a minority. The business was conceived in 1978 in her dining room under the leadership of her husband Steve O’Bryant, father-in-law, Arch, and brother-in-law, Bob.

“I would do the administrative part of it,” she said, adding that, “we were extremely motivated to make it work.”

“We really struggled at the beginning,” she said. The business grew each year, and in 1990 Cathy and Steve bought out Arch and Bob. Today she owns 63 percent of the business.

But it differs greatly from where she started. “In 1978, I was going to be a teacher. I had no business background,” she said. “This suits my personality. You need to be motivated to gain knowledge, and I’m a great networker.”

Working in a largely male industry, she said, “I’ve learned to be a great listener. Pressing your own position is well and good, but you need to be cooperative to accomplish anything.” Often at meetings, she finds herself the only woman in the room, “That’s the kind of challenge I enjoy.”

It wasn’t always the case, especially a couple of decades ago. “In the ’80s and ’90s, a meeting wasn’t always a pleasant experience,” she said, adding that when she would walk into a room, “they were waiting for a man to arrive. [Then,] they figured I was a woman, so I didn’t know anything about electric installation. And that may be true, but I know how to run a business, and to not mimic what a man would do in the same position,” she said.

O’Bryant said although there are minority incentive programs, she’s never seen much advantage from them for her company. “I can’t think of a situation where it was the deciding factor for awarding us a job,” she said, “but maybe it got us to the table.” Today, the company sees an annual volume of $46 million with about 200 electricians.

“I think we need more women in the trade,” she said. “And I hope we will have it with the generation coming up.”  EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.